Decking the halls can be an expensive proposition, but Christmas tree shoppers have plenty of options for finding a good deal, experts say.
Despite reports of droughts stunting growth on Texas and Oklahoma farms, Christmas tree pricing nationwide has remained flat, says Oscar Sloterbeck, the head of company surveys for market research firm ISI Group. Sales during Thanksgiving week, meanwhile, were up 6% nationwide compared with last year, he says.
Now that online retailers compete with tree farms and stores, shoppers have far more opportunities to find discounts, experts say. Growers are also marketing more niche varieties geared toward budget shoppers. "I've seen whole sections of 'condo' trees that are really skinny, or small enough for a tabletop," says Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, an industry group. "They're trying to put more options, more variety out on the marketplace for customers who ordinarily wouldn't have gotten a tree."
By the National Christmas Tree Association's data, shoppers spent an average $36.12 last year for a real tree, but prices can easily be triple that depending on the size and type of tree and where it's purchased. Splurging on this holiday expense, however, means less of a budget for other things besides, the tree gets thrown away in a few weeks, says Heather Wagenhals, founder of the Unlock your Wealth Foundation. "It's about the people around the tree, not the tree itself," she says.
Experts recommend these tips to get a great tree one, without overspending:
Compare pricing methods
Some vendors selling trees calculate price by the foot, while others charge a flat fee for any tree in the lot, says Wagenhals. Either might be the better deal, depending on the size you're looking for. Ask specifically about the price for say, an 8' tree when calling around, she suggests. Also look beyond tree lots to garden centers, supermarkets and home improvement stores, which may have their own supply.
Consumers might find that one of the more than 30 types of Christmas trees has features that fits their needs better than others -- the Fraser Fir has sturdy branches to withstand heavy ornaments, for example, and Blue Spruce have sharp needles that deter a climbing housecat. But some varieties are more expensive than others depending on their availability in that area, so it's worth adding that into the mix when asking about prices, Dungey says. At ChristmasFarms.com, a 6' tree sells for $110 to $139, based on its type.
Shoppers can pick a tree from the comfort of home as big retailers join the host of growers selling trees online for home delivery. Target is selling trees online for the second year, and Sears is selling them for the first time this year. Prices can easily be twice what they are on the lot, but trees are cut to order, which may mean they're fresher -- and so, last longer -- than those on lots that were cut as early as October, says Les Werner, an associate professor of forestry at University of Wisconsin.
Cut your own
Bypass even the choose-your-own farms in favor of the woods. The U.S. Forest Service sells permits for consumers to cut down their own tree in a national forest. The price: as little as $10. The trade-off, of course, is in extra time and effort to saw down the tree and lug it home.
Groupon, LivingSocial and other daily deal sites have offered vouchers for local tree farms and other venues selling Christmas trees. Sandone Christmas Trees of Dallas, for example, offered $80 worth of goods for $40 via Groupon. Through Dec. 2, Sears has a 5% off sale on its fresh-cut trees, which knocks the price of its 6' Fraser Fir trees to $95. (The trees had already taken a price cut from $120 to $100.) Costco has cut its tree prices by $20 to $50, for orders placed by Dec. 18.
The fresher the tree, the better your chances it'll still be alive come Christmas morning. "Ask where the trees came from," says Werner. "Obviously, if they were shipped 800 miles, there's going to be some time delay." Even that's not necessarily a bad thing, if the tree has been stored properly, he says. If the branches snap when bent instead of flexing, that's a sign the tree is no longer able to absorb moisture. Ditto lots of needle loss.
This might be the year to start a new tradition: decorating the tree on Christmas Eve, or close to it. Tree pricing tends to hold steady from Thanksgiving until four or five days before Christmas, when sellers are looking to clear out their remaining inventory, Sloterbeck says. "You'll almost certainly get a deal," he says.
Tree-lot operators may have paid just $10 for a cutting permit themselves, says Wagenhals, or have purchased their wares wholesale. Either way, the profit margins are significant enough that many are willing to negotiate. Make an opening offer of half the sticker price, she suggests.