Christmas tree farmers told how to pep up sales

February 10, 1994|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland Christmas tree farmers should try marketing with an attitude, a Maine tree farmer has told a group of his local counterparts.

But unlike the mean, tough and ornery demeanor people associate with the term "attitude," members of the Maryland Christmas Tree Growers Association should make sure that service is king.

"On our farm, we like to think 'attitude' means doing nothing at all that will cause a customer to leave the least bit unhappy," said Jim Corliss of Piper Mountain Christmas Trees in Dixmont, Maine. His comments came in a talk at the association's winter meeting last weekend at Western Maryland College.

A surplus of Christmas trees and a shortage of buyers this year caused lower sales for many Maryland growers, association members said.

They plan to combat that trend with better marketing efforts. The group's winter meeting focused on teaching members techniques to attract new customers.

"It's not only in Maryland," said William Underwood, who organized the conference. "All across the nation, there are too many trees and not enough customers. The quality of trees is up, and the price is down. It's a buyer's market."

But that buyer's market also produced mixed results for growers in Carroll County and throughout Maryland. While some reported lower-than-usual earnings, others had increases of up to 6 percent.

Ira Davidson of the I. W. Davidson Farm, south of Hampstead, said his sales dropped slightly, primarily because of the weather. His farm sold Fraser fir, Douglas fir, Scotch pine, white pine and Colorado blue spruce trees at prices ranging from $10 to $30, depending on the size and type.

"We didn't do quite as good as last year," he said. "In December, it rained every day, and what weekends it was good, it was as windy and blustery as could be."

Wayne Thomas of Thomas Tree Farm in Manchester said his 1993 sales increased. The 25-year-old farm grows Douglas firs, white pine, Norway spruce and blue spruce.

"The best way to put it is that we did better than last year," said Mr. Thomas, who sells trees for $21.90 each regardless of size or type. "It's not up to where it was five years ago, but it is better than last year. There was definite improvement."

Mr. Thomas' marketing strategy didn't change last year, so he attributes his higher sales to the slowly recovering economy.

Mr. Thomas said he relies on the Maryland Christmas Tree Growers Association's Choose and Cut directory and an ad in the telephone directory to attract customers. "We're also kind of fortunate being right along the main road, Route 30, in Manchester," he said.

For Mr. Corliss, marketing includes being part of the community.

His family always sponsors a float in the local summertime parade and is involved in fund-raisers for the Lions Club and a Boy Scout troop.

Members sell Piper Mountain certificates for $20, the regular price of one of his Christmas trees, he said.

"They're presented back and then we collect $15 for each tree," Mr. Corliss said.

"If they're sold to people who would come to the farm anyway, then I've spent $5. But if they go out and sell to people who wouldn't come to the farm, I've got new business."

Laurence Sharpe, owner of the Place Tree Farm in Smithsburg, said he also is active in his community and donates trees to the local fire department every year.

Making the trip to get a Christmas tree a fun, family project also helps attract customers, Mr. Corliss said. At Piper Mountain, customers are treated to hot cider and cookies, carols sung by the high school choir and everything one could possibly need to decorate a home for the Christmas season.

Customers are not only always right, but never made to feel guilty, he said.

"Don't blame your customers for anything," Mr. Corliss said. "We have a sign as you leave our farm that says, 'If we forgot to get our saw back, please return and remind us.' "

Persuading consumers that a live tree is a better choice than an artificial one is a constant battle, association members said.

"Studies have found the primary reason people change to a fake tree is convenience," Mr. Corliss said. "You need to do anything at all to make it more convenient" to buy live trees.

His farm provides easy-to-use tree stands, bales trees for free and gives customers rubber "snappies" to hook their car trunks shut over their trees.

"When the customer is standing there wondering how he's going to get his trunk down, and you pull a snappy out of your pocket and have it down in one second, he'll think, 'Wow, this place has thought of everything,' " Mr. Corliss said. "And, every time they see it in their trunk, they'll think of you."

Growers also must convince customers that live trees are not only beautiful, but safer than artificial ones, they said.

They contend that artificial trees are made with plastic that is banned for use in curtains and furniture coverings because it is likely to asphyxiate people.

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