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Tree farmers in WNY have 'crazy, fantastic' sales despite Amazon

First they had to compete with artificial trees. Then it was the big box stores. This year, for the first time ever, Western New York tree farmers also had to compete with Amazon, which sold and shipped full-size Christmas trees straight to consumers' doorsteps.

So how did it go?

Let's just say the fresh Christmas tree market is one industry the e-commerce juggernaut has yet to disrupt.

Amazon's first foray into full-size tree sales may have been more of an experiment than anything. But tree farming families in Western New York say they aren't exactly looking over their shoulders.

"This has been our busiest season yet," said Mary McCulloch, an owner at Trevett Tree Farm in Springville. "We have just been slammed in a crazy, fantastic way."

McCulloch bought the tree farm six years ago from a cousin and her father, who owned it for the previous 60 years.

Finding the right Christmas tree is all about tradition and family, and it's not something Amazon can replicate, she said.

"People really want the experience. They want to trek through the woods with the family, come back and drink hot cocoa, have a snowball fight," McCulloch said. "You're not going to sit down in front of a computer with the family and hit click."

Where to cut your own Christmas tree

Many tree farmers play up the festive atmosphere with hay rides, music and horse-drawn carriage rides. Others have purposely kept it simple, preserving the nostalgia of Christmases past for the generations who come to relive their memories of searching the countryside for their very own perfect tree.

Spoth's Farm Market, 5757 Transit Road in East Amherst, sells pre-cut Christmas trees, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. Jennifer Gurski-Deperio, of East Amherst, and her son Jackson, 8, pay for a tree. At left is Sally Fors. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Even those who did not grow up with the tradition of cutting down their own trees have gotten in on the action. Consumers are more likely to opt for more experiential purchases. The trend has been helped along with the resurgent popularity of the movie "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," where the Griswold family crunches through the snow despite icy conditions in search of an old-fashioned family Christmas.

"We are a very basic Christmas tree farm, not very commercialized," said Marisa Morgan at Anthony's Christmas Trees in Lockport. "We've had a lot of people say they like the real farm feel."

Rachel Gibson's parents own Hill's Christmas Tree Farm in Springville, which opened in 1994. While competition from the big box retailers does put some pressure on the farm, she understands that families who struggle financially may need to shop for real trees at corporate stores, she said. Smaller trees at big box stores can be had for $25, while tree farms average $7 to $8 per foot.

"But their quality of tree is no match for a fresh cut tree," she said. "They're usually cut in September or October, and are pretty dried out by now."

If anything, big boxes may be the ones most hurt by Amazon's entrance into the market.

Local growers agreed those drawn to Amazon are a different type of customer than the ones they tend to see. Those customers are all about convenience – and what could be more convenient than having a tree shipped to your door?

Elber's Landscape Service, 2918 Main St., sells pre-cut Christmas trees and offers a delivery service as well. Andre Williams, of Buffalo, shops for a tree with his mother, Betty Lee, who is a fan of the delivery service. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Amazon had already sold through its entire inventory of trees by mid-December, though it's unclear how big that inventory was to begin with, and Amazon declined to share more details. The company sold 7-foot Douglas firs and Norfolk Island pines on its website beginning in November.

Amazon does not have an edge on price. One of its 7-foot trees runs $115. The same size tree would cost $49 to $56 at a family farm. And there are smaller trees to be had at Home Depot for $20.

As for freshness, Amazon's trees were tied, boxed and shipped from a North Carolina farm without water to the customer's home within 10 days or less of being cut down, Amazon said. Big box stores can cut their trees as early as October, before trucking them to the stores where they'll sit until purchased.

Spoth Farm has been selling pre-cut trees since the 1980s. It has always bought trees from a woman on a family farm in Marion, but supplemented its inventory with trees from North Carolina. Last year it noticed the quality coming out of North Carolina was not what it wanted, so it decided to bulk up its order from the Marion farm and "put more eggs in her basket," said co-owner Ed Spoth.

Spoth offers the convenience of Amazon or a big box store, but with added value those competitors can't beat – experience.

"It's all that knowledge we've built up over time," he said.

Live trees are great, but what about after the holidays?

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