THE BOSTON GLOBE - That perfect tree is just a few clicks away
By Janelle Nanos Globe Staff,December 15, 2018, 7:14 p.m.
Three years ago, Jeff Feccia and his girlfriend, Bridget Kinney, had just purchased a Christmas tree at a lot in Brighton and tossed it in Feccia’s pickup when they saw another customer wrestling a tree onto an Uber. Feccia, who’d worked at a Christmas tree farm as a teen, laughed out loud at the absurdity.
Then he realized he’d found a business opportunity.
So last year they launched Christmas Tree 4 Me, a mobile-friendly website that lets customers shop for a tree of their size and liking, and this season expect to deliver more than 300 holiday evergreens around the Boston area.
A cool $200 buys the full white-glove service: the tree, lights, and a stand — all set up. For an additional fee, they’ll take it away after the presents are unwrapped, leaving nary a needle behind.
“Basically, the client doesn’t even have to touch the tree,” said Feccia, who works in finance in downtown Boston when he’s not hawking trees. “The only thing you have to touch is your cellphone.”
Count the annual Christmas tree trade as yet another niche corner of retail transformed by online ordering and Internet-enabled strategies, making it easier for growers and middlemen to sell trees and for buyers to get the tree they want — fast.
A high-tech Tannenbaum isn’t for everyone, particularly those looking for Instagram-ready snaps of bucolic tree farms with the little ones. No, this is for the harried and the practical— often parents, often urbanites — who can’t be bothered with slogging out to the tree lot, and wrestling the tree atop the car and then into the house, where the dreaded tree stand awaits.
“With all the technological advantages today, why wouldn’t you get your tree delivered to you?” said Azuraye Wycoff, whose moving company, Small Haul, works with nurseries around Boston to deliver trees to online buyers. The cost is $150 to $175 for delivery and setup, another $20 to $40 for a stand.
They say the convenience of having a tree delivered — no needles in your car or sap on your hands — is worth it, considering a typical tree around town goes for about $60 to $80.
She argues tree shopping can be more stressful than magical if you’re just picking one out in a parking lot. Having a tree delivered makes it an event and part of the fun of the season.
“For us it’s about making it special,” she said. “Growing up, we always picked out the tree and it was a big event in my family. We wanted to replicate that without the hassle.”
And for tree sellers, the online sales channel is a powerful weapon against their ultimate nemesis: the fake tree.
“The competition is the artificial tree, and they have gotten a huge piece of the pie,” said Doug Hundley, a grower in North Carolina who is spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association.
Sales of natural trees were flat in 2017 from the year before, with 27 million Americans purchasing them in each of the two years, according to the association’s annual survey, compared to a 13 percent increase in fake trees, to 21.1 million in 2017. And since you don’t have to throw a fake tree out, over time they have accumulated a dominant position at Christmas.
“We estimate — and we don’t mind saying this so people will realize it — but 75 percent of the homes in America that have a Christmas tree will be using an artificial tree,” Hundley said. “And we’re not happy about that.”
The challenge facing real tree sellers increased substantially this year, said Jane Waterman, of Hyde Park, Vt. She and her husband, George Nash, have sold Christmas trees for the past 44 years from locations in New York City, putting up a staff of 50 tree sellers in five apartments.
Early snowstorms in northern Vermont and Canada have made digging out trees from several feet of snow difficult, Waterman said. Meanwhile, US immigration restrictions have reduced the number of seasonal workers available to cut them down. And new trucking regulations limiting drivers’ hours and mileage have meant fewer trees and higher prices.
“The cost of shipping has doubled this year,” she said.
To keep their staff connected, the couple tried using text messages to shuffle trees among uptown and downtown lots. But it was often a mess. So this year the team is using the Slack messaging service to keep up to date on the number of trees in each of their 19 locations around the city, which span from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan to near the Harlem River in the Bronx.
When a space heater breaks, or a customer is looking for a 9-foot Serbian spruce, a team member can message the entire group on Slack and get help in seconds. They’ll often shuttle trees across the city to meet customer demands. At the end of the day, her sidewalk sellers Slack the running tree counts, so Waterman can quickly refill inventory.
“We keep track of every tree that we sell, how much we sold it for, and we can look at what trees we should buy and what should go,” she said. That allows her to keep her average tree price at $75, or half of what a tree costs in SoHo, she said.
In all, Waterman and Nash sell more than 20,000 trees each year, with only about 100 left over.
“It’s all the technology,” she said. “We keep track of every last penny.”
Technology is a relatively new facet of acquiring a Christmas tree. But as customers seek convenience in the harried holiday season, they’re turning to the Internet for just about everything else. So why not trees?
A few tree farms have been shipping trees via FedEx for three decades, Hundley said. But the concept got some high profile exposure this fall when Amazon — of course — announced it will ship full size Douglas firs, Norfolk Island pines, and other fresh Christmas trees.
Purists and Amazon critics saw this as another encroachment of the e-commerce giant into small independent businesses.
But Hundley says Amazon doesn’t pose much of a threat.
“The idea that Amazon getting into the business is going to somehow threaten tree sales by retail people — I don’t think it will,” he said. “It’s not that many trees.”
Feccia isn’t afraid of the retail behemoth, either.
“Amazon is not on the floor sweeping up needles,” he said. “That’s us.”
On Friday night, he delivered a tree to Meghan Ariagno, 34, and her sister Katelyn, 37. The siblings had set out to buy a tree from the same seller in South Boston as last year, but it wasn’t there this year. The sisters were planning their annual “cookiepalooza” for this weekend, and so needed a tree quickly.
“Home Depot didn’t have the charm we were looking for,” Meghan Ariagno said.
That’s where Christmas Tree 4 Me came in.
“We’re traditionalists, but this is definitely not that traditional,” Ariagno said on Friday. “But we’re having friends over to cook cookies from scratch, so it evens itself out.”