Real thing is king when it comes to Christmas trees

For years, Teri Westcott drove up to the mountains with her family to get a Christmas tree.

That changed a few years ago when they nearly crashed after slipping on icy roads. Since then, the 52-year-old Yakima woman has opted not to make the drive.

But her desire for a real tree hasn't changed. "It's a tradition for us to have a fresh tree," she said.

And it appears that more Eastern Washington residents will join her. Three times more consumers are expected to choose a real tree over an artificial one this year, according to several Christmas tree trade organizations.

That's similar to what was seen by the industry last year. More than 28 million real and farm-grown trees were sold last year, compared with 11.7 million artificial trees for the same period, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Zack Berg, general manager at All Seasons Produce & Nursery in Pasco, said Monday that he has 140 trees left, compared to "five or six" the same time last year, and attributed the dip in sales to increased competition.

"Right now, there's hardly anybody that has trees left," he said, adding that it's hard to judge last year's late season sales because his sparse remaining selection meant many shoppers would leave without even getting out of their cars.

Nationwide, it's looking to be a solid year for the Christmas tree industry.

"Some of our members reported double-digit sales increases, in some cases prior to Thanksgiving," said Jami Warner, executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association. "Even in a rocky economy, consumers seem to be spending their hard-earned dollars on the things that matter most to them and to their families, including Christmas trees."

Jay Waddell sold more than 85 trees in the first five days of operation of the Holiday Cheer Tree Lot, which he runs at Chalet Place shopping center on 56th and Summit-view avenues in Yakima. That number is on pace to match his 500 tree goal this year, which is 25 percent more trees than last year.

Westcott was one of his customers. On Dec. 3, she bought a tree from the Holiday Cheer Tree Lot for $72. Later that evening, she gathered with her family, which includes several grandchildren, to decorate it.

She did depart from tradition a little. She opted to try a new variety -- a Fraser fir -- instead of the noble fir she usually buys.

She knows that she could have paid less, but she is willing to pay a little more for a quality tree.

"I bought (trees) for $20 and they never last," she said.

Kevin Quesnell expects to sell about 2,800 trees this year between his three lots in Union Gap, Yakima and Selah, which would be considered a busy year for him. He sold the same amount last year.

His lots already sold more than 700 trees in their first week of operation.

Waddell and Quesnell get their trees from tree farmers in the Northwest.

"If times are a little tough, it's one of the investments they don't feel so bad about," he said. "They want to spend a little bit of time with the kids. They want that holiday focal part."

Last year, consumers spent an average of $40.92 for a real tree, while consumers who opted for an artificial tree spent $77.01, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

That's not to say that artificial trees are being passed over by consumers. Many choose to keep an artificial tree because they don't want to deal with the cleanup and maintenance that comes with keeping a real tree.

And while real tree sales are well above that of artificial trees, the sales ratio of real to artificial has remained steady in the past three years, an indication of the steady growth of artificial trees sales, as consumers do not buy an artificial tree every year, said Warner of American Christmas Tree Association.

But it's clear that real trees are still the more popular choice locally.

Despite cold and icy weather conditions, many consumers still choose to make the drive to the mountains to get their tree.

About 800 permits, which cost $5 each, have been sold from the Cle Elum Ranger Station and nearby vendors in Cle Elum and Ellensburg, about the same as last year, said Nancy Jones of the Cle Elum Ranger Station.