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It can take up to five days to thaw a frozen turkey, so if you don’t have your Thanksgiving bird yet, chances are you’re planning to get it this week, in order to be ready by the big day. The good news, as you prepare for the holiday feast, is that the typical Thanksgiving meal is expected to be less expensive this year. The bad news is that DROP EVERYTHING AND RUN TO THE STORE NOW BECAUSE THERE’S A MASSIVE TURKEY SHORTAGE!!

Well, now the part about Thanksgiving dinner being less expensive makes sense – if it doesn’t include a turkey.

Massachusetts-based grocery chain Big Y blew the lid off the turkey story last week, when it announced publicly what Butterball had told it privately. “Butterball Turkeys has just announced to officials at supermarkets around the country including Big Y World Class Markets that there is a national shortage of their large fresh Butterball turkeys for this Thanksgiving,” the store told customers – enough of a shortage that the store received only half as many as it had ordered. Big Y emphasized that the shortage only involves fresh turkeys of 16 pounds or more, and not smaller or frozen turkeys. “Customers that typically buy large fresh Butterball turkeys might want to consider switching to another fresh brand or a frozen Butterball this year,” the store advised.

Forced to respond publicly, Butterball confirmed the shortage in a statement of its own. “We experienced a decline in weight gains on some of our farms causing a limited availability of large, fresh turkeys,” the company said. “While there may be limited availability on some larger sizes of fresh turkeys, Butterball has shipped 100 percent of customer orders of frozen whole turkeys.”

So it’s not nearly as bad as some overwrought headlines might make it sound, since the vast majority of Thanksgiving turkeys are sold frozen, not fresh. Of those that are sold fresh, many are less than 16 pounds, and companies other than Butterball sell them – so in the end, the Butterball shortage really just affects a small percentage of a small percentage of the overall Thanksgiving turkey market.

So that’s good news. Also good news is the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual report, which says Thanksgiving will be less expensive this year. Its 28th annual price survey finds that the average cost of a Thanksgiving feast for ten will be $49.04, down from last year’s $49.48.

Breaking it down by menu item, rolls, peas, stuffing, cranberries, whipping cream and pie shells all decreased in price from last year. Sweet potatoes, milk and pumpkin pie mix increased slightly. And the star of the show, a 16-pound turkey (frozen, presumably, or at least not from Butterball) was down three cents a pound, at $21.76, or $1.36 per pound.

But if you’re the savvy shopping type, you may be wondering – who pays $1.36 per pound for a Thanksgiving turkey, when stores are practically giving them away?

Loyalty marketing expert Brian Woolf recently took note of what he called the “Thanksgiving silly-season” when it comes to turkey promotions this time of year. There are some retailers who will reward you with a free turkey if you spend a certain amount of money with them in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, he noted. Others will allow you to accumulate points throughout the year, which can then be redeemed for a free turkey. Still others, who give personalized deals to their customers, might surprise you with a free or discounted turkey offer. It’s all in the service of rewarding your “loyalty”.

Then, Woolf points out, “many of these retailers, besides giving coupons towards a turkey for jumping through their hoop, will reduce the regular price of their turkeys for everyone and then, closer to Thanksgiving, even announce they will cut their reduced prices further to meet the price of any competitor with lower turkey prices.” That, he concludes, “leads those customers who jumped through the hoops to wonder why they went to all the bother in the first place.”

Whatever hoops you choose to jump through, you should be able to gather your Thanksgiving ingredients for far less than $49.04 if you shop smart. Walmart says you can get the very same items at its stores for just $34.86.

But why stop there – how about getting it all for free?

Each year, several coupon bloggers and message-board participants boast of getting a complete Thanksgiving meal for absolutely nothing. “This is the third Thanksgiving in a row in which I ‘bought’ my dinner components for FREE,” the “Coupon Whisperer” reported last year, after paying nothing for a 21-pound turkey, 5 boxes of stuffing, 5 jars of gravy, 5 cans of cranberry sauce and a gallon of egg nog (guess the Coupon Whisperer doesn’t do veggies?)

You too can find plenty of sales and coupons this time of year, that you can apply toward your Thanksgiving meal. And the overage that the Coupon Whisperer got from buying several bottles of cheap vitamins with high-value coupons didn’t hurt either.

So do yourself a favor and don’t pay $1.36 per pound for a turkey this year. And whatever you do – don’t get your hopes up for a fresh 16-pound Butterball, either.

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