Warm weather boosting tree sales

Small sellers benefit after squeeze from economy, big boxes.

Where people buy live Christmas trees:

Chain store (Home Depot, Walmart) — 28 percent

Harvest farm — 26 percent

Retail lot — 19 percent

Nursery/garden center — 13 percent

Non-profit group (Boy Scouts, churches) — 9 percent

Other - 5 percent

Source: National Christmas Trees Association

Bud Willis has a problem that he’s happy to have.

The Boy Scout troop he helps oversee ran out of Christmas trees last weekend after customers flocked to the troop’s tree lot on Second Avenue behind Oakhurst Presbyterian in Decatur. He ordered more to be ready for the next wave.

“To my knowledge this is the first time we’ve sold out of trees, wreaths and garland,” said Willis, whose Troop 107 is one of the oldest in Atlanta and has sold trees for the last 12 years.

Several tree lot operators say the combination of warm, sunny weather, a more stable economy and pent up demand is helping their businesses exceed expectations this year. Trees are disappearing from lots as quickly as they can get them stocked or in some cases selling out for the season.

Stronger sales are a lift to smaller tree lot operators, who’ve been squeezed by both a slow economic recovery and the growing share of the market claimed by big box stores.

Chains like WalMart and Atlanta-based Home Depot, the largest Christmas tree seller, make about 28 percent of sales, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. Tree farms follow at 26 percent. Non-profit groups such as Boy Scouts troops and churches have about 9 percent of the business.

This year demand seems strong for all, at least anecdotally.

“They just flew out of here,” Perry Deweese, owner of Powder Springs’ cut-your-own Sleepy Hollow Farm. Deweese closed for the season after selling all of its trees last weekend. He said he usually has stock through Christmas.

“We’ll get to start replanting earlier than usual this year,” said Deweese, who plans to plant 1,500 trees.

King of Pops, the Atlanta popsicle seller, said its online Christmas tree business Tree Elves, launched four years ago, has seen a 20 percent jump in orders this year from last, co-founder Nick Carse said. Trees start at $25 and Tree Elves delivers trees and picks them up after the holidays.

Expecting a sellout

“I’m pretty sure we will be sold out in the next couple of weeks,” Carse said. “We have a better plan operationally and logistically and using our social media avenues we’ve built through King of Pops to let people know this is what we do in the winter.”

About 26.3 million Christmas trees were sold in 2014, according to the Christmas Tree Association, down from 33 million the year before.

Mild weather across much of the nation has made tree-shopping a hot outing so far in 2015, said Rick Dungey, executive director.

“What I’m hearing has been positive,” he said.

Home Depot expects to sell 3 million Christmas trees in 2015, up from more than 2.8 million last year, the company said. Another hot area: holiday peripherals, such as lights whose colors can be changed via phone or tablet.

“You can use them year round,” said Kelie Charles, who oversees holiday decor for the company. “You can celebrate Mardi Gras by changing the lights to green and purple or Valentine’s Day with red and pink.”

The Georgia State Farmer’s Market has long been a top spot for metro Atlantans to pick up trees. Sales are robust this year, sellers say. But some are talking more about a proposal to build a 70,000- to 80,000-square-foot cooler on land where trees are set up. Market managers say they need to accommodate growth, especially in refrigeration of produce.

“The concern I have is this place is historic,” said Carl McCall, a North Carolina Christmas tree farmer who has been coming to the Market for 33 years. “I’d like to see the cooler go somewhere else, but I don’t know if that’s possible.”

Tree sellers will stay

Market manager Paul Thompson said the idea is only in its infancy and tree sellers will stay at the market no matter how it pans out.

“We want this business,” he said of Christmas tree sellers. “They provide a great service for us.”

Wanda Bowman of Stockbridge was carefully feeling the needles of an 8-foot Fraser at the Farmer’s Market recently when she heard about the possible changes. She said it would be a shame to move the trees since shopping there has become a tradition to so many, including her and her husband, Bond Bowman.

“Because of our schedules, we pick a day where we can come out and enjoy each others company,” she said. “We find a tree, grab some lunch and spend the rest of the day decorating.”

Howard and Anne Schutte of Sandy Springs said the quality of the trees, as well as garlands and wreaths, has lured them to the Farmer’s Market’s for the past 10 years.

“It’s very high quality and one stop shopping you can’t get anywhere else,” Anne Schutte said.