Real Christmas tree marketing campaign continues amid supply shortage

The supply of trees is tight this year, thanks to more cautious planting during the Great Recession

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Christmas tree growers are pushing forward with their annual campaign, even though there is a supply shortage this year.

"It's Christmas, Keep It Real," a marketing push developed by the Christmas Tree Promotion Board, a tree grower-funded entity under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is now in its third year. The social media videos for 2018, developed with agency Concept Farm, focus on seven families picking out their Christmas trees, a switch from 2017's grower-centric campaign, according to Marsha Gray, interim executive director of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board. In one video, a mother talks about the experience of getting a natural tree and finding the perfect fit for her family. In another, a woman laughs at her partner's lack of understanding that ornaments need attached hooks in order to hang on tree branches.

But unlike previous years, the supply of trees is tight this year, thanks to more cautious planting during the Great Recession a decade ago. Now that the trees from that time are family-room ready, some consumers have complained of a shortage.

Gray says the purpose of the campaign is less immediate, and more about the future of the Christmas tree industry. She notes that this year especially there aren't "a lot of extras."

"The purpose of the campaign is not, 'Let's sell X percentage more trees this year,'" she says. "It's more of a long-term [goal of] trying to change consumer's attitudes toward our product."

Of course, by now, most trees are already decked, lit and dreaming by the fire. Doug Hundley, spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association of about 350 growers, says 90 percent of consumers have already bought their trees.

"Our actual shortage has never really been a shortage—it's a lack of oversupply," he says.

The average number of trees purchased each year over the last nine years is 27.8 million, the NCTA estimates. The organization found that last year 27.4 million trees were sold—the same amount as in 2016. Hundley expects such steady interest to continue, though he notes that prices may rise around 5 to 10 percent from their $75 average in 2017 as new millennial parents spur demand.

At the same time, consumers are increasingly gravitating toward artificial trees—sometimes for the bevy of color options. Wayfair sold out of a pink tree before December, and a spokesman for the online retailer recently told Ad Age that searches for black trees were up 70 percent year-over-year in the week after Thanksgiving. A new patriotic-themed tree in red, white, and blue has also been a top seller, according to the spokesman.

One thing that the "Keep It Real" campaign has going for it, however, is the sustainability factor. According to Bill Ulfelder, executive director of the Nature Conservancy in New York, fake trees are made of plastic, manufactured with petroleum and sit in landfills.

"Real trees are a renewable resource grown on farms across the country, providing clean air and water, open space and wildlife habitat," says Ulfelder, noting they help fight climate change and can be recycled after the holidays through various community programs.

And now Amazon has stepped into the fold. The ecommerce giant began shipping pines and firs earlier this year, an initiative that experts thinks will help grow the market further. Hundley estimates about 2 to 3 percent of sales may be currently coming through Amazon, which is sourcing from a handful of growers. He expects the move may make it easier for urban consumers, including both millennials and their baby boomer counterparts, to get trees.

"People go to artificial trees largely for convenience," Hundley says. "If they can get a real tree put in their doorway, maybe it'll encourage them to go back to real trees."

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