Our lives have certainly been made easier since the dawn of the Internet age. One of the wonderful things about the Internet is how it benefits agricultural businesses, including the Christmas tree industry.
According to Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA, www.realchristmastrees.org
), selling Christmas trees online is a developed niche, thanks to the Internet.
On the NCTA wholesale page, you can find "online tree sales" in the drop-down box to see the number of Christmas tree farms that sell and ship trees throughout the country.
"One general trend we're seeing is a demand for more variety, but not just in species or needle type," Dungey notes. "People want trees with more sizes, more shapes, more options."
He adds, "It's not easy for tree farmers to respond quickly to this demand, however. Trees can take a number of years before they are ready to harvest and send to market, even smaller ones."
Christmas tree basics
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of online tree sales, it's important to spend time talking about the life of the Christmas tree, from seedling to maturity.
Patience in the Christmas tree industry is a must. Here are some NCTA fast facts concerning the Christmas tree industry:
- Every year, 25 to 30 million Christmas trees are sold.
- Approximately 350 million Christmas trees are planted and maintained by Christmas tree farmers.
- One to three seedlings are planted to replace one Christmas tree.
- About 350,000 acres are dedicated to growing Christmas trees.
- The typical size of a Christmas tree is 6 to 7 feet tall. It can take four to 15 years for a Christmas tree to reach maturity.
- The top Christmas tree-growing states are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington.
- The most popular tree species are balsam, Douglas, Fraser and noble firs, as well as Scotch, Virginia and white pines.
You can find more Christmas tree fast facts at www.realchristmastrees.org/dnn/Education/QuickTreeFacts.aspx
The history of online tree sales
Dungey can't point to a specific date when online tree sales began, but he's been with the NCTA since 1998, and online sales existed back then. However, Dungey notes that online Christmas tree stores are a niche market--not every wholesaler is embracing this type of selling. It's likely that those who do sell online do it for access to a broader customer base.
There are many reasons why customers buy their trees online versus going to a Christmas tree farm or a lot to pick, buy and then transport their tree home.
"For some, it's just their preferred purchasing experience. For others, it's simply a matter of not having a vehicle in/on which you can get a tree home from somewhere. For others, it's simply a convenience/time factor. For still others, it may be a matter of getting a species of tree from the area they grew up, which otherwise would be hard to find on a local retail lot of precut trees," Dungey says.
Some Christmas tree farmers who ship their trees also provide other items, such as wreaths and garlands.
Christmas tree delivery
It would probably help online tree sales skyrocket if every Christmas tree farmer had access to Santa Claus, his elves and reindeer to deliver trees to customers' homes. Since Santa and his crew are usually very busy at Christmastime, farmers rely on FedEx, UPS and other delivery systems.
"They come typically in a wax-lined box, 1 foot square by 9 feet long. They are delivered like any other package by FedEx or UPS," Dungey explains.
The tree is packed into the box using a machine that pulls the tree into the box trunk first, so the branches fold up. Trees can be sent anywhere in the U.S. that FedEx and UPS deliver.
"Obviously, a P.O. box address won't do," Dungey says. "You have to have a street address."
Dungey also notes that customers can expect delivery of their trees to take three to five days.
The dollars and cents of online Christmas tree sales
According to Dungey, less than 3.1 percent of Christmas tree sales are from online purchases, yet that doesn't mean it's a failed selling platform.
"Even if it's only 1 percent, that would be more than 250,000 trees typically. It's obviously a niche market. Most people still prefer their buying experience to include going to a lot or a cut-your-own farm and selecting a tree in person, smelling and touching all of the possible candidates. But there's a small niche of people who prefer to point, click and have it delivered to their front door," Dungey says.
Price lists are posted along with pictures of tree species.
What's the markup for buying Christmas trees online?
"The 'markup' would be that you have to pay for shipping as well as the cost of the tree. That cost can vary by distance from farm, type of service chosen, etc. Most of the websites I've seen have easy-to-use charts to calculate shipping cost before your final purchase decision, just like Amazon does it," he explains.
Dungey notes that customers are limited by tree size and species when they purchase trees online. The shipping box can't be longer than 9 feet, so an 8-foot tree is the maximum size a customer can purchase online.
He also says that certain tree species aren't durable enough to be put in a box and shipped. "The species offered by the farms are the ones that you are limited to, but there are good ones to choose from," Dungey says.
Farmers who sell Christmas trees online need to invest in several additional items up front, such as wax-lined boxes. If a Christmas tree farm is firmly established and has the means to buy the necessary equipment, it can provide another avenue to bring evergreen cheer to more people.
"As I said, it's a niche market," says Dungey. "To sell trees for individual shipping online, you have to be set up the right way. You have to have a secure Web purchasing portal, good structure to your online sales room, some special equipment on the farm, a good arrangement with a shipping company, etc. If the farm business thinks that they can do those things, then online sales can get your product in front of customers, and literally into their homes, that may not have done so without the online sales portal."
A case study
Nigel Manley is the director of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (www.forestsociety.org
) and manager of The Rocks Estate (www.therocks.org
) in Bethlehem, N.H. The Rocks sells Fraser, balsam and Canaan fir trees online. The nonprofit also has a niche within the niche: "We can supply a freshly cut tree, hassle-free, to your door," Manley explains. "This is particularly helpful if you live in a city where it's difficult to get to and from a tree lot or farm. We can supply a tree species which may not be available in your area. Our price points are good for a fresh tree. There is also a nostalgic group that buys; these are people who have been to the farm and/or used to live in New Hampshire."
According to Manley, the Forest Society has shipped trees to all 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, as well as Puerto Rico. The organization primarily uses FedEx to deliver the trees.
Packing trees to ship starts about three to four months before Christmas. "We tag trees during late summer so that we can find them in the snow during the cutting time," Manley explains.
How does the organization ensure that its trees arrive fresh on their buyers' doorsteps?
"We freshly cut the trees, put them into wax-lined boxes and ship them out. They usually get to their destination in two to five days. They arrive totally fresh," Manley says. "We do supply a tree disposal bag for free. All of our tree prices include shipping, which makes it easy for the customer," he adds.
The Forest Society is a popular spot for online tree sales and other offerings the organization provides. Manley noted that they received the first online order for this year in mid to late September. The organization also offers cut-your-own tree sales with horse-drawn rides to the fields. They started booking them in June 2013.
Manley notes that out of the 4,000 to 5,000 trees that are sold every Christmas season by the Forest Society, about 300 are sold online.
"The mail-order tree covers another niche market for those who don't have time to get a tree any other way," Manley says. "It also provides a fresh tree with very little hassle. We can provide a saw for the free cut, a stand, and we supply a tree disposal bag."
The Internet age has been a boon for Christmas tree farmers. Online sales may only constitute a small percentage of overall Christmas tree sales, but it still provides one more way to make a profit in a short period of time.
Wendy Komancheck writes about the green industry from her home in Lancaster County, Pa. For more information, visit http://wendykomancheckswriting.wordpress.com.
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Photo 2 by teslacoils/sxc.hu.
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YouTube videos were produced by the National Christmas Tree Association.