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The Not-So Evergreen Economics of Pop-Up Christmas Tree Lots

What does it take to get all those trees to one handy corner of your neighborhood?

Like extra fat around your belly, pop-up Christmas tree lots seem to materialize out of thin air every holiday season. So how’s this whole business work? Where do the trees come from? Do they make much money? Does anybody buy a tree after Christmas? Alongside a guy who’s owned a pop-up Christmas tree lot for the past six years, we’re going to ease your pining (sorry, not sorry) for answers.

Do these lots actually make any money?

Some do. Andrew, who co-owns North Pole Christmas Tree in San Diego, says it doesn’t make him and his partner a ton of money, but “it’s a good start to the year.” His day job is in construction, and December is typically a slow month for that, so six years ago, his friend’s wife suggested selling Christmas trees, and they’ve done so every holiday season since. “I’ve heard of people [other tree lot owners] who don’t even work the rest of the year,” he says. “It’d be nice to get to that point but we’re not near that.” 

How many trees do they end up selling?

These smaller operations can’t outsell Costco or Home Depot, but still, Andrew orders about a thousand every year. Every year is different, but some years he’s sold out of them before Christmas.

So how can a small operator compete with the big-box stores?

There are a few ways. One is the old real estate saw: “location, location,” etc. Andrew’s tree lot is in the kind of neighborhood “where people pay more for everything,” he says — craft beer, ramen, artisanal candles, you name it. Though he has less volume, he can make it up by charging a little more for a tree than you might find at a lot in the corner of a shopping mall parking lot in the suburbs, or at a Home Depot in the industrial section of town. Another factor is the ambiance (more on that later). His trees start at $35 for a 3-foot noble fir, and it goes up from there to 10-foot trees for $250, and even 12- to 15-foot trees for name-your-price. 

$250 for a Christmas tree?!?!?!?!

Remember, they only grow a foot a year. That 10-foot tree was planted way back when Michael Jackson was still alive. Also: Christmas trees are getting harder to find, and thus, more expensive. 

Wait, why are Christmas trees getting harder to find?

Several reasons: One, during the Great Recession, there was an oversupply of trees that went unsold. That led to far fewer trees being planted in the aftermath (some farms switched to other crops), and now that those recession-era Christmas trees are reaching maturity, there are fewer on the market. Also, various catastrophes earlier this decade — from hot summers in Oregon to fungal infections in Missouri — have decimated the crop yields. Andrew says that many trees are now shipped to China as well, which further tightens the supply. 

How does he know how many trees to order?

“Basically, we get as many as can fit onto the truck,” Andrew says. “As many as we can get.” If they run out, they try to get more from Oregon, where they all came from in the first place, or they can buy them nearby in L.A. at wholesale prices, which, he says, is more expensive than buying from the source. The goal, he says, is to sell out early if possible, then worry about ordering more instead of having any left over, as he doesn’t like to be wasteful. But sometimes, he does end up with a lot that don’t sell.

What does it cost to buy a tree from a farmer?

Andrew is understandably hesitant to say, but concedes that his markup is somewhere in the ballpark of 50 percent. But that’s a more modest markup than other industries: clothing, a meal at a restaurant or beverages, for example. 

How hard is it to buy a thousand trees from a farm in another state?

It’s surprisingly hard! The first year, it was difficult for Andrew to find a farm to sell to them — they already had relationships with other buyers, who had dibs on all their trees. Now that Andrew has history with farmers, they’re able to get a truck full of trees every year. But lately, he’s heard that farmers are cutting out a lot of people they don’t like to work with.

“It didn’t used to be a cutthroat business, but trees are hard to get nowadays,” he says. “You also have the corporations like Costco. They’re buying a shit ton of trees and wasting a ton at the end of the season [with all the ones they couldn’t sell]. Multiply that by every store in every city, and there’s a lot of waste. So all these things contribute to the shortage.”

Does anyone buy a tree after Christmas?

Yes! It’s usually people who were out-of-town for Christmas and just want the vibe of a tree in their own house, Andrew says.

What’s the rent for a lot like?

It’s usually rented for four to six weeks: Two weeks to set up, then running from Thanksgiving to the end of December. The amount of rent depends a lot on what the land is being used for: If it’s a future building site where nothing’s going on there in the meantime, Andrew’s paid as little as $1,000. This year, he’s paying $3,500 for a city-owned parking lot. 

How many trees can you sell in a day?

He sells about 50 on a busy day (a Sunday, for example) and 20 to 25 on a weekday.

So tell me about the ambience thing. That’s important?

Super important! Free hot cocoa, Christmas music, inflatable Christmas decorations, you gotta have all that, and Andrew does. This is a special annual ritual for people and their families (and children) — everyone’s in a good mood and you want to make it fun for them. “That’s what it’s all about,” he says.

At the end of the day, is a pop-up tree lot a good business?

As a seasonal gig, it sounds hard to beat. “I look forward to it every year,” Andrew says. “You don’t do it long enough to hate it. It’s fun, people are in a good mood, and it’s a happy thing. We’re not getting rich off of it, but it puts some money in our pockets, and it’s nice to start off the year with a little bit of extra dough.”