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Seeing Christmas Green

Surveys show live tree sales climbing as much as 20 percent. Retailers hope to regain ground on their artificial competition.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Alex Atwater, 7, left, and his brother Aaron of St. Petersburg dash through the trees at Ergle Christmas Tree Farm in Hernando.

By J. NEALY-BROWN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 13, 2001


Christmas tree lot owner Jesse Woods wasn't sure Americans would invest in live Christmas trees in a year of recession and war.

So he resisted the pitch from growers who urged him to increase his inventory by 50 percent over last year. "I just couldn't see it," said Woods, who operates a tree lot and poinsettia shop at 26th Avenue and 34th Street S. in St. Petersburg.

Instead, Woods ordered only 15 percent more trees than last year. Now, he may need a rush order of extra fraser firs.

"I just think people are out buying," Woods said. "More people come in and say, "We've never had a live tree.' "

Christmas tree sales throughout the Tampa Bay area and across the country seem to be strong, keeping pace with last year and in some cases increasing.

"I think with Sept. 11 that people need Christmas more than ever to realize what's important," said Tony Harris, who owns Ergle Christmas Tree Farm in Hernando with his wife, Debbie. "A lot of my customers want a fresh tree. They want the smell of Christmas in the house."

Across the country, the first two weekends of tree sales produced a 5 to 20 percent increase in sales for 56 percent of the growers and retailers surveyed by the National Christmas Tree Association. The group expects about 32.3-million people will buy real Christmas trees this season, 200,000 more than last year. The organization is hoping to slow or even reverse the trend in recent years toward artificial trees.

Tree prices seem to be about the same as last year, when the range nationally was reported as $4.23 to $7.73 per foot. In the bay area, most growers and retailers are charging between $4 and $5 a foot.

A national survey conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide, a consulting company, showed that consumers were seeking comfort and more traditional holiday celebrations. Tree sellers paid attention to the buzz that fewer people were traveling, choosing instead to celebrate at home.

graphic

David Gallagher, who helps run two family-owned lots in St. Petersburg, stocked up on plenty of trees but was surprised by a surge in wreath sales. "That has increased at least 100 percent," Gallagher said.

Tree sellers have a longer season this year with five weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but not everyone has seen a jump in sales.

Sharon Hunnewell, who operates tree lots in Hillsborough, Pasco and Lee counties, is not getting many customers. She attributed slow sales to the heat.

"When there's cold weather, we see more people out," Hunnewell said.

That's true as well up north, where there's usually frost on the sidewalks by now if not a few inches of snow. The warm weather was blamed for slow Christmas tree sales in New York City.

"Nobody wants to buy a hot tree in hot weather," said Frank Sieber, who kept cool in a tank top while cutting and loading an occasional tree at Chris' Corner in Middle Village, a neighborhood in Queens. "I've never seen it so dead."

Some Florida growers are still feeling the effects of the 1998 drought, which produced a shortage of stock.

At the Ergle Christmas Tree Farm, Harris had to bring in more than 2,000 trees to supplement his homegrown supply.

At Dee's Trees at 911 S Taylor Road in Seffner, there's a shortage of the taller trees that are in demand this year: They were felled in past years at a more modest stature.

"I don't have enough real big trees. They seem to get up around 10 foot, but somebody wants those trees," said George Hoagland, who owns the business with his wife, Deanna.

Still, Hoagland has been overrun with customers. He had to chase some customers out of the field.

"I think this year with what's going on in the country," Hoagland said, "we want to go back to what we used to do: Go out and cut a Christmas tree."

- Information from Newsday was used in this report. J. Nealy-Brown can be reached at nealy@sptimes.com or at (727) 893-8846.

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