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Business

Mail Order Christmas Trees Spike As Many Shoppers Stay Home

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Nick de la Canal
/
WFAE
Joe Scheffey loads a Christmas tree into a shipping box at Wishon Evergreens tree farm in Sparta, North Carolina.

Lots of holiday shoppers are buying gifts online to avoid the crowds this year, but what about buying a Christmas tree from the web? Farmers say contactless, mail order Christmas trees are actually having a moment in 2020.

One of those farmers is Johnny Wishon, who's been mailing Christmas trees from his farm in Sparta, North Carolina, for the past 12 years.

Workers on his farm prepare trees for shipping by feeding them through a baling machine that ties their branches up with twine. Then workers slid each tree trunk first into a narrow cardboard box.

They staple the box shut, slap on some postage, and the package is ready to be picked up by a mail truck and shipped off to almost any state in the country.

Wishon's farm typically mails out a couple hundred trees each year, but it's never been a big part of the business. When asked what he first thought of the concept, Wishon shook his head and laughed.

"Honestly, I thought it was crazy too," he said.

Most of his business is done with retail lots or people coming directly to his farm. But this year, he said his mail orders have spiked considerably.

"I'd have to ask and see, but I'd say we're up 20% at least," he said.

It's turning out to be a lifeline for him because his staff made the tough choice of canceling one of their biggest money-makers this year: the choose-and-cut farm. They weren't sure if it they could safely host visitors during the pandemic.

"But we also said, I bet we'll make up for it on online sales," Wishon said, "And we're still just a part of the way into the season, but I think it's going to happen."

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Nick de la Canal
Johnny Wishon, right, and Joe Scheffey prepare a tree for shipping at Wishon Evergreens in Sparta, North Carolina.

He's now one of several farmers who say 2020 is proving to be a big year for mail order Christmas trees. The National Christmas Tree Association says this could be the biggest year yet, and of the 10 farms contacted by WFAE, all but one said mail order demand was higher than ever before. Some have even had trouble finding enough boxes to keep up.

Some of this can certainly be tied to the pandemic, said Jennifer Greene with the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association. But she also noted online sales had already been growing in recent years as farmers realized they could branch out on the internet.

"One of our growers, year before last, partnered with Amazon, and for the first time ever, Amazon sold boxed Christmas trees, mail-ordered, to people's doors," she said.

Another tech-savvy farm in Jefferson launched a virtual tree lot this year, allowing shoppers to digitally stroll through their farm and pick out the exact tree they want. Kaitlin Carpenter helps process those orders for Third Day Market.

"You can't actually smell the trees of course, but you're still getting the experience of picking your tree and we'll cut it down and ship it to them," she said.

Farmers say a lot of the customers are from faraway states like California, Texas, and Florida, where there aren't many fresh Christmas trees to begin with. A lot of customers are also from big cities like New York and Chicago, where ordering a tree online is a good way to stay socially distanced, and free from the hassle of lugging a Christmas tree through the subway.

Vanessa Bishop says there's also a new group of customers ordering from her family farm in Springfield, Vermont, this year.

"What we're seeing is a lot of trees actually going out to Vermont and New Hampshire residents, which is kind of new," she said.

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Nick de la Canal
Workers load Christmas trees onto a trailer at Clawson's Christmas Tree Farm in Boone, NC, in 2015.

Long-time customers say there are a few things you should know if it's your first time ordering a tree to your doorstep. Kitsie Forrest has had trees delivered to her home in Texas for more than ten years. She says it's not a bad idea to throw down a sheet before unboxing your tree — the needles can get everywhere.

"Oh, it's going to be a mess," she said, "Just don't worry about it. It's just part of the experience."

She said you should keep the tree tied up as you secure it in its stand.

"And then you snip the string around the Christmas tree," she said, "and it just kind of unfolds like layer by layer by layer by layer, and it's kind of magical."

It's not clear if the surge in mail orders will continue after the pandemic wraps up, but some farmers think it might if people decide they like the convenience. After all, if more of the gifts underneath are being bought online, why not the tree as well?

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