Prices don't grow on trees this Christmas Vendors say competition, supply keep market stable

December 08, 1996|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

O, Tannenbaum, what will you cost me this season?

Well, about the same as last year, say area Christmas tree vendors.

The reasons: an ample supply of trees from in-state and out-of-state growers and a slew of competition among seasoned Christmas tree sellers, roadside vendors, and hardware and housewares stores such as Home Depot, Hechinger and Ikea.

The latter have jumped into the market, in part to lure customers for other purchases with cut-rate prices on Christmas trees.

"Prices really haven't gone up in the past three years. There's just so much competition," said Ron Schmidt, who, with his wife, Linda, has sold trees every holiday season for 28 years -- 19 of them at the state fairgrounds in Timonium. Hundreds of trees for sale there yesterday resembled a makeshift conifer forest.

Alan Thomson, nursery manager at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, which has sold Christmas trees for 36 years, said the ample harvest from growers in Western Maryland and North Carolina has done the most to keep prices steady this season.

Ample supply also has resulted in an increase this season in the number of roadside vendors trying their luck, he said.

Seasoned vendors such as the Schmidts say they manage to do well, even with increased competition, by educating customers about trees and their care, shaking and bundling trees for transportation, and providing a festive atmosphere with candy canes for children and holiday music.

"People are looking as much for an experience and a memory as they are for a tree," Schmidt said.

As for prices, if you're looking for that old standby of Christmas past, present and future, the Scotch pine, expect to pay $25 to $30 for a 6-footer in the Baltimore area -- about the same as last year, vendors say.

In the mood for something a tad more exotic with a bit more staying power, like the Douglas fir? Its cost ranges from $35 to $50, again not much different than last year's price.

As for the "Cadillac of Christmas trees," the Fraser fir, prices range from $35 and $60.

Schmidt and Thomson believe prices for the Fraser fir could fall in the next several years as growers in Western Maryland and Pennsylvania are expected to enter the market.

For now, North Carolina growers have a lock on the Fraser fir market.

The popularity of the Fraser fir has increased each season, say experienced vendors like Wil Baughn, co-chairman of the American Legion tree sale at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore.

The reasons: The tree has short needles and a perfect conical shape, and retains its needles for weeks.

"The Fraser has gotten to be a really big seller for us," said Baughn, who has co-chaired the American Legion's annual event for nine years. The sale raises money for the Maryland Eye Bank.

This year, about 4,000 trees were ordered for the sale -- about 3,000 fewer than in past years because the sale had to be shortened by two weekends to accommodate Baltimore Ravens football games.

Yesterday, business was robust at the stadium, despite foul weather. More than 100 trees had sold by noon, and volunteers expect to be sold out by Dec. 20.

Schmidt expects a rush next weekend: "What's going to happen is people are going to look at the calendar about midweek, see it's already the 11th and all hell's going to break loose next weekend. It'll be a stampede."

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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