- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

The annual hunt for the perfect Christmas tree can take hours and multiple trips to Christmas tree lots.

It can’t be too tall or too small. It must be full — no oddly spaced branches or holes — and its branches must be sturdy enough to hold precious ornaments.

But for a modern hunter-gatherer, that perfect Fraser fir may be just a click away.

Last year, about 330,000 Christmas trees were sold via the Internet and mail-order catalogs.

That’s only a small percentage of the 30 million trees sold overall, but tree farmers say online sales are becoming an important part of their business.

“We’ve been selling mail order for 15 years, and about 40 percent of that business now comes in online,” said Hal Gimlin, owner of Omni Farm (www.omnifarm.com) near West Jefferson, N.C., which sells trees, wreaths, garlands and tree stands over the Internet. Although sales through paper catalogs are still the majority of total revenue, Internet sales are growing faster, he said.

Mr. Gimlin expects to gross about $80,000 from online sales this year, up from about $35,000 three years ago. The only problem holding sales down is production and shipping capacity.

Farmers say trees shipped via Federal Express are usually fresher than those that have stood in store parking lots for days. Customers who order online pick an arrival date and the trees are cut down and shipped accordingly, to guarantee freshness. Before shipping, each tree is cleaned, shaken of loose needles and boxed.

Mr. Gimlin said his online customers tend to be middle-aged women in metropolitan areas of New York, Florida and California.

Juliana Coughlin, a 72-year-old widow in Seattle, recently paid about $90 online, including shipping, for a 6-foot tree listed on the Web site of the Great Fraser Fir Co. (www.firtrees.com) in Linville, N.C.

“They send me trees that are fresher and more balanced than the ones I could go out and find myself,” Mrs. Coughlin said. “It’s also convenient because I don’t have to go anywhere.”

Patti Freeman Evans, a retail analyst at Jupiter Research, said Christmas trees available online are a largely unknown product with tremendous potential.

“What makes it attractive to consumers is convenience — not only of shopping when you want, but doing it from the place you want,” she said.

As for growers, Internet selling expands their reach at a relatively low cost, she said.

Tree farms nationwide are selling their greenery online, including Silver Mountain Christmas Trees (www.silvermtnchristmastrees.com) in Oregon, Paine’s Christmas Trees (www.paineschristmastrees.com) in Vermont and Windblown Tree Plantation in Wisconsin (www.christmastreesnow.com).

But one major constraint is shipping costs, which can run more than $100 for large trees bound for distant destinations.

“The point at which many consumers tend to bail out of an online purchase is when they get to the shipping costs, so that may ultimately put a ceiling on sales,” said Kathryn Koegel, a research director at Internet marketing consultancy DoubleClick.

Still, higher costs haven’t dampened Internet sales at the Great Fraser Fir Co., which sells trees online from $48 to $285, including shipping.

Owner Joe Graves said online sales have at least doubled annually for the past four years, and he expects to gross about $50,000 online this year. “The Internet allows us to market and compete for sales nationally on a relatively small budget,” he said.

But with that comes a little more stress — the quest for perfection is transferred to the grower.

“When you sell a tree online, it has got to be perfect because you don’t know what people’s expectations are, and mistakes or damaged trees are incredibly costly,” Mr. Graves said.

cDistributed by Scripps Howard.

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