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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Point, click, trim: Christmas tree sales shift online”

    MINNEAPOLIS — You might imagine that a guy who works for the National Christmas Tree Association would be the type to cut down his own fir for the holidays.

    But not Rick Dungey. “”I point and click and it shows up on my front door,”” said Dungey, a spokesman for the Missouri-based retail and tree farmers’ association. “”For me it’s a convenience.””

    With consumers’ growing comfort with Internet shopping, it seems that even tried-and-true holiday traditions are a-changin’.

    Target Corp. began selling fresh Christmas trees online on Sunday for the first time, joining Costco as one of the few national retailers to use the Web to sell live trees. Target spokeswoman Jill Hornbacher said the retailer believes the online-only offering will be an added convenience, especially for city dwellers.

    Family farmers Jim and Beverly Whorton said online sales now make up about 10 percent of trees sold at their “”choose-and-cut”” Chub Lake Tree Farm in Carlton, Minn. “”It started by customer demand and we saw a niche there,”” said Jim Whorton, who started taking online orders more than a decade ago.

    Back then, he built shipping containers out of discarded appliance boxes. “”We have customers who’ve moved away to Texas or Nebraska or to the Twin Cities, or who like our trees and want to ship a fresh one to their families.””

    No one tracks the exact number of online fresh tree sales, mainly because there are so many individual retailers and farmers doing it on the side. But it’s somewhere less than 3.1 percent of the 28 million to 30 million farm-grown tree sales, according to polls by Harris Interactive Inc. for the National Christmas Tree Association.

    About 50 of the 1,100 members in the association take online orders, a slight increase in recent years, Dungey said.

    Having a retailer with Target’s broad reach entering the fresh tree game is a welcome development, said Dungey, who is blogging about the process of getting his tree from a New Hampshire tree farm shipped to his St. Louis rowhouse.

    “”It signals that retailers realize that not all consumers are equal,”” he said. “”Whether you’re a big box or a specialty store or a farm itself, good retailers realize they want a broad array of buyers. Not everyone wants to buy a tree the same way.””

    Fresh tree sales have declined from 37 million in 1991 to 31 million in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while artificial trees nearly doubled over the past five years, to 17.4 million.

    Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for market research firm NPD Group, said Target’s online fresh tree sales are one more sign of how competitive the holidays have become.

    “”We’re watching the continuation of retailers try to figure out how to do they get any piece of the consumer spend as it relates to the holidays,”” he said.

    “”Is it bad? No. Does it change the tradition of the holiday? Absolutely, yes. But guess what? That’s not the retailer’s issue. The retailer’s job is to try to make your life better so you’ll spend more money. If you want to go and cut a tree down, go ahead.””

    The Minneapolis-based retailer offers five sizes of trees, ranging from $79.99 to $159.99 including shipping. Costco offers three sizes, with its website showing prices from $119.99 to $189.99. Both also sell wreaths and garlands.

    Target said it is working with a grower in North Carolina, where trees are cut and shipped within 24 hours. Oregon and North Carolina are the nation’s top Christmas tree producers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Minnesota ranks 10th.

    Cohen said there’s little downside for Target, which also once tried selling wedding dresses online. “”If it works, great. If it doesn’t, no big deal,”” he said. “”They tried it online. It’s not like they put them in stores and got stuck with billions of trees.””

    For those who think buying Christmas trees on the Web turns an outdoor adventure into an antiseptic interchange with technology, tree farmers offer an alternative view:

    “”If someone says they want a 6- or 7-foot tree, I go out that evening and find it, and Federal Express picks it up the next morning,”” Whorton said. “”We treat it special. Usually that time of year, we’re able to scoop some snow into the bag. People tell us they never knew you could get a tree that fresh.””

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