Video: Picking, decorating the perfect tree

By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/18/2008 11:12:52 AM ET 2008-12-18T16:12:52

On Nov. 30, Jason Baer sent out a tweet, or message, on the social networking site Twitter announcing a milestone in his life:

"Broke down & bought a faux Xmas tree. It's nice, and I'm psyched for no needle clean-up, but still a bit apprehensive. Your experiences?"

After 18 years of buying only real trees, Baer, a 39-year old social media and e-mail consultant from Flagstaff, Ariz., decided to invest in an artificial tree for this year.

“I switched teams,” he says, still a tinge of discomfort in his voice. “This year I felt a real tree was a little too much of a hassle.”

Baer was sick of lugging home a tree each year, sick of vacuuming pine needles, and sick of worrying that a tree would spark a fire.

His fear of fire was not unfounded. Two years ago, he missed his town’s tree drop-off date and decided to dispose of the tree himself, in his fireplace.

“I had the tree in my garage and took a chain saw to it to break it down into small pieces so I could burn it in the fireplace,” he recalls. “The only problem, pine needles are way too combustible. There were flames over the mantel, and it was touch and go for a while. I almost burned the house down.”

He describes the fireplace fiasco as one of a series of events that led him to the faux tree altar.

Jason Baer
Jason Baer of Flagstaff, Ariz., broke down this year and bought this artificial Christmas tree after 18 years of real trees.
So he went online and bought a $700 artificial tree with the lights already attached and now he’s in Christmas tree nirvana. “It took me 10 minutes to put up the tree,” he says. In the long run, he figures the decision will even save him money.

After he announced his decision Baer conducted a Twitter poll and found that the majority, 17 people, voted for a fake tree, while only eight votes came in for the real variety.

Baer’s informal survey reflects what’s been happening among Christmas tree buyers nationwide in recent years. While real trees are still the favored purchase among consumers, artificial trees are gaining ground.

In 2007, 17.4 million people bought artificial Christmas trees -- a whopping 87 percent jump from the previous year's total of 9.3 million, according to a survey conducted for the National Christmas Tree Association, whose members are farmers and retailers of real trees. Rick Dungey, a spokesman for the association, could not explain the huge jump and said it seemed to be a statistical anomaly, although the margin of error for the survey is only 3.1 percent.

While live trees are still outselling fake ones, with about 31.3 million bought last year, all signs indicate their artificial counterparts are becoming a bigger and bigger piece of the Christmas tree buying pie.

“I can tell you over the last few years we’ve seen a steady increase,” says Jean Niemi, a spokeswoman for Home Depot, referring to artificial tree sales.

Home Depot — among the biggest retailers of real trees, selling about 2 million each season — is still seeing strong sales in live trees, but fake ones are gaining in popularity, Niemi adds. (The retailer would not provide a breakdown of sales so far this year.)

National Tree Co., an artificial tree wholesaler that sells products to major big box stores, has seen a 15 percent increase in sales this holiday season, according to Jeff Bischoff, creative director at the company.

He believes one of the big factors driving sales growth is that fake trees look so much more real today. “In the old days, you could tell right away they were fake, with branches that hooked on,” he explains. “Today they look great.”

Indeed, artificial trees now available are more lifelike, experts say, but there seems to be more behind the trend towards fake trees.

The price range for many of these trees has become more economical, under $100 in some cases. “The truth is that money is tight, and people realize Christmas trees are a luxury,” says Richard Laermer, author of “2011: Trendspotting.”

“If they can buy one this year and use it next year, why not?” he says.

Balsam Hill, one of the nation’s premiere fake-tree manufacturers, has one tree that sells for $89, but price points can go into the thousands as well.

In this economy, however, the lower-priced trees are selling better than in the past.

One Balsam Hill tree that’s selling well is a more moderately priced 6.5-foot "Blue Spruce" for $279. This year, it’s the second most popular tree sold by the company, says company spokeswoman Caroline Tuan. Last year, the Spruce didn’t even make the top five.

There is also the low-hassle factor helping sales, especially among older consumers.

“As you get older it becomes harder to move around a large, cumbersome tree,” says Colin Milner, CEO of International Council on Active Aging. “Carrying it from the car, up the stairs and into the living room can be a significant task, especially given the fact that by the time you reach 80 over 40 percent of the population can't lift 10 pounds. Artificial trees are an easy solution. With population aging occurring, this movement may just become a future trend.”

The average Balsam Hill customer is in their late 40s or early 50s, Tuan says.

Lack of free time and a growing desire to do everything online is also seen as contributing to the fake-tree allure.

“You could just order it online and have it shipped, and not have to talk to anyone,” says Laermer, the trendspotter. And this year, he adds, people are concerned about the economy and the possibility of losing their job.

“People are busier today and have more things they have to take care of in this sour economy. They are working more hours, and maybe can’t hire someone to clean the house,” he says.

Since people still want to have a tree in a corner of their house or apartment, a fake tree might be the less stressful option. “Unfortunately, Christmas is taking a back seat,” he says.

Another motivator for fake-tree purchasers could be a growing desire to go green, although there is a raging debate over whether fake or real trees are more environmentally friendly.

“It’s a bit counterintuitive to say it’s better for the environment to cut down a living tree, but that’s the case,” says Clint Springer, assistant professor of biology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

Springer thinks consumers are under the misperception that artificial trees are a greener alternative, and that may be driving more fake tree sales, he surmises.

Real trees, he says, trap pollutants, and when a grower cuts down a tree for the holiday they typically plant one to three more in its place.

Artificial trees, he adds, require petroleum to be produced, and large amounts of energy to transport because the majority of fake trees come from China. And, he stresses, “it will eventually end up in a landfill.”

No matter where you stand on the fake, not-fake tree debate, people still tend to have to defend their decision to go artificial.

Baer found his two kids, a daughter, 10, and son, 7, were against his decision to get a fake tree on principle.

“My daughter especially was against it,” he explains. “But now that I put it up, I think she’s coming around.”

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