The Christmas tree -- the centerpiece of many household holiday celebrations -- might be the biggest bargain of the shopping season.
Tree prices have plunged this year, creating bargains for shoppers but cutting into earnings of growers and lots operated by charities.
Prices in the Baltimore area yesterday ranged from $9.87 for 6-foot pines at the new Leedmark superstore to $150 for 12 1/2 -foot firs at some local tree farms.
At the 13 local Frank's Nursery and Crafts stores, Christmas trees range from $12.99 to $39.99 -- about 20 percent below last year's prices. Last year, Frank's sold its top-of-the-line trees for $49.99.
Frank's was able to drop prices this year because a surplus of Christmas trees has forced growers to lower their prices, said William Boyd, executive vice president of the Detroit-based retailer.
But Frank's also reduced its profit margins on the trees to lure recession-weary shoppers.
"We want to sell them more than the tree. We want to sell them the decorations, too," Mr. Boyd said.
The low-price, lure-them-in strategy has been working for many retailers.
Frank's has sold more trees from its 260 stores nationwide this year than it did during the same period last year -- even though there were six fewer holiday shopping days this year, Mr. Boyd said. The traditional Christmas shopping season starts the day after Thanksgiving. Last year, Thanksgiving fell on Nov. 22, while it came on Nov. 28 this year.
At the Leedmark parking lot in Glen Burnie, Carl Luck was loading a $9.87 tree into his Geo Prizm and shaking his head.
"We came here because of the price of the tree, but then we bought 80 bucks worth of stuff we weren't planning on buying," he said.
"Everybody is looking for a cheap price," said Mr. Luck, who is a car salesman. "If you can get something cheap, you feel good."
In fact, thanks to the low prices, people who thought they couldn't afford a tree are buying a little badly needed holiday cheer.
Ialene Weber said she visited Leedmark every day for three days until the store got a new shipment of trees. "It is for my niece. She can'tafford any more than this," she said.
"She's got three kids, and she's on assistance. She really needs this."
But the low prices offered by the stores are luring customers who would normally shop at roadside lots sponsored by charity groups.
Wilbert Baughan, a co-chairman of the American Legion Christmas tree lot that is raising money for the Medical Eye Bank of Maryland, said his group is far behind last year's sales.
The legion is charging $16 to $30 for the trees it sells from $H Memorial Stadium's parking lot. The group can't match some of the discounters' prices.
"I don't know how they are selling them for that price," Mr. Baughan said, noting that his group pays $8 to $12 apiece for the trees.
John Fedd, who bought two trees at the legion lot yesterday, including an 8-footer for $30, said he always shops at charity lots.
"Price isn't even in the picture. You are helping people in bad times," he said.
Noting that yesterday's sunny weather had not brought a large LTC number of buyers to the stadium lot, Mr. Fedd said his disregard for price might be rare.
"I think people are broke," he said.
Broke consumers also are causing problems for Christmas tree farmers, including the 325 Maryland growers who sold about 1 million evergreens last year.
Bud Schutzman, who sells trees from his Hickory Hill Tree Farm in Street in Harford County, said he has cut the prices on his Fraser and balsalm firs by 10 percent to 30 percent. Those trees, which he imports from Canada, run from $30 to $60 apiece this year, he said.
One of the region's biggest tree wholesalers, Brookfield Farms of Virginia, is charging stores and brokers $9.97 per 6- to 7-foot tree -- $1 less than its 1990 prices.
"It is hard to make money at that price," said the manager, Mike Zeigler. It takes seven to 12 years and a lot of mowing, spraying, pruning and fertilizing to grow a good-sized Christmas tree, he said.
It's not just the poor economy that is driving prices down, Mr. Zeigler said.
Demand for Christmas trees has leveled because of the growing use of artificial trees. And there seems to be an oversupply of trees and tree growers, he said.
Mr. Zeigler said he's seen many neighbors in his area of rural Virginia, about 1 1/2 hours south of Roanoke, lay out pine and fir plantations in recent years.
"There is a nostalgia about this business. People think it is a nice thing to do if they have a few acres. You can drive through our county and see people's lots in their backyards," he said.
The profit margins have become so tight that he and other growers are cutting down on their evergreen acreage, Mr. Zeigler said.
Fred Strathmeyer Sr., who has about 1,000 acres of trees in York County, Pa., said a similar bulge in supply and drop in prices hit the Christmas tree industry in the 1960s.
"It was really bad then," he recalled. "But I think it is the economy this year."