Oh, Christmas Trees
Hawaii consumers bought more than 50,000 real trees this season with a focus on making their displays both bigger and glitzier
LESS MIGHT BE MORE, except when it comes to holidays in Hawaii, where many are decorating for Mele Kalikimaka using design plans patterned on their Vegas memories.
Demand for holiday trees, both real and fake, was up on the islands this year -- and the bigger the better!
"Everybody is in a competition to look better than their neighbor," said Irvin Sakamoto, assistant store manager for the Pearl City Home Depot, which brought in 20 percent more holiday decorations and trees this year.
However, under all the glittery stuff, Hawaii's consumers seem to follow national trends that favor buying real Christmas trees -- be they lush imports from Oregon or the sparse Norfolk Pines native to Hawaii. While plenty of people bought artificial trees on the islands in the interest of long-term savings or convenience, more islanders this year did their part to bring the U.S. consumer average up for real Christmas tree purchases.
After suffering through the last two years of tree shortages, quite a few big-box retailers and holiday entrepreneurs upped their fragrant shipments by 10 to 20 percent, and Hawaii's few tree farms brought more trees to market. According to the latest nationwide poll conducted by the National Christmas Tree Association, about 27 percent of U.S. households reported plans to purchase a real tree this year.
In real terms, that translates into 31 million trees, the highest household demand since 2002, said Beth Walterscheidt, president of NCTA.
"It continues the trend of families going back to a more traditional Christmas with a natural tree," Walterscheidt said.
NCTA's telephone poll -- conducted Nov. 17-20 -- surveyed a 1,004-person representative sample of adults aged 18 or over. The sampling error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
IN 2005, AMERICANS actually purchased 32.8 million real Christmas trees grown by farmers, a 21.1 percent increase over the previous year, the NCTA said. And with only 7 percent of households reportedly planning to purchase a new artificial tree in 2006, it's obvious that either disdain for artificial trees is growing or that plastic lives forever.
While there's no official count of fake-tree buyers in Hawaii, nationwide there has been a 14 percent decline in whole numbers from 2005. In this year's NCTA poll, the number of consumers who planned to buy artificial trees dropped to 8 million in 2006 from 9.3 million in 2005.
"That the fewest since 2002," Walterscheidt said, adding that overall the real Christmas tree industry reported $1.4 billion in sales in 2005 as opposed to $665 million in sales for the artificial-tree industry.
"Personally, I'm not surprised that fewer people are buying a new fake tree considering some of the gimmicks the fake tree makers are coming up with," said Walterscheidt. "Upside down trees last year and now black trees this year. You can't have a traditional Christmas with that."
IN HAWAII, more than 50,000 real Christmas trees were sold this season, and still it seemed that consumers couldn't get enough. During the last two months, the state Department of Agriculture has inspected some 260 containers of imported Christmas trees, said state entomologist Darcey Oishi.
"We're seeing an increase in 40-foot containers as opposed to 24-foot containers," Oishi said. "The number of trees entering the state is probably increasing."
The number of real Christmas trees brought into the state has been ramping up since the big-box retailers like Home Depot and Wal-Mart entered the market, he said.
The shipments are steadier now, too, Oishi said.
"The first shipment came in Nov. 12, carrying trees for the neighbor islands and for displays," he said. "We had the largest shipments Nov. 19 and Nov. 26."
Enough extra trees were ordered for Hawaii this year that even with 5,000 sent back to Oregon due to midge infestation, there still seemed to be plenty for all -- at least those who shopped early.
"People have a clock in their minds," Sakamoto said. "Right after Thanksgiving the clock goes on and everything gets sold out."
SINCE MANY others had gotten a head start, consumers who were on the hunt for fresh trees earlier this week ran into challenges unless they hit tree farms such as Helemano Farms on Oahu or the Kula Botanical Gardens on Maui.
By the day after Thanksgiving, Sakamoto said that the Pearl City Home Depot had sold out of Christmas tree stands and many popular decorations.
Earlier this week, artificial trees were about the only thing left on the holiday department floor despite the fact that Home Depot had more than doubled its holiday inventory of decorations and accessories.
"We might sell 200 artificial trees to 5,000 real trees," Sakamoto said. "I think we sold about 10 percent more fresh trees this year than real ones."
