RALEIGH, N.C. – Everyone likes a nice Thanksgiving spread on the table, but not everyone has the time — or culinary skill — to cook the traditional turkey, dressing, veggies and desserts. Enter the grocery store.
More people are buying complete Thanksgiving meals to take home, according to retailers and food-trend experts. Nearly every grocery store with a deli now offers the meals, which consumers can order in advance and pick up on Thanksgiving eve.
Last year, Fresh Market's (search) 44 stores from Florida to Virginia sold a few hundred complete meals.
"This year, we sold several thousand. We actually sold out," said Eric Blaesing, spokesman for the Greensboro-based chain.
Grocery chains who were contacted for this story declined to disclose exact numbers of holiday dinners sold, citing competitive reasons. But all said sales are rising.
"The aging baby boom population is really driving a lot of that," said Mindy McBain, a writer for the grocery trade publication, The Shelby Report (search), of Gainesville, Ga. The publication tracks trends in the Southeast and Southwest.
"People don't have time to cook like they used to," McBain said. "The stores that are making a success out of it are providing high-quality turkey meals."
Fresh Market began offering complete meals last year, Blaesing said. The chain charges $49.95 for a meal that serves six to eight people, with leftovers.
"With these big dinners, you have to order everything in advance," Blaesing said. "We buy products from vendors and assemble it at the store."
Blaesing said Fresh Market has "some really good pies" and that customers have said they don't tell guests they are store-bought.
"What's interesting to me personally is you think about Thanksgiving being the home thing ... no more, baby," he said. "I would love to know how many people don't tell people" that dinner was ordered in.
A brief, highly unscientific search conducted Tuesday in Raleigh, including a stakeout of a supermarket deli section, found no one who was willing to 'fess up to paying for a store-bought Thanksgiving dinner.
Whole Foods (search) stores have offered prepared dinners for five years, said Teresa Jones, North Carolina marketing manager for the Austin, Texas-based grocery chain, which has 160 stores in 26 states.
The chain has a holiday table in each store, Jones said, where an employee advises customers on how much and what to buy for their dinner. For years, Whole Foods has sold fresh turkeys for home cooking, but expanded about five years ago to offer whole meals.
Most of the 1,215 Food Lion (search) stores in 11 Southeastern states have offered holiday meals for the last four years. And more than 80 Lowes Foods (search) stores in North and South Carolina will sell you a meal for as little as $34.99 for a 10-pound turkey with gravy and two side dishes.
Lowes spokeswoman Diane Blancato said the Winston-Salem-based chain has seen holiday dinner sales increase 30 percent over the past two years. The chain had been selling cooked turkeys for a decade, then branched into entire meals five years ago.
"It is in direct response to what we see as an evolving customer need," Food Lion spokesman Jeff Lowrance said of its complete meal trade. "A lot of folks want a home-cooked meal but don't have time to prepare it."
Harry Balzer, vice president of the NPD Group, a Rosemont, Ill.-based food industry information organization, said he had no data on the popularity of store-made Thanksgiving meals. However, he said, NPD's information shows that only one of three households that consumes turkey on Thanksgiving will have cooked it themselves — with many going to the homes of relatives to chow down.
"How can you make it convenient?" Balzer said. "This need for convenience is very real. It drives you out of the house."