Wearing bright red-and-white Santa hats, Alan Grossberg and Danny Thomason stood on the sidewalk yesterday and rubbed their cold hands as they waited to assist last-minute Christmas tree shoppers at Johnson's Nursery on upper Wisconsin Avenue NW.

Johnson's stocked 800 trees in late November, and Grossberg, the nursery's Christmas tree specialist, was sure the remaining 20 trees, priced from $50 to $60, would be gone by Christmas Eve.

"We always do" sell out, he said. "And this year has been a very good year."

According to the National Christmas Tree Association in Milwaukee, it has indeed been a very good year. Nationwide, tree sales are expected to set a record, grossing $33.3 million, a 2 percent increase from last year.

Locally, prices range from $4 to $8 a foot -- slightly above the national average -- depending on the location of the lot and the type and condition of the tree. And although consumers may believe that prices are higher than ever, they have leveled off in the past three years, according to Grossberg and other wholesale buyers in this area.

Procrastinators may get good deals, as prices are now being cut in an effort to move unsold trees.

"They started at $30, then went to $20 and today are $15," said salesman Jerry Morse, lighting up a Camel and surveying the 30-odd trees remaining on his Oxon Hill Plaza lot yesterday. Morse, who said he works for a business that has several other outlets, came to the Washington area a month ago to sell trees and make some Christmas cash to take home to his wife and four children in Owensboro, Ky.

Of all the household purchases made each year, few are more fraught with family tradition and the remembrance of times past than the purchase of a Christmas tree.

"We always shop late for our tree," said Krystyna Edmondson, who was waiting with her son, Paul, for their Fraser fir to be bagged by Johnson's workers.

"I was born in Poland, and we would always decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. We'd go out the day before and buy or cut the tree. It's a Polish custom and I keep it up," she said.

Some families go to the same stand each year to buy