O Christmas tree: Chattanooga area dealers getting ready for busiest time of the year

O Christmas tree: Chattanooga area dealers getting ready for busiest time of the year

November 22nd, 2012 by Joan Garrett McClane in Business Around the Region

Mike Tavares walks between two trees while arranging rows of Christmas trees Wednesday at a lot on Frazier Avenue on Chattanooga's North Shore. The largest sales of Christmas trees occur the week after Thanksgiving.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

Christmas Trees By the Numbers:

* 21.6 million -- real trees sold in 2011 in the U.S.

* 12.9 million -- artificial trees sold in 2011 in the U.S.

* $984 million -- amount brought in by the real tree industry

* $1.01 billion -- amount brought in by the artificial tree industry

* $46 -- average cost of a real tree

* $78 -- average cost of an artificial tree

Source: American Christmas Tree Association

Where did people buy last year

* Twenty-nine percent of households surveyed purchased their real tree at a tree lot for an average cost of $48 per tree

* Twenty-four percent purchased their tree at a tree farm for an average price of $46

* Sixteen percent were purchased at a home improvement/DIY store for an average price of $44

* Seven percent were purchased at a garden center for an average price of $53

* Seven percent said they were not sure where the tree was purchased

* The remaining 17 percent of trees were purchased at various other locations

Source: American Christmas Tree Association

The artificial versus real Christmas tree debate seems to have calmed some this year as family incomes have stabilized, and dealers troubled by poor sales last year say they are preparing for a more festive holiday, whether fake or fresh.

Last year, according to data from the American Christmas Tree Association, a nonprofit linked to the artificial tree industry, 21.6 million real trees were purchased in the U.S. and 12.9 million artificial trees were purchased. Eleven percent of consumers bought both, the survey of 30,000 people showed.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Mike Tavares was lining up bright evergreens under a white tent on Chattanooga's North Shore. By the end of next week the lot will begin to look picked over, he said.

His soft-bristled Fraser Firs come in from Western North Carolina and range in price from $29 to $249. This is his third year selling in Chattanooga, and he said he has found everyone looks for something different.

Some look for the right smell or color. Some want tall and skinny. Some want wide and short.

Some feel sorry for a certain tree and don't want it to be alone for the holiday.

For many, picking the tree is an experience. Kids run through the maze and parents sip hot cider.

"People are really tricky," he said. "It can take multiple trips and hours. First impressions are important."

Last year, Tavares sold 80 trees on this lot, and this year he expects to move 90.

At The Christmas Place at Ace Hardware on Highway 58, Melodye Johnston, the resident tree expert, is just as optimistic.

Real tree sales were dismal last year, she said, and only 25 artificial trees were sold. Even she didn't have a Christmas tree last season, she said, which was depressing.

But in the days before Thanksgiving, 25 artificial trees already were out the door. Fresh wreaths, garland and trees are doing well, too.

"We were really concerned with the economy," said Johnston.

A more traditional-looking Christmas tree seems to be in vogue this year, she said. People are buying multicolored lights again, and some older customers plan to hang popcorn, string and cranberries.

"I still find that more people are doing the artificial," she said. "The people that don't mind spending money on real trees like the old-fashion Christmas."

Still, some growers in the Christmas tree industry say the economic downturn has left a lasting impact on their business.

Anthony Bickford, who owns Little Mountain Tree Farm in Pikeville, Tenn., said his farm has had few visitors in the last few years. He grows about 1,200 trees, mostly White Pine, but only 150 customers took trees home.

People in his area have lost jobs. A fresh tree every year is a luxury they can't afford, he said. An artificial tree can last 10 years.

"You can't blame them," he said. "That's just the way things are."