The Business Of Christmas Trees: How Millennials Might Be Their Saving Grace Sales have gone down in recent years, but some sellers are optimistic that millenial-driven business will bolster the industry in years to come.
From NPR station

WAMU 88.5

NPR logo

The Business Of Christmas Trees: How Millennials Might Be Their Saving Grace

The Business Of Christmas Trees: How Millennials Might Be Their Saving Grace

The Business Of Christmas Trees: How Millennials Might Be Their Saving Grace

The Business Of Christmas Trees: How Millennials Might Be Their Saving Grace

Sherman helps Jack Bahr, 5, of Washington, D.C., pick the perfect tree for his family. Suzannah Hoover/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Suzannah Hoover/WAMU

Christmas trees conjure up memories of holidays past, along with anxieties about how to transport one home without it falling off the roof of your car (pro-tip: bungee cords) and making sure it fits through the front door.

But for those who grow and sell the trees, these holiday staples represent a business with a particular set of challenges. Here are a few of them.

Economic Ripples

Unlike agricultural crops that can be harvested within a season or two, growing Christmas trees takes time.

"They only grow about eight or 10 inches a year," says Nate Gallery, co-owner of Almost Heavenly Christmas Trees in Alexandria. "Somebody was standing in the field 10 years ago trying to predict how many people were going to buy that size tree 10 years later. It's a very difficult market because of that long lag time between planting the tree and selling the tree."

Ben Sherman brings trees out to better display them on The Giving Tree Lot in Washington on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019. Suzannah Hoover/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Suzannah Hoover/WAMU

Doug Hundley, a spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association, says the guessing game can be tricky for farmers. "How do you put all that work into something that you're not going to get paid for seven years?" he asks. "How do you predict the demand? It's been quite a wild ride to do."

Article continues below

The lag time in harvesting trees is particularly relevant now because the country was coming out of a recession 10 years ago.

Ben Sherman says he's noticed a shortage of trees this year and attributes it to the 2008 recession. He runs the Giving Tree Project, a charity Christmas tree selling operation that has partnered with Wunder Garten in NoMa for the last four years. "Farmers didn't have the capital and the people on hand to put the trees in the ground," he says. "Here we are 10 years later, and there are just not enough trees to go around."

North Carolina has yielded fewer Christmas trees this season than in years past, which has contributed to the shortage some are experiencing on the East Coast. Even so, Hundley says he's confident that everyone who wants a tree this year will be able to get one.

Christmas trees at The Giving Tree Lot in Washington on Dec. 5, 2019. Suzannah Hoover/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Suzannah Hoover/WAMU

Money Matters

With few exceptions, real estate in the D.C. area is too expensive to own a lot that's only used one month of the year to sell Christmas trees. One of those exceptions is property in Chevy Chase, where Dan and Bryan Trees sets up every holiday season to sell trees from West Virginia.

Most Christmas tree retailers lease space at existing stores or churches. As a result, the relationship between a tree retailer and the existing business can be symbiotic. Many will partner with local charities for specific fundraisers.

Sherman says he typically makes a profit of $20-$30 per tree, which he purchases wholesale from a nursery in Maryland that acts as an intermediary with growers on the East Coast. He then donates about $10 per tree to a charity chosen each year by him and Wunder Garten's owners.

Josh Walters entertains his daughter, Rosemarie, 1 1/2, while searching for a Christmas tree. Suzannah Hoover/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Suzannah Hoover/WAMU

Another challenge growers and retailers face is competition from large chain stores like Wal Mart and Whole Foods. Unsurprisingly, local retailers generally charge more per tree than larger chain stores, which accounted for 28% of the real Christmas trees sold last year.

And then there's the business of those artificial Christmas trees.

Hundley estimates 95 million households in the country this year will have a tree in the house for the holiday season. About 75% of those trees, he predicts, will be fake.

"People have just about made Christmas plastic," he says with a sigh. "It's a real shame."

Millennials To The Rescue?

Hundley says he's optimistic, however, about the future for natural Christmas trees. Real tree purchases increased by 20% last year, according to data collected by the National Christmas Tree Association. Hundley says he's seen signs that millennials, in particular, prefer real trees.

Yesenia Jarquin hugs a Christmas tree in hopes that Derek Colglazier will agree to select it. Jarquin keeps her tree up until February, so she wants to select the perfect tree from The Giving Tree in D.C. on Dec. 5, 2019. Suzannah Hoover/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Suzannah Hoover/WAMU

"They tend to be organic food people," he explains. "They want to know where their food comes from, they want to know where their Christmas tree comes from. Now (millennials) are getting married and having kids, wanting to build their own family traditions."

Isabel Murphy, 4, plays with snow that fell off of one of the Christmas trees. Suzannah Hoover/WAMU hide caption

toggle caption
Suzannah Hoover/WAMU

Sherman says he thinks there's something to the theory that the Instagram-loving generation will help bolster the numbers of natural trees sold at lots like his — or even at choose-and-cut farms. "People love to take pictures (here)," he says. "I think it ties into these Christmas trees, decorating them and holding onto those memories. I think that's what millennials like to do."

He also credits concerns about the environment as another reason millennials choose natural trees over their artificial cousins. "It's better for the environment," he says. "And any excess trees can be recycled and reused as mulch."

George Lewis purchased a Fraser fir from Sherman during the project's opening week. Lewis admitted it's a little more expensive than selecting a tree at the local Home Depot, but says there's something special about buying it locally.

"It doesn't feel like a factory," he says. "It has some authenticity and spirit to it that's cool."

Sellers hope that kind of attitude takes root and keeps business steady despite challenges this holiday season.

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU 88.5 values your feedback.

From NPR station

WAMU 88.5