The Choice Grows In Selecting a Tree

`STORM Coming. Get Your Trees," declared a large sign outside a florist shop in Wilton, N.H.

Bill Goddard, a Christmas tree salesman at the House By The Side of The Road shop, hoped to sell as many trees as possible before last week's severe snow storm. Now he is helping 80 customers a day, who could not buy trees over the weekend.

The choice for Christmas tree shoppers has expanded this year. They can buy real trees such as Scotch pine, the most popular (36 percent of total real tree sales in the United States), followed by Douglas fir (20 percent). They can select and cut their own at a tree farm. Or they can buy an increasing variety of artificial trees from the US, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

This year, Mr. Goddard expects to sell more than 1,000 trees, partially because of growing sales of $20 to $70 live trees that can be planted in the ground after Christmas. Some people "don't like the idea of killing trees," he says.

One of the most popular is a six-foot Balsam fir that costs $29, he says. If consumers are looking for bargains under $9, they can buy "Charlie Brown" trees that are naturally grown without shaping or trimming - a more common practice in recent years.

The main competitors for tree growers are artificial trees. Last year about 36.3 million artificial trees were sold in the US, compared to 35.7 million real trees worth $1 billion.

Hudson Valley Tree Inc., the largest artificial tree maker in the US, expects to sell about 800,000 trees this year. And next year, sales should exceed 1 million trees, says Irwin Katz, the firm's vice president of finance. He says artificial trees are popular because they are fire resistant. Even though an initial investment of $75 to $200 is higher than buying a real tree, consumers can reuse the tree for up to 10 years, he says.

Mr. Katz is not concerned about competition from real-tree growers. He finds the competition "tough" from imported Chinese artificial trees, selling 20 to 30 percent cheaper.

To provide consumers with a variety of designs, each year engineers are sent to forests to copy real Christmas trees, he says.

Real-tree growers say that artificial trees are harmful to the environment because they are made of nonbiodegradable PVC.

Recently, IKEA, a Swedish home furnishing firm based in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., launched a rent-a-Christmas tree promotion. Consumers can rent a six-foot Douglas fir for $20 - $10 of which is a deposit. Customers get their deposits back when they return the trees in January. IKEA then grinds the tree into mulch, which is returned free to the customer.

"There is no waste and landfill to worry about," says Pamela Diaconis, spokeswoman for the firm. Last year IKEA sold 40,000 trees. This year it projects sales of 54,000 trees.

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