DAYTON, Maine — With his 4-year-old son at his side and his wife capturing the scene on video, Kevin Houde wielded a saw and cut down a 7-foot tree, the centerpiece of the Christmas season in their home this year.
Millions of other Americans, however, aren’t so enamored with the idea of a freshly cut tree. They’ll either drag their artificial trees down from the attic or head to a store for a manmade evergreen — maybe one that’s already preassembled and decorated with strings of lights.
The live tree industry has seen its market share plummet for well over a decade amid consumers’ growing preference for fake trees. But tree farm owners have a marketing edge and they’re using it — offering hot chocolate, cookies and rides in carts pulled by tractors or horses, attracting families like the Houdes who make a holiday tradition of their trip to the countryside to pick out a tree.
“Choose and cut” farms, where the scent of balsam lingers in the air, represent a segment of the live tree business that’s holding its own. Cutting a tree harkens back to a time when people wandered into the woods, felled a tree and hauled it home.
“People were stealing them back then,” recalled Clement Meserve, owner of Boiling Spring Tree Farm, with a chuckle. “They just didn’t realize it was called theft.”
Still, while the “choose and cut” share of the live tree market jumped from 29 percent in 2000 to 35 percent in 2003, according to industry figures, overall sales of natural trees are indeed sliding.
In 1990, 35.4 million households put up real trees and 36.3 million displayed artificial ones, according to a consumer survey by the National Christmas Tree Association. A decade later, the split was 32 million live and 50.6 million artificial.
Since 2000, sales of natural trees have dropped even more sharply, from 27.8 million in 2001 to 23.4 million last year. During that period, artificial tree sales have risen from 7.3 million to 9.6 million amid improvements in their quality.
The first artificial Christmas trees were made in Germany from goose feathers during the 1880s amid worries about the demise of fir forests. America’s first fake trees were produced 50 years later by the Addis Brush Co. with the machinery it used to make toilet brushes.
Today’s fake trees, the most realistic ever, are made from petrochemicals in factories in China and other Asian nations.
“The technology in artificial trees has really come a long way. It’s really hard to tell if it is artificial without touching it,” said Bob Jacobson from Atlanta-based Home Depot, which sells both types of trees.
Artificial trees appear to be particularly popular with apartment dwellers and empty nesters who don’t want to deal with the extra maintenance of a real tree, Jacobson said.
These days, artificial trees come with hinged branches that no longer need to be assembled. Many also come with lights built in, enabling buyers to avoid untangling long strings of lights.
The prelit trees hit the market about five years ago and gained momentum as prices dropped, said Leon Gamze, owner of Tree Classics of North Barrington, Ill., a major Internet supplier of artificial trees.
“If you ask most people what’s the biggest pain about putting up the tree, they say it’s getting the lights up,” Gamze said.
Gamze, who has factories in Bangkok and China, offers 50 varieties of trees ranging in size from 4 1/2 feet to 40 feet and in price from $69.95 to $11,995. The most expensive is a pre-lit 30-foot emerald green giant with 21,100 clear or multicolor lights and 64,800 tips.
The biggest reasons for the success of manmade trees are fire safety concerns and the public’s desire for convenience, he said.
Although Home Depot’s sales of live trees are increasing, Jacobson agrees that market trends seem to favor the artificial tree business.
For its part, the live tree industry is pulling out all stops to retain customers and attract new ones.
The National Christmas Tree Association is participating in a promotional effort for the hit movie, “The Polar Express.” The trade group is also fighting back with “Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees.” The online game, which appears on its Web site, showcases elves who use snowballs to stop the mutating trees that are “sucking the spirit out of Christmas.”
Gamze dismisses such efforts as hopeless. “They can fight back all they want. It’s a losing cause,” he said.