With a selection as plentiful as Santa’s workshop, Amazon sells everything from Instant Pots to Paw Patrol Patrollers. This year, it has even added live, 7-foot Christmas trees.
With a click instead of an ax, Amazon shoppers can spend about $110 for a 6- to 7-foot spruce, Fraser or Balsam fir that will be delivered to your doorstep in a cardboard box within two to five days.
Minnesota tree growers think they’re well positioned to face the new competition.
While live Christmas trees in a box represent a tentative market with strong growth potential for Amazon, online sales totaled less than 3 percent of the live tree market in 2017. That has stayed about the same for the past eight years, according to National Christmas Tree Association.
“It’s not like Jeff Bezos is growing the trees himself in Washington state,” said Warren Randolph, a spokesman for Minnesota Christmas tree grower Gertens. “We think we have an advantage over Amazon. People can check out our trees on site, buy one and have it delivered, or go home and order it online.”
Both Target and Costco have tried selling live trees online for delivery but may have been ahead of the curve. Target dropped its program after a trial run in 2010, and Costco hasn’t sold them since 2016.
Amazon said in announcing the Christmas tree sales that it had sold smaller live greens last year. “Given the popularity among customers, we increased the assortment,” the company said in a September announcement.
Amazon, in an e-mailed response to questions, would not say how many have been sold so far or if it plans to continue the program next year.
Gertens and other Minnesota Christmas tree growers are counting on people wanting a tree selection experience richer than opening a cardboard box.
“If every tree was a cloned cookie cutter tree, I could see Amazon’s appeal,” said Nick Wolcyn, whose family has owned Wolcyn Tree Farms & Nursery in Cambridge, Minn., for 50 years. “But each one has a different height and shape, look, needle length and color. People want to individualize their tree.”
Jackie Goodlund of Edina, who has been buying live trees for decades, said an Amazon-delivered tree won’t be on her list this year.
“I have to see it before I buy it,” she said while choosing a tree Thursday at B & J Evergreen tree lot in Minneapolis. “It’s not for me yet, but as I get older I might consider it.”
Deb Krueger of Krueger’s Christmas Tree Farm in Lake Elmo believes that while the convenience of having a tree delivered may be tempting to some live tree buyers, her family tree farm offers something less boxy and impersonal.
“Tree farmers like to have people visit, smelling the field of growing trees, seeing deer and nature all around us,” she said. “We only see our customers once a year. It’s special when we see a customer from last year with a newborn and we say, ‘Your baby has learned to walk.’ We like the personal touch.”
It seems to be working. Choose-and-cut farms sell more live Christmas trees (27 percent) than chain stores such as Home Depot and Menards (26 percent), retail lots (19 percent), nurseries (15 percent) and nonprofit groups (10 percent), according to the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA).
Live trees have outsold artificial in each year in the past decade. Last year, 27.1 million live trees were sold in the U.S. compared with 21.1 million fake ones, the NCTA reported.
Part of the popularity is due to the environmental advantage live trees have over artificial. Millennials, according to the NCTA, prefer locally grown trees while baby boomers go more for synthetic ones.
The live trees that Amazon is shipping are sourced in North Carolina and Michigan, not Minnesota.
Local growers also are educating people about proper disposal of the tree after the holidays. While some municipalities pick them up, they may not be composting them. Most tree farms now allow their buyers to return the tree to them for compost or cover for wildlife on their property.
Amazon does not offer disposal options.
Another advantage nearby tree growers have over Amazon and other national retailers is quality control, Gertens’ Randolph said.
Reviews of the live tree sales on Amazon have been prickly, receiving only 2.2 out of 5 stars. Complaints ranged from the 6- to 7-foot trees being too short to them being scrawny or broken, although reviewer Jon Williams wrote: “For those who have crazy, hectic lifestyles and want to avoid dragging a bunch of kids to a tree farm, this is definitely the way to go.”
Jan Donelson, executive director of the Minnesota Christmas Tree Association and proprietor of Jan’s Christmas Trees in Clear Lake, Minn., said some people will always prefer Amazon’s speed and convenience.
She compares a choose-and-cut tree farm to being at Disney World. “Disney is not a hurry up moment,” she said. “It’s a time to slow down, spend time with the family and celebrate the passion of what we’re here for.”
Many tree farms have learned from local apple orchards to broaden their appeal. Instead of spending an hour choosing and cutting their Christmas tree, couples and families can spend a morning or afternoon sitting by a bonfire, warming up in the gift shop, joining the kids on a hay ride, competing in a tomahawk throw and snacking on brats and coffee drinks. Besides the entertainment, local tree farmers say they will continue to offer a much wider selection in size, height and variety.
Having more choices, not to mention the sensory experience, helps sell trees, but there is a sticking point. “If the tree won’t fit in or on the vehicle, delivery is the only option,” said Randolph.
“You can pick out your tree from a local grower and have it delivered the same day,” he said. Even Amazon Prime customers can’t get that. At least not yet.