Live Christmas Tree Industry Uses Digital To Beat Back Artificial Rivals

Christmas Tree

The weekend before Christmas is the time for procrastinators to shine.

They will rush through stores looking for last-minute gifts that can be delivered in person — reasonable shipping options for eCommerce purchases pretty much expired on Friday (Dec. 22), though not all was lost — and may even visit a lot to snag a Christmas tree, one that came from the soil, not a factory.

Granted, those trees still remaining will have been rejected by early-bird consumers — those shoppers who probably constructed spreadsheets to guide their holiday shopping activities. But such a purchase will offer the dedicated Christmas procrastinator a chance to lord over those poor souls who settled for artificial creations. No matter their quality (and make no mistake — artificial trees these days often look much prettier and much more natural than the old stereotypes associated with studio apartments, desperate bachelors and holiday comedies) artificial Christmas trees cannot always match the muscular, biological and nostalgic appeal of a once-living evergreen that now towers over furniture, presents and pets.

No matter what, though, the present and future of real Christmas trees — even if bought in a weekend frenzy — owes much to digital technology, eCommerce and the consumer preferences of younger buyers.

To learn more about why, PYMNTS this past week caught up with Doug Hundley, a spokesperson for the National Christmas Tree Association. PYMNTS doesn’t usually pass judgement on the demeanor of our sources, but since it is almost Christmas, let us offer that Hundley is among the friendliest people we’ve ever talked with, and interviewing him provided a much needed jolt of holiday spirit during an extremely busy week for not only us, but (more importantly) the retailers, payment service providers and other organizations we write about.

Christmas Tree Landscape

First, a little bit about the landscape for live Christmas trees — in 2017, U.S. consumers bought some 27.4 million “real” Christmas trees, as the trade group calls them, with an average price of $75. Artificial trees — or “fake” ones, in the preferred language of the group — were not terribly far behind, with 21.1 million of them sold last year, and an average price of $107 (artificial trees, of course, can last more than one holiday season; indeed, some are promoted as being able to give 30 years or more of use).

Going into the 2018 holiday shopping season, there were worries about a shortage of live Christmas trees — as is the case with all agriculture, farmers who grow trees are under often relentless pressure to sell their land for development — but that does not seem to have materialized.

If anything, the sale of live Christmas trees this year should get a boost from eCommerce. Amazon said just before the holiday shopping season that it would sell those products via its Amazon Prime service — specifically, Norfolk Island pines and Douglas firs, among other options. The online retailer sold smaller versions of the trees last year, but online orders of Christmas trees made up only a small portion of overall sales of the trees. At that time, eCommerce sales only represented somewhere in the range of 1 to 2 percent of all the 27 million trees sold.

A big part of those online sales is the ability of eCommerce operators to deliver those products to buyers in short order to customers — 10 days or less after being cut seems to be a typical time frame, one that’s obtainable and repeatable thanks in large part to the logistical advances made or inspired by Amazon in recent years.

“It’s always been easy to buy an artificial tree online,” Hundley said. “Now it’s easy to buy a real tree online.”

Digital Boost For Old Traditions

But online retail sales are hardly the only digital boost that digital technology gives to the sale of live Christmas trees, according to Hundley.

Social media promotes the experience of buying and decorating those trees, something that is considered, in certain quarters, as more “authentic” than going with an artificial option. That is helpful especially for “millennial and Generation Xers,” he said. An longstanding adage — cliché? — insists that younger consumers, especially millennials, value experiences over mere things, and gravitate toward products seen as organic, sustainable and recyclable. (In fact, those traits are playing out in the canned tuna industry of all places, as PYMNTS recently covered).

As millennials age, they are often attracted to live Christmas trees “even if they did not grow up with them,” Hundley said. “When a young couple gets married and starts having kids, the want to establish their own family Christmas tradition. Getting a tree, and decorating it, creates those family memories. And millennials want organic (products),” along with items that can, when possible “be bought locally.”

Christmas Tree Farmers

That, as you can easily imagine, benefits Christmas tree farmers.

Before we go further, kindly get the idea out of your head — humorously reinforced, perhaps, by a scene in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” in which Clark Griswold drags his family out to the forest to pick out a tree — that consumes with axes or chainsaws are harvesting their own Christmas trees. Hundley, in fact, chuckled at such an image, given the risks and insurance concerns. Besides, farmers will do that harvest better than pretty much any tree buyer.

That said, the spread of Google Maps and other such geographic tools have made it possible for even the most directionally challenged among us to find Christmas tree farms hidden away in valleys or other rural areas, which leads to more customers heading to those farms.

As an aside, Hundley noted that many such farms are basically two to three acres that would otherwise sit idle were it not for the tree trade. As well, growing Christmas trees is labor intensive, with planting, fertilization, trimming and other tasks able to be done only by hand, not tractors or other machines. A typical Christmas tree grows about a foot per year, and represents a manual-labor investment of seven to 10 years, he said.

According to Hundley, most Christmas tree farmers use point-of-sale devices from Square or other providers to accept payment cards from Christmas tree buyers. “Even the most isolated tree farmer” is using those POS devices, and credit cards have become the most popular method for those transactions. “We don’t want to modernize it too much,” Hundley said of the Christmas tree farm industry, adding that doing something like “playing rock-and-roll in the field” would likely turn off more customers than it would attract, given the tradition and nostalgia involved. But there is zero doubt that the Christmas tree tradition — one that can traced back 500 years or more — is benefiting significantly from the luxuries of the digital economy.

“Hand-held credit card machines are a wonderful thing,” Hundley said.