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Christmas trees and decorations are scarce throughout Oahu as the holiday nears. Above, Kekoa Mayeshiro, left, and his father, Jason, carry the tree they chose to the check-out counter at Home Depot in Pearl City. CLICK FOR LARGE
LAST-MINUTE Christmas tree shoppers were still calling Pearl City Home Depot's landscape department every five to 10 minutes on Wednesday inquiring about final Christmas tree shipments, he said.
With prices for artificial trees running in the hundreds, many island consumers prefer to purchase real trees whose prices tend to stay in the double digits, Sakamoto said.
Price isn't the only determinant when it comes to Christmas tree preferences. It's also about tradition. An emphasis on tradition has helped fuel the nationwide increase in real Christmas trees purchased during the past few years, Walterscheidt said.
Nearly one-third of consumers polled in the latest NCTA survey said that their traditions were "much more important" than they were a decade ago. That's why for many, even in Hawaii, Christmas tree farms play such a role in the holiday experience.
Last year, the quest for real Christmas trees in Hawaii led some buyers to pay upward of $200 for the traditional holiday symbol when state suppliers ran short.
As a result, this year, they've got more choices, said Warren McCord, chairman of Kula Botanical Gardens, which sells Christmas trees each year to raise money for the nonprofit gardens.
"There's quite a bit more competition this year than in previous years," McCord said. "It's a cyclic thing. If we run out, the next year more people will bring them in."
Demand for Kula Botanical Garden trees is so strong this year that McCord has had to hold back some of his larger trees so that he will have enough giant trees next year to supply hotel and other high-volume customers.
"The hotels cleaned us out of big trees this year," McCord said. "We sold lots of trees ranging in size from 12 to 20 feet. Our 28-footer went to the Ritz-Carlton for their tree lighting and the Grand Wailea took 13 of our big trees."
It takes a good three years in the field for McCord to grow a 6-foot tree, he said.
MCCORD SAID that he expects to sell about 1,500 of his 12,000 trees this year. While Kula Botanical Gardens' tree sales aren't higher in volume than previous years, they are holding steady in the face of increased competition, suggesting that demand has risen, he said. Consumer desire is also up for bigger trees and for second trees, McCord said.
"There's a building trend toward higher ceilings, so many of our customers now want 10- to 12-foot trees," he said. "Also, quite a few customers have bought second trees, either because the one that they bought early in the season from another dealer has dried up, or they because they just want to add more decorations."
Aaron O'Brien, the son of the former Dole Plantation general manger Mike O'Brien, has seen his late father's retirement dream Helemano Farms take root and grow in its second year.
"Business has more than doubled," said Aaron, who works year-round with his family to fulfill a deathbed promise to a man who understood that there is no underestimating the importance of holiday trees in the islands.
The family, which has more than 12,000 Norfolk Pines, expects business to continue growing as a crop of Leyland Cypress trees comes into its first harvest next year.
"We thought my father had planted way too many trees," Aaron said as customer after customer carted away trees last Tuesday. "If he were here to see business, he'd be grinning and telling us that he was right and we were wrong."
While Helemano Farms isn't yet ready to expand to the other side of the street as the late O'Brien originally had planned, demand could make that a reality.
If the crop of Leland Cypress is the hit O'Brien expects that it to be, within four years Helemano Farms could give Oahu's Oregon tree importers a run for their money, O'Brien said.
The family also has found a market in fresh wreaths, and has discussed supplying traditional New Year kadomatsu next year, he said.
IT'S NO WONDER that demand for real Christmas trees is growing, since traditions and memories are the primary drivers of the product, Walterscheidt said.
"People who are more into Christmas are more likely to use a real tree instead of a fake one," she said.
Indeed, St. Louis Heights resident Judy Dawson barely could contain her excitement on Tuesday while visiting Helemano Farms in Wahiawa to choose the perfect 9-foot tree for her new home.
"I grew up in Canada where we cut our trees," Dawson said. "When I found out there was a Christmas tree farm on Oahu, I didn't consider any other options."
As the staff at Helemano Farms prepared Dawson's tree for transport, her grin seemed to stretch wider than the trees branches.
"Isn't it beautiful?" she said as she envisioned the tree strung with her decorations of choice -- white lights, purple ribbon and bronze holiday balls. "This is the first real tree that I've had in 15 years."
Thursday, December 21, 2006
» The owner's name at Helemano Farms is Aaron O'Brien. He was mistakenly referred to as Andy O'Brien in a caption accompanying a story on Page D1 Sunday.