Some Christmas tree retailers saw a drop in sales this seasonby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
For many Minnesotans, the next few days will be a time for family activities centered around the Christmas tree. Producing and selling those trees is a multi-million dollar business. Close to a half a million Christmas trees were harvested this season in Minnesota. The numbers aren't in yet, but some retailers say Christmas tree and holiday wreath sales were down this year. It may be another sign that people are holding tight to their pocket books in these tough economic times.
Bemidji, Minn. — If you waited until just a few days before Christmas to buy your Christmas tree, you probably got a pretty good deal. At this greenhouse south of Bemidji, trees and wreaths are selling for half price.
Business owner Duane Totzauer figures he'll get stuck with more unsold trees and wreaths than usual this year. His sales are down more than 30 percent.
"Last year we sold about 650 trees," Totzauer said. "This year we're down to about 450, so there's quite a drop off."
Totzauer mostly blames the sour economy. He's seen fewer out-of-town travelers buying trees, and many people who did buy went with smaller, less expensive ones this year. Totzauer says there are probably other things going on, too.
"After the end of the season we want to go around and ask, where did those people go?" he said. "Did they go artificial or just go out and cut their own tree? Did they not get a tree at all? And if somebody would have come and said, 'I can't afford a tree,' I'd give them one. You know, you've got to have a tree."
Christmas tree sales were even worse for some retailers. In the town of Park Rapids, seed store co-owner Kathie Borg says her tree sales are down by two-thirds from last year. Borg says it's going to put a financial strain on her business budget for 2009.
"This year has been just horrible," Borg said. "We have never, in the eight years we've sold trees, never had a year like this. We basically threw $9,000 out the window on Christmas trees."
Borg wonders where all her customers went. It may be that more people cut their own trees this year. Some tree farms that offer self-service cutting report business was at least as good as last year.
More people may have looked for that perfect tree on public lands. The Chippewa National Forest offers Christmas tree permits for cheap.
Spokeswoman Kay Getting says the number of tree permits sold at the head office in Cass Lake doubled over last year.
"People are looking for the best bargain, I think," Getting said. "More people were just looking at, here's a good deal. You know, Christmas tree permits are $5. Five bucks will give you a chance to cut your own tree. It's a good Christmas tradition and it's a real economical thing to do."
Not everyone in the Christmas tree business is seeing red this holiday season. Some Twin Cities tree retailers saw sales up 30 percent the first weekend after Thanksgiving, and things have remained steady since then.
Tree wholesaler Jan Donelson heads the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association. Donelson says wreath sales are probably down statewide this year, but she believes for Christmas tree sales, the final tally will show this was an okay year.
She says the holiday centerpiece is such a strong family tradition that few will do without one, no matter how bad the economy gets.
"I'm sure you can look back on times when you were a kid, and recognize there was a moment in time that there was something special about Christmas, and it was around the Christmas tree," said Donelson. "In these kinds of times, I think we reach back to that. That's kind of our base, and I think that's a wonderful thing."
Christmas trees that go unsold usually get mulched, composted or end up in landfills. But they don't all go to waste.
Some retailers donate their leftovers to churches, nursing homes or the poor. Some will be snatched up by winter festival organizers to line snowmobile race tracks or decorate winter ice golf courses. A few will be saved until spring, when they'll be submerged to create habitat for fish.
- Morning Edition, 12/24/2008, 6:20 a.m.