Christmas Tree Promotion Board update
by Sally Colby
No one had trouble selling Christmas trees last year, but Marsha Gray, executive director of the Christmas Tree Promotion Board (CTPB), said the board’s ongoing promotion efforts benefit every aspect of the industry.
As she addressed growers at the summer meeting of the Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Growers Association at J.C. Hill Tree Farms in Orwigsburg, PA, Gray answered the question “Why are we marketing Christmas trees when we’re selling everything we have?”
“This industry has crazy oversupply and undersupply – peaks and valleys,” said Gray. “The challenge is that it’s an eight- to 10-year crop. We want to create a consistent rise in demand and slow growth over time so that when you plant trees, you can plant with confidence.” Gray also shared the results of a consumer research study conducted to determine the attitudes, opinions, purchase intent and other behaviors related to celebrating Christmas 2021.
“We have to make the best use of our money,” said Gray. “In order to do that, we have a target demographic. There are lots of people who could or would buy a Christmas tree, but we want to focus on young families in the age range of 25 to 49 years old, typically with children in the home. When we think about our messaging – where we’re going to put it and what we’re going to do with it – we have that family in mind.”
Gray noted that the CTPB’s marketing agency thought the scenario would be quite different than it turned out to be last year and questioned whether people would purchase real Christmas trees. “Our gut told us we were going to sell a lot of Christmas trees,” said Gray. “Every time we’ve had a bad year or challenging economy, that’s when we shine. We had a lot of traffic at farms and retail locations last year, and even the box stores that typically do not sell out sold a lot more than they had in the past. We suspected it would be a good year, and we also learned what consumers are going to expect from you [as growers].”
Consumer research results also help to develop talking points for media, especially when it comes to countering the promotion of artificial trees. “We have to be out there first,” said Gray. “Not just ‘our trees are better’ but real data they can use. If you have a real number, the media will run with it. We were the only group in the Christmas tree world talking about Christmas trees in a pandemic setting.” The CTPB predicted the pandemic would drive consumers to visit farms and tree lots because they were seeking something “happy and joyful.”
Gray discussed the top survey points, including what she refers to as the most exciting revelation: “We identified first-timers – did you buy your first Christmas tree during the pandemic or was last year the first time in a long time?” she said. “We’re interested in those people because they came out once – did we make a lifetime customer?” She added that 97% of those who previously purchased an artificial Christmas tree and switched to a real tree during the pandemic agreed that they enjoyed the experience, and nearly 90% wished they’d started purchasing a real tree sooner.
Other data from the survey showed that more than half of respondents feel more optimistic about Christmas 2021, and most who purchase real trees plan to buy their trees in advance. Many real tree buyers expressed concern about being able to get the tree they want this year, which may prompt earlier-than-normal purchases. Eighty percent of respondents anticipate Christmas to be “different” than it was in 2020, with more gatherings, more decorations and more celebrations than usual.
Gray discussed online tools for growers and retailers, including a comprehensive tree guide for consumers that outlines the characteristics of the 20 most popular trees in the nation. In addition to general information on each species, consumers can sort tree varieties by needle length, branch structure, fragrance and needle characteristics. Gray said visitors to the site spent an average of 3.5 minutes browsing, an unusually high rate for website visits.
Another successful 2020 project was the retail Christmas tree locator. This consumer-oriented tool includes tree farms, big box stores and retail lots. “We worked very hard to get lot locations on it last year,” said Gray. “This year is going to be exponentially better. We spent a lot of time reaching out to wholesale producers saying ‘get your retailers on this.’” Anyone who retails Christmas trees in the U.S. can be listed on the locator at no charge.
Tree sellers can provide comprehensive information to customers through the retail locator, including available species, hours of operation, website, social media links and an interactive map. “With supply issues, you are selling out,” said Gray. “Maybe after two weekends you don’t have enough trees. Every Sunday evening we send an email to everyone on the locator with the option of adding a message ‘closed for the season’ any point … to avoid disappointing customers.”
Gray said that while a large portion of the CTPB budget is for promotion, research is also an important function of the promotion board. “We are funding research all across the country,” she said. “Everything from coning to elongated hemlock scale and phytophthora. If it’s of interest to you, we’ve tried to make it happen.” The results of projects are available online, and because the research library is new, Gray encouraged growers to visit the website frequently for information on recently completed projects.
As university resources shrink, Gray urges growers to be vocal about research needs and to submit ideas and issues for research projects through the website form. The research committee meets in late spring to review proposals before proposals are submitted to the board for approval.
The end goal of promotion is to get people interested in real Christmas trees, and Gray said the board continues to work hard to change the consumer mindset. “It isn’t a one-time sale,” she said, adding that changing consumer preferences isn’t easy. “We are working hard to get people in that mindset, and that doesn’t happen in one year. Our purpose is a slow, constant process of bringing people to ‘our side’ and as that grows, when we do have supplies, we’ll be meeting a little closer.”
Information about promotion, assessment funds, seedling and transplant survey results, research proposal application and the library of completed research projects is available at christmastreepromotionboard.org/research.