Christmas trees are increasingly artificial

Growers get federal grant to find ways to boost sales

December 25, 2003|By Stephanie Simon | Stephanie Simon,LOS ANGELES TIMES

VALLEY PARK, Mo. -- Joe Lingle worked 16 hours a day, every day since Thanksgiving, selling 8-foot firs and 10-foot pines and the dream of a Hallmark-perfect moment: kids stringing popcorn, Mom and Dad draping tinsel, the crisp aroma of a fresh Christmas tree wafting from the corner.

But when his own kids beg him to get the house ready for Santa, Lingle trudges down to the basement and dusts off a box.

"With an artificial tree, I know where everything's supposed to go. You just pull it out, put it together, and boom: There's your tree. You don't have to mess with the stand or cutting the branches," Lingle said this week as he waited for last-minute customers at the Tree Lot in this middle-class suburb of St. Louis.

His children, who are 3 and 6, don't complain. As long as there's room for presents, Lingle said, "it doesn't make much difference to them."

More and more Americans apparently agree. In 1990, half of all trees in U.S. households were real. By last year, that figure was down to 30 percent.

Final figures for this year are not in, but there is anecdotal evidence: In Hawaii, lots were still so full Tuesday that vendors were giving trees away.

In Texas, for the first time, the official tree of the House of Representatives was fake -- made in China.

And here in eastern Missouri, greenhouse owner John Loyet said with a sigh that his cut-tree sales were down again, after years of steady slippage.

With worry verging on panic, tree growers are planning a counteroffensive.

The National Christmas Tree Association just picked up a $55,000 federal grant to study "ways to improve the product and make consumers feel good about real trees," said Pam Helmsing, the group's associate director.

Not willing to wait for the study's results, growers hope to raise $1 million for a promotional effort next fall, possibly including radio or TV ads, said Irwin Loiterstein, who heads the association's market-expansion committee.

"You take it for granted that everyone knows what a Christmas tree is, but they don't," Loiterstein said.

"We're ready to take this to the next level."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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