Big chains seeing growth in tree sales
CHICAGO - As Christmas traditions go, this one's big.
Every year, the Proeber family traipses through Illinois fields searching for the perfect Christmas tree before breaking out the saw and hauling it back home. "It would be a whole day's worth of celebration, a whole day of entertainment," said Jan Proeber, a minister from Lexington, Ill.
But such rituals - cemented for many in the collective American memory thanks to Currier & Ives and, yes, even Chevy Chase - may be fading.
Last year, 16 percent of the nation's 31.3 million live Christmas trees were cut by the people whose family rooms they'd grace, according to industry data. A larger percentage, roughly one in four, were bought at big-box chains.
The segment's Christmas tree business has been steadily growing, overtaking sales from cut-it-yourself farms last year while continually overpowering tree-selling venues such as nurseries, retail lots, and nonprofit groups, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
The Home Depot Inc., the nation's largest retailer of fresh-cut trees, expects to sell about 2 million trees.
The production, which began Monday when the company's stores around the nation started receiving shipments of trees from two dozen farms, is so detailed that the Atlanta-based company knows just where to send tall trees (wealthier suburban communities where homes are more likely to have cathedral ceilings) and what varieties sell better in certain regions (balsam firs in the northern United States; noble firs in the West).
Despite this, there are still families hanging on to over-the-river-and-through-the-woods moments.
In the early 1990s, the Huron-Manistee National Forests in Michigan sold more than 600 permits each year to people to cut their own tree. In the nearly two decades since, families began going elsewhere, caught up in the buy-it-now phenomenon of the nation.
Last year, 149 people bought the $5 permits. But interest in the program is up this year, a trend forest officials attribute to the recession.
At the Santa Cruz Host Lions Club in California, officers expect their tree business to be slower than usual. Last year, the group wound up mulching 200 unsold trees and this year cut orders to 800, down from the 1,200 to 1,400 trees it typically stocks.