O Christmas tree: Fresh cut or fake fir?

News-DemocratDecember 9, 2013 

Lyle Rowden, of Home Brite Hardware in Belleville, Ill., discusses customer preferences for real vs. artificial Christmas trees.

STEVE NAGY/BND

Now is traditionally the busiest for Christmas tree sales at Farmer's Market stores in Belleville.

Owner Dan Schwendeman said the trees arrive with Thanksgiving weekend, but consumers usually shop for gifts during what is a long holiday weekend for most.

"The first two weekends in December are usually the biggest," Schwendeman said. "That's when we'll get busy."

He has also noticed is that he doesn't sell as many real trees as used to at his produce markets on North Belt West and North Illinois Street.

"We don't sell as many trees as we did 10 years ago," he said. "It seems like the new generation is more into artificial trees and not real trees. I'm not sure why."

Lyle Rowden said he consistently sells about the same number of fresh-cut trees and artificial trees each year at his Belleville hardware store. Each December, the parking lot at Home Brite Ace Hardware on North Illinois Street is stocked with Scotch Pines, Fraser Fir and Balsam Fir trees ranging from 6- to 7-and-a-half feet tall. The majority of artificial trees he sells are usually around 4-feet tall and are in more abundant supply.

"With fresh-cut trees, I only get one delivery," Rowden said. "The artificial trees, we have the opportunity to reorder those each week."

At Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse in Fairview Heights, manager Casey Rehg had the opposite experience last year.

"We actually had probably freshly cut trees doing little bit better than artificial trees last year," Rehg said. "I don't know why people seem to be more interested in them."

According to the National Christmas Tree Association in Chesterfield, Mo., retailers still sell far more fresh-cut Christmas trees than artificial ones, but the number of real tree buyers was at its lowest level in seven years last year. The association recorded 24.5 million real trees were sold last year, down from 30.8 million sold in 2011. That was compared to 10.9 million fake trees sold a year ago, higher than 95 million sold the year before.

Last year, 85 percent of real tree buyers bought pre-cut ones.

The mean average cost per real tree was $40.30 -- lower than the $72.50 mean average cost for each man-made tree a year ago. Almost half of all real trees were purchased at a chain store or the farm where it was harvested. Retail lots sold 15 percent of fresh-cut trees.

Tree farms produce a crop unlike any other, said association spokesman Rick Dungey. Rather than planting for a season, evergreen trees are planted and harvested over for four, five or six years.

"You don't have annual yield," Dungey said. "What you put in the ground in the spring is not what you get in the fall. It takes a number of years. Trees are the only main crop sold as-is."

Looking ahead, Dungey said the biggest challenge retailers face is consumers' increasing demand for variety. He said tree growers need to quickly respond to the industry.

"Retailers are telling me they want more options, more variety and they want different species, different shapes, different sizes and different looks," Dungey said. "This is a challenge in our industry right now and growers and retailers have to work together. They can't just take a cookie-cutter approach."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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