: Why that ‘free’ supermarket turkey isn’t really free

United States

As we get closer to Thanksgiving, Americans naturally think a lot about turkey, as in how to prepare it or what to serve alongside it.

But here’s something they may obsess about even more: free turkey.

This is the time of year when many food retailers roll out offers for consumers to score a bird at no cost, provided of course they spend a certain amount. The deals vary in their terms: BJ’s BJ, -3.23%, the wholesale club, requires a $ 100 purchase, while ShopRite, the supermarket chain, sets the bar at $ 400, but also lets shoppers substitute a ham or other items for the turkey.

Some retail and marketing experts say the promotions have reached a fever pitch this year because turkey prices have soared, climbing to their highest point in decades, with a 15-pound bird running around $ 21. In other words, food retailers know that a free turkey is a more powerful tool than ever to lure shoppers.

The idea is, ‘If I can get you to come to my store, I’m probably going to keep you through Super Bowl Sunday.’

— Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com

For that matter, it’s not just supermarkets playing the free-turkey game. Even cellphone companies are getting into the act. Boost Mobile, which is owned by Dish DISH, -2.13%, has offered a turkey giveaway in select cities in recent years. A Boost Mobile spokesperson noted that the promotion doesn’t require a purchase, however: “You don’t have to do anything, Boost is just giving back.”

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Shoppers do love the supermarket deals in any case. Jeff DeGiorgio, a retiree who lives in Logan, Utah, got so excited about the offer at one local store — which required a $ 100 purchase — that he said he split a $ 260 grocery bill with a household member so that he could score two birds. Plus, he got a turkey at a reduced price through another supermarket offer.

“I love turkey sandwiches,” said DeGiorgio, though he added he does plan to give one of his three birds away to a needy family.

Still, for all the fervor, some who know the shopping scene say it’s worth remembering there’s no such thing as a free lunch — or a free turkey.

They note that retailers use the free-turkey promotions as loss leaders — meaning they hope that consumers who enter their stores will buy enough items at regular price (or even higher) to compensate for the giveaway. Or that they will return to shop again through the holidays and beyond based on the good feelings generated by the freebie.

“The idea is, ‘If I can get you to come to my store, I’m probably going to keep you through Super Bowl Sunday,’” said Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com, a website that covers the grocery business.

Another strategy, said Craig Agranoff, a Florida-based marketing professional: Stores will often strategically place high-margin items near the turkeys. “There’s a lot of psychology that goes into marketing” these kind of offers, he said.

All of this means that shoppers should be on special alert when they come in to claim their free birds, consumer experts advise. In other words, don’t buy something that’s overpriced or that you don’t need just because that’s what it takes to reach the dollar figure you need to hit to bag that bird.

In fact, some shoppers say they’re tired of playing the free-turkey game, and are not bothering to score a bird this year. Count Maria Glass, a retiree who lives in upstate New York, among them.

Glass said she’s done with getting “crazed over the freeness” and “spending extra money on junk” to earn a turkey. Her solution this Thanksgiving? “We’re going to go to relatives,” she said.