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Treece Talks Turkey: The Thanksgiving Economy

Treece Talks Turkey: The Thanksgiving Economy

| November 19, 2020
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I am happy to share this recent commentary from Cetera Investment Management (download PDF) ...

It’s been 399 years since the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the holiday has since become a beloved hallmark of autumn joy, a celebration of gratitude and reflection in the company of those dearest to us. The day itself offers plenty to be thankful for: reuniting with loved ones, carving the turkey, catching the scent of a freshly baked pumpkin pie, arranging a cornucopia at the center of your dinner table. Whether it’s family, friends, food, football, or your favorite uncle flying off on a wild tangent, there’s something for everybody on Thanksgiving.

But the day of thanks also has important economic significance. In this commentary, we’ll explore the Thanksgiving economy, including the feast itself, and the weekend of holiday shopping that follows. Like most events this year, Thanksgiving will be a little different: but it may give us a reason to refocus on what we are truly thankful for.

Thanksgiving’s Economic Significance

Thanksgiving is an important holiday on so many levels, including its impact on the U.S. economy. While due to COVID-19 we’ll likely see a smaller economic effect than in years past, when you add up the cost of travel, Thanksgiving dinner, and holiday shopping, the boost to the economy is in the tens of billions of dollars.


According to AAA, an estimated 55 million Americans traveled more than 50 miles for Thanksgiving in 2019, including 4.5 million traveling by plane.(1) While this year we’ll likely see fewer travelers than in years past, considering TSA passenger traffic has recently been 60% to 70% lower than last year’s levels due to COVID19, air traffic will probably see a bump the week of Thanksgiving.

Traffic on our roadways will be heavier on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, traditionally one of the most congested days of the year, but the cost of travel will be a little lighter on the wallet: the national average for gasoline is only $2.02 per gallon, 18% lower than 2019.

Thanksgiving Dinner

You’ll probably consume more calories during your Thanksgiving feast than any other day in the year. Adding up all the calories from the turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, cornbread, yams, cranberry sauce, and the three slices of your favorite pie—not to mention the slices of your second favorite— is probably best avoided. (We’re holding on to hope that an hour on the treadmill will be enough to erase those calories. We’re also avoiding the math about whether we’re right.) The Thanksgiving meal not only impacts your waistline, but also your wallet.

Fortunately, the annual dinner-table marathon is reasonably priced. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, last year’s Thanksgiving dinner cost an average of $48.91 for 10 people, or slightly below $5 per person.(2) That figure is likely to change because of pandemic induced food shortages which have caused an uptick in grocery store prices throughout the year. Moreover, Thanksgiving dinner parties may be smaller because of COVID-19, and as cases are rising again and public health orders still emphasize the need for social distancing, especially in indoor settings, we may see more backyard celebrations this year. It’s hard to assess the economic impact of the pandemic on this year’s Thanksgiving feast, but we have no doubt Americans will find a way to get their caloric fix.

Thanksgiving Weekend Shopping

Thanksgiving’s boost to the economy goes well beyond the turkey and the travel. The U.S. economy is driven by consumer spending, and the epic, post-Thanksgiving shopping spree starts even before the leftovers have cooled. Black Friday is America’s busiest in-store shopping day of the year, with millions shaking off their turkey coma to wake up early and get in line for the hottest holiday shopping deals. According to the National Retail Federation, 84.2 million Americans went shopping on Black Friday last year. 10 Additionally, the total number of Thanksgiving weekend shoppers, both in-store and online, reached nearly 190 million, an increase of 14% compared to 2018.(3)

One of the biggest retail trends in the last decade is the shift toward digital shopping, and that trend accelerated this year because of the pandemic. Cyber Monday, the online equivalent of Black Friday, saw more than 83 million people shop online in 2019,10 with $9.4 billion in total sales, an increase of nearly 19% from 2018 figures.(4) The rapid growth in online shopping, combined with an emphasis on social distancing, will likely result in Cyber Monday spending smashing last year’s record levels.

It’s hard to project what this year’s Thanksgiving weekend shopping data will look like in aggregate because of the pandemic, but a Deloitte consumer survey indicates that holiday shopping will fall.(5) Unemployment is elevated compared last year, and social distancing measures, along with that rise in COVID-19 cases, will likely dampen the volume of retail foot traffic. On the other hand, retail sales have been strong since the economic shutdown ended in May, as consumers redirected spending from services to goods. Additionally, changing consumer habits will likely drive more shoppers online to avoid crowded malls—a trend that has grown since the start of the pandemic, with e-commerce retail sales climbing a record 31.9% in the second quarter alone. Consumers will find a way to squeeze shopping into their Thanksgiving weekend, but it might be a tall order for total holiday spending to exceed last year’s record level in light of 2020’s unique challenges.


Thanksgiving is a day of gratitude and a time to look inward and focus on quality time with family and friends. We experienced a decade’s worth of distractions, pain, and unprecedented events in 2020, and this year’s Thanksgiving provides us with a deeper, if somewhat unwanted, opportunity to reflect on what truly matters most. In many cases, it will be more difficult to travel and visit relatives because of the pandemic, and we might have to celebrate Thanksgiving with our most vulnerable or faraway family members over the phone or on video chat. We can take comfort that it’s only temporary. This too shall pass, and the warmth of a hug and connection from a handshake will be felt once again. We have optimism that next year’s Thanksgiving will bring us all together with our loved ones again, but don’t let all that has happened in 2020 ruin this year’s turkey dinner. There is still a lot to be thankful for. We are uplifted by the encouraging vaccine news, and hope you are too—as well by the promise it brings of a normal holiday season next year.

We wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving.

_ _ _

This report was created by Cetera Investment Management LLC.

1. AAA: More than 55 Million Travelers Taking to the Roads and Skies this Thanksgiving.
2. Farm Bureau Survey: Thanksgiving Dinner Cost Rises Only a Penny. The American Farm Bureau Federation.
3. Thanksgiving Weekend Draws Nearly 190 Million Shoppers, Spending up 16 Percent. National Retail Federation.
4. Klebnikov, S. (December 2019). Cyber Monday by the Numbers: A Record $9.4 Billion Haul. Forbes.
5. 2020 Deloitte Holiday Retail Survey.

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