The National Christmas Tree Association says not to worry, there is no Christmas tree shortage. But the group does have some other problems on its hands—an aging industry and new consumer types—that call for innovation.
First of all, much like the bacon, coffee, and chocolate industries before it, the Christmas tree industry would like you to know that despite reports of a tree shortage, you won’t have any trouble finding a fresh tree this year. Weather does take a toll from year to year on the number of trees harvested, but data from the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) shows that sales have remained strong—just over 33 million trees were purchased last year, up from 24 million in 2012.
But that doesn’t mean the industry isn’t facing challenges.
Though the Christmas tree supply is holding strong, the average age of the Christmas tree farmer is on the rise, and some states are already seeing an impact on the total number of Christmas tree farms.
“We’re not unlike a lot of other industries in that our demographics are presenting a lot of challenges and opportunities, both on the retail and on the farming side,” said Rick Dungey, NCTA’s executive director. “One of the biggest opportunities we have is with the next big generation—the millennials. Our marketing and consumer research has shown us that a higher percentage of that group likes to have the tradition of going out to get a fresh Christmas tree each year. But there’s also the challenge of getting younger folks interested in Christmas tree farming.”
What makes it particularly difficult, Dungey said, is that a Christmas tree farmer won’t realize immediate sales because trees take years to grow and harvest. “You’re planting trees now that won’t be ready to be sold until several years down the road—that’s a tough way to start out in a business,” he said.
NCTA relies on its network of 38 state associations to recruit younger members into the industry. “The process of growing trees and farming trees can really be quite different depending on where you live, and so it’s tough for a national association to put together any kind of consistent and coherent education for growers,” he said.
The growth in urban population has forced the industry to do a little retooling as well, Dungey said. Urban tree buyers have different needs: For example, someone who lives on the eighth floor of an apartment building might have a difficult time walking a Douglas fir from the lot to the building and then up the stairs or elevator.
“There are some businesses now that are offering tree rentals, some are offering deliveries, to help in situations like that,” he said. “Growers and the retailers in our industry have got to work together to figure out how we can put more options and more product available for sale in different kinds of ways to pick up some new customers who wouldn’t ordinarily buy a tree so that we can grow our businesses.”
To help with that, NCTA conducts an annual consumer survey to stay ahead of industry trends.
“We’ve done the same poll, using the same questions, using the same methodology for years,” said Dungey. “That allows us to make year-to-year comparisons and see if there are any trends happening. Those are absolutely things that we can do, and then share that information with everyone in the industry.”