Christmas tree sales are off to a strong start in Tampa Bay, shortage or not

Published Nov. 29, 2018

Selling real Christmas trees takes planning, customer service and a dose of luck.

The lots open around Thanksgiving, but many don't have enough room to store all the trees they will sell. That means knowing when to order more, so they arrive in time from far-away growers.

They want a good variety — big and small, firs and spruces — but not too many, especially the large ones. Failing to sell a 16-footer is like leaving a Lamborghini to rust away.

They want to sell out, but not too soon, otherwise loyal customers will look elsewhere, and potentially become someone else's loyal customer.

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And they've got just five weeks to make it all work.

"It can be pretty intense," said David Gallagher, who along with his wife, Ciera, runs Gallagher's Christmas Trees on Fourth Street in St. Petersburg.

So far, local sellers appear to be off to a fast start this year. The handful I spoke with said sales are ahead or at least even with the strong 2017 season.

Last year, rumblings about a tree shortage juiced early-season sales. Blame the Great Recession a decade ago, when sales slowed so much that growers responded by planting fewer saplings. The trees take about seven to 10 years to reach the right size, so fears arose that there wouldn't be enough to go around last year, and potentially this year.

Doug Hundley, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, said talk of a national shortage was overblown. Some individual lots sold out but nearly anyone who wanted a real tree could find one.

As for this year, he thinks growers have the numbers about right. They will harvest about 30 million, of which about 27.5 million will sell.

The summer hurricanes flooded a few tree farms, he said, but most remained far out of harm's way. He hadn't heard of any widespread problems with insects or other pests damaging trees.

He admitted, though, that it can be hard to measure output given that there are about 15,000 Christmas tree growers, most of them with less than 50 acres.

"Many come and go," he said. "But there appears to be plenty of trees available, especially Fraser firs, which is a popular variety for Florida buyers."

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Customers can expect prices to be the same or slightly higher than last year. Some growers are charging more, and sellers often pass those increases on to their customers.

The other factor: shipping costs have shot up this year, thanks to a shortage of drivers, regulations on how many hours they can drive and a robust economy increasing demand for all sorts of goods and materials that need to be moved around the country.

Tony Harris, who runs the Ergle Christmas Tree Farm north of Dade City with his wife Debra, said he's noticed that it costs more and takes longer for his trees to arrive from North Carolina.

"I used to get a load in one day, now it's taking two days," he said.

Like the other owners, Harris was reluctant to say exactly how many trees he expects to sell at his lot, which includes a 17,000-square-foot greenhouse. "Call it thousands," he chuckled.

His customers, he said, seem to be in a good mood, which helps business. Even the sand pines and red cedars grown on the lot that customers can cut themselves are selling better than previous years.

"People want to go back to the old days and chop down their own tree," he said, as a young boy watched one of Harris' employees pull a Fraser Fir through the baler.

The bigger lots may be benefiting from less competition. It appears several smaller lots aren't selling trees this season. They can struggle to raise enough money to put down the large deposits that growers often demand as early as July or August. The higher shipping rates, which often have to be paid in advance, could also be playing a role.

Several churches and Boy Scout troops didn't order trees this year, though others like Troop 262 at the Hope Lutheran Church on 62nd Ave. N in Pinellas County are open again. Kathy's Korner Nursery & Tree Farm on Haines Road is open, but isn't selling Christmas trees this year due to an illness.

Ken's Christmas Trees in St. Petersburg has a message on its voicemail telling customers it won't be selling trees. The lot pointed to a shortage of available trees.

"The trees available right now were snatched up quickly by the chain store brokers — Home Depot, Lowe's, Walmart and such places — to keep them supplied for the next several years," Ken's said in a note to customers on its Facebook page. "We shopped a lot but couldn't find any good Ken-type deals."

The Gallaghers noticed that they have fewer competitors, though they can't say for sure that their uptick in business is a direct result.

In previous seasons, the lot was slow enough on Mondays and Tuesdays that the two of them could handle the sales themselves. This year, even those two days have been so busy they have had to call in employees.

Fortuitously, they opened a second location this year at the corner of Crosswinds Drive and 68th St. N near the Tyrone Square Mall. Sales are brisk there, too, Ciera Gallagher said.

"Fingers crossed that it stays that way," she said, "and that we have enough trees."

Contact Graham Brink at Follow @GrahamBrink.

Christmas trees — by the numbers

27.4 million — Real Christmas trees purchased in the United States in 2017, the same as in 2016.

$75 — Average price consumers said they paid for the trees.

27.83 million — Average number sold over the past nine years

Where they are bought

27 percent — Choose and cut farms

15 percent — Nursery/garden center

26 percent — Chain store (Home Deport, Walmart, etc.)

19 percent — Retail lot

10 percent — Non-profit group (Boy Scouts, churches, etc.)

3 percent — Other

Source: National Christmas Tree Association survey of 2,086 U.S. adults conducted in January 2018.