Thursday, December 23, 2004

Who's winning battle of the trees?


Thursday December 23, 2004

Who's winning battle of the trees?
* It depends on who is doing the spinning. Everyone agrees: Fewer trees are going up.

By Steven Barrie-Anthony, Times Staff Writer

That fresh-cut Christmas tree in your living room has a press agent and a marketing campaign. That's if you've put up a tree at all.

Fewer than 7 in 10 Americans reportedly will bother with a tree this year, and the number who will spring for a fresh-cut tree is in dispute. Reports put the number of people who've embraced faux trees at a whopping 70%.

The people at the National Christmas Tree Assn. prefer to say that the market for "real" trees is on the upswing, that when this season closes they will have sold a million more trees than last year. Still, 4 million fewer trees were sold in 2003 than in 2001. It's enough to cause the St. Louis-based trade association to treat a hallowed tradition -- which in America stretches back to 1747 -- much like a Happy Meal promotion.

The campaign includes a link to Warner Bros.' "The Polar Express" -- a $3 discount per tree, with a movie ticket stub presented at participating Christmas tree lots -- and a "Help Santa Find the Perfect Real Tree" essay contest for kids. (Grand prize: Something even Santa would be hard-pressed to deliver: a $10,000 college scholarship.)

Rick Morris of Smith & Harroff, the Alexandria, Va.-based public relations firm that's trying to get people to warm up to the extra work of a fresh-cut tree, says that if you're concerned about the environment, you should spring for fresh-cut: "Real trees are recyclable; you can use them for mulch, to put in ponds for fish and wildlife."

Real trees, he says, suck up carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, which is pretty important stuff. And nearly all Christmas trees are grown on farms, "just like corn -- it's not as if we're going into the forest or taking down trees in parks." Faux-tree makers counter that their unnatural versions last at least 10 years, so wreak less environmental havoc.

Fresh-cut trees have taken a hit, admits Morris, but the industry is pinning its hopes on the generation coming of age and on future generations. For them, buying a real tree "is almost a kind of retro thing," he says.

Environmental impact aside, the real-tree people are battling an increasingly sophisticated impostor crafted of plastic and silk, and most likely made in Asia. With vintage aluminum trees last popular in the 1960s again in vogue, it's enough to make the fresh-tree growers set up a computer game on their website called "Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees."


In the game, "the artificial trees have mutated and are sucking the spirit out of Christmas," according to the website. "Help the elf beat these bad guys by hitting them with snowballs!"

There is no fight to join, says Leon Gamze, owner of the artificial tree store, who is declaring more than virtual victory. "Live tree-ers have lost a tremendous amount of business to people like myself."

Since Gamze launched his Web business in 1995, he says it has grown 30% every year. Trees with the lights already wound around the plastic branches are bestsellers, as is a simulated Fraser fur, Gamze says. Others trace the popularity of faux trees to the boom five years ago in prelighted trees.

Still, anecdotal evidence across the country shows signs of resurgence of a tradition that can be traced to pagan ceremonies -- often celebrating rebirth, renewal or the winter solstice -- in ancient Egyptian, Roman, Chinese and other societies.

"At a wholesale level, we've sold about everything we can ship this year," says Ron Hudler, national spokesman for the tree association and owner of a North Carolina tree farm. And every grower he's talked to has "had a better year than they had last year, or the year before."

Both sides say that aging baby boomers are a factor -- once the torchbearers of the real tree tradition, perhaps their backs have grown too weary to wrestle these trees home. The fake-tree folks say that their product is easier on the back and maintains tradition, while the real-tree purveyors argue that in our ever-more-virtual society, a tree that's touched by nature is something worth having.

But why even put up a tree, especially if your nest is suddenly empty? The trend toward having no tree "is alarming, and it's on the upswing," says Jay Smith of Smith & Harroff.

Finally, something both sides agree on: Christmastime without a tree -- whatever it's made of -- is not Christmastime at all.

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