As Christmas nears, sometimes you have the opportunity to head to the local nursery or charity sale or storefront parking lot and pick your own Christmas tree.
And sometimes, you can't make it there amid the bustle of holiday shopping, Christmas parties and family obligations. But you still really want a live Christmas tree.
Thankfully, there's a modern-day convenience that you can consider – buying a Christmas tree online and getting that Douglas fir or Fraser fir shipped to your front door.
"Buying a tree online is the best way to get a fresh tree with the least amount of hassle," said Christie Weir, owner of Weir Tree Farms in New Hampshire. Through Weir's website, customers can choose three different tree species, and Weir can ship those trees to 49 U.S. states. She has even received orders from Alaska, although no trees have been shipped there this year.
"For example, a tree can be cut on a Monday in New Hampshire, delivered to a customer's door in Florida on Wednesday in a box that makes it very easy to handle and get into the house," Weir said. "A typical tree you get off a corner lot has been cut for several weeks and has to be tied onto a car for transport and wrestled off the car and into the house by the homeowner."
Online tree sales are a very small fraction of overall sales of live Christmas trees, constituting an estimated 2% of total live tree sales, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. That comes out to about 600,000 trees, said the association's spokesperson Doug Hundley.
Prospective shoppers usually include millennials and those living in cities, but aging baby boomers are another potential market. The tree sales usually start in early November.
When Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) started selling trees, online sales of live Christmas trees started to receive media attention. But the practice of family-run Christmas tree farms sending trees to other states has been around for 30 or 40 years, Hundley said.
"Any effort by businesses and farmers to make real Christmas trees as convenient as possible for purchase and then use is welcomed by us. The real trees that are boxed and shipped will be very fresh trees too," Hundley said.
Nowadays, besides Amazon, online shoppers have the option of purchasing live trees through major retail businesses such as Lowe's (NYSE: LOW) and Home Depot (NYSE: HD). But farmers or family-run businesses have also set up online shops. The seven states that produce the majority of the live trees are Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia and Wisconsin.
"All of our trees are harvested and packaged on our farm. Our trees never leave the farm until they are loaded onto a FedEx trailer," said Wes Brown, owner of Brown's Tree Farm in Michigan, who sells Fraser firs, white pines and balsam firs through his website.
To ensure a live tree's safe arrival, Brown said the farm has several steps that have been developed over the years to help protect the tree during shipping.
Weir said her farm boxes trees in wax-lined cardboard boxes that range from 3 feet tall to 9 feet tall. The farm winches the trees into the boxes with heavy-duty electric winches, and then both ends of the boxes are stapled shut.
Then the trees get shipped to the customer. Weir and Brown use FedEx, but UPS and the U.S. Postal Service can also deliver live trees.
"Unfortunately, almost all boxes sustain damage. Ninety-nine percent of the time the trees are totally fine – we have had trees delivered to a customer's house with the box completely gone and the tree is in plastic wrapped by FedEx – the tree is still almost always fine," Weir said. She also said her farm ships wholesale trees, but those trees are baled and transported by tractor trailer.
Delivery times can vary depending on the customer's distance from the tree farm. In addition, delivery costs also vary according to the size of the tree.
"Your dilemma is the size of the tree. Anything that's over six and a half feet, you're going to get hit with extra freight charges," said Patrick Penfield, a professor of supply chain management at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University.
Penfield likened the delivery of live Christmas trees to the delivery of fresh flowers.
A live tree is "a perishable item, so just like flowers, it can't be in a box forever. It's got to be very quick, from a delivery standpoint.," Penfield said.
But for live trees bound for distribution centers, shippers will use a refrigerated van or a dry truck, he said.
The market share of online sales of Christmas trees could grow in the next couple of years, particularly if prices for buying and delivering live trees become more competitive, Penfield said.
In this current holiday season, the supply of live Christmas trees is tighter because fewer trees were planted 8-10 years ago due to the recession.
"What will probably happen is that once the growth cycle [of live Christmas trees] gets back to where it used to be, there's going to be more competition in terms of prices dropping," Penfield said.