Samuel Steinberger

Multimedia Journalist

Plenty of Trees to Trim this Holiday Season

As Christmas gets closer, New Yorkers are dusting off their inflatable Santa Claus lawn ornaments, hanging icicle lights on the fire escapes, and planning their holiday parties.  They’re also going to the streets for the age-old tradition of picking a Christmas tree.  On a rainy Saturday in early December, men and women gathered in big box retail stores and sidewalk tree lots to pick the perfect tree.  For some, it was an artificial tree, a picturesque pyramid complete with pre-installed lighting and maybe even a dusting of painted snow.  For others, it might be a fragrant balsam or fir, ranging in size from tiny, Charlie Brown-tabletop twigs to the mammoth “jumbo” trees found in restaurants and company parties. 

With the icy winds of the Great Recession gradually calming, receipts for holiday purchases, like Christmas trees, are increasing.  More Americans are taking to sidewalks, tree lots, or retailers to buy a conifer—real or artificial—for their home.  According to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA), a trade group promoting the sales and production of farm-grown Christmas trees, purchases of real Christmas trees reached 33 million trees in 2013—surpassing their pre-recession levels.  Sales of artificial trees were also up. 

 

The return of a lost art

The trend seems to be continuing this year.  “From what I’m hearing anecdotally,” said Rick Dungey, executive director at the NCTA, “people have been telling me that they’re having good, strong years again.” 

With the generally positive net job and wage growth of this year, retailers are hopeful.  In Brooklyn’s McCarren Park tree lot, Adam Mathews is in his sixth year selling Christmas trees.  He said sales were “a little bit higher” than last year.  Kenny Valasquez, a manager in his sixth year at Home Depot on Northern Boulevard in Queens, also said sales of Christmas trees were “better this year.” 

Across the East River at the famous SoHo Square tree lot, Scott Lechner is entering his 36th year of selling Christmas trees, with 23 of those at the lower Manhattan location.  He estimated that sales were up about 30 percent this year.  People were also buying higher quality trees.  “There’s flaunting going on this year that I haven’t seen for a few years,” he said.  “The art of pissing money might be returning.”

 

Not out of the woods yet

Although there was a higher number of trees sold, the retail value of real Christmas trees has yet to reach pre-recession levels: in 2013 the NCTA reported consumer spending of $1.16 billion, but in 2007 that figure was $1.2 billion.  The total retail value of last year’s artificial trees, according to the NCTA, was $1.19 billion. 

Even though they generated more revenue than real trees, artificial trees have yet to reach their pre-recession sales levels.  Data provided by the NCTA, indicated that in 2013 there were 14.7 million artificial trees purchased, down from the 17.4 million purchased in 2007. 

Those artificial tree sales may be more representative of the general population’s purchasing power, as well.  Artificial trees are a bigger portion of the total Christmas trees displayed—4 out of 5 nationwide—according to the American Christmas Tree Association, a consumer education organization.

And it’s still early in the season.  Lechner noted that his wealthier customers tend to purchase their trees towards the beginning of December.  The middle class, he said, typically wait until the last paycheck and buy their tree closer to Christmas.  These next two weeks will be telling as vendors try to beat last year’s numbers.

 

A resilient holiday tradition

There is consensus among vendors, trade groups, and consumers alike that the Great Recession played a factor in diminished Christmas tree sales, although the true correlation is debatable. 

The NCTA cautions that a wide range of factors affects tree sales each year, including things like the number of people traveling or the number of shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  And of course there’s the weather.  “Nasty weather can impact tree sales a lot,” said Dungey.  He attributed the sharp drop in the sales of real Christmas trees in 2012, for example, to Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. 

            But even if the weather had been perfect in 2008, some Americans still weren’t able to afford a tree.  New Jersey resident Dana Belmont remembered 2008 as one of her rare Christmases without a tree.  She was living in a basement apartment in Richfield, N.J. at the time, piecing together temporary jobs even though she had graduated from law school that spring.  “We didn’t feel like it was a good place to spend money that year,” she said.  “Most of it did have to do with the economy.”  She was able to buy a tree the following year.

From 2008 through 2010, vendors and producers alike were feeling the pinch, but Christmas tree sales seemed to benefit from the evergreen’s deep-rooted place in American tradition.  Lechner calls this the “Depression Effect.”  He explained that during the Great Depression people would spend money on certain nonessential items, like movies, as a form of escape from harsh realities.  Christmas trees played a similar role during the recent economic turmoil, and according to Lechner, the mentality was “the gifts are gonna be a little smaller, but dammit, the tree will be the same.”

A holiday spending report released in 2012 by the analysts at IBISWorld, Inc. support those observations.  From 2007 to 2008, spending on gifts decreased almost 16 percent, but spending on Christmas trees decreased only 10.6 percent.  The following year Christmas tree spending actually increased while spending on gifts declined again. 

Of course, business at the tree stands wasn’t immune to the recession.  Lechner remembered being worried about staying afloat in 2008 and 2009 and for a while, he said, “It was chic to be cheap.”  Tree sales, however, weren’t affected as much as some other segments of the holiday spending spectrum.


‘They’re going to get a tree.’

Although there was a general dip in sales during the recession, Christmas tree purchases are now returning to the levels they were at six or seven years ago.  “It doesn’t matter what the economy is doing,” said Dungey, “If people want a tree, they’re going to get a tree.”

Christmas trees are an important portion of holiday spending, representing a multi-billion dollar segment of the seasonal economy and an important agricultural income source for several states.  Oregon is the nation’s leader in Christmas trees harvested and acreage cultivated for the conifers, followed by North Carolina, which has been increasing its production since 2002.  New York is also in the top ten and some tree stands in New York City are promoting the locally grown trees with success.

Buying, decorating, and displaying a Christmas tree is one of the American traditions most affectionately associated with the holiday season.  From the lighting of the tree at Rockefeller Plaza to the giddy excitement on the faces of youngsters when they see the lights on the evergreen in the living room on Christmas Eve, the Christmas tree is part of the holiday fabric for many. 

This time of year, family and loved ones gather together in the darkness of winter, sharing food, stories, music, memories, and company.  For many Americans, those events take place around a Christmas tree, and even when money is tight, traditions that bring people together somehow find a way to happen.