It’s snowing. The children laugh and prance through the woods. Dad fells the perfect fir and carries it home over his shoulder. The family sings carols and drinks cocoa as they happily decorate the tree.
That yuletide dream, peddled by Hallmark cards and Lifetime movies, is as believable as flying reindeer.
For Christine Chen, the reality is often squabbling over the right tree, scratching the car with the branches and leaving a trail of needles as it’s crammed through the door.
So this year, the new mom went tree shopping exactly where she goes for most purchases: the Internet, where she paid $136.74 for a 7-foot fir. As more consumers like Chen opt for convenience over fantasy, online tree sellers are seeing sales surge this year.
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For Chen, a public-policy analyst from Belmont, Calif., the upside was “no needles in the car!” as well as a pickup service after the holidays.
“With a newborn in the house, it’s a lot easier to get stuff delivered,” she said. “Why not order a Christmas tree on the Internet too?”
Though online sales make up no more than 3 percent of the $1 billion U.S. holiday-tree market, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, more retailers are starting to peddle them on the Web. Home Depot, the biggest seller of Christmas trees in the U.S., began offering them online last year and says it has expanded its lineup for this season, with trees on its website ranging from $69 to $223.
“We want to make sure they are able to shop online and get their holiday needs if they can’t get to our stores,” said Bob Sedlatschek, a manager for live goods at Home Depot. Web sales represented about 1 percent of the 2.6 million firs and pines it sold last year, he said.
In Britain — where shoppers will spend $246 million on Christmas trees this year, according to Ikea — home-improvement chain Homebase just started selling them via the Web.
“I’m convinced this will explode,” said Michael Nyholm, head of Swedish Christmas-tree vendor Julgransajten, which started offering trees online in 2007. The company sold 1,000 trees via its website last year.
Though that was just 2 percent of its overall sales, the online business is growing by 50 percent annually, Nyholm said. The company pledges to replace any tree that fails to arrive in impeccable condition. Last year, Nyholm said, just two customers asked for a replacement.
“It’s very smooth and easy, you save time and energy,” said 31-year-old Markus Schramm, a marketing executive from Stockholm who says the annual Christmas-tree schlep had become “a burden.”
Some online purveyors of trees are reshaping the business by calling the transaction a rental. Chen, for instance, got her fir from a California company called Rent A Living Christmas Tree, which picks up the potted evergreen after the holidays and returns it to a nursery where it will grow for another year.
London-based Lovely Branches offers a similar service and says about 80 percent of its trees survive the journey from farm to living room and back, though renting costs customers the same as buying does.
“The idea that you’re not mulching it and it’s still alive when you’re done with it, we liked that,” said Chen, a child of Taiwanese immigrants who typically had an artificial tree when she was younger.
The entry of big retailers is making life more difficult for the small companies that have traditionally dominated the business.
“There are more and more competitors in the market now,” said Ashley McCarthy, marketing director of Pines and Needles, a British Christmas-tree purveyor that has been selling online for 15 years. “People are realizing that there is a demand for this kind of service.”
Pines and Needles, which sells about 23,000 trees a year and has outdoor lots across London, generates about a third of its business on the Web. Customers place orders by phone or online for next-day delivery.
Those who can also pay the company to decorate the tree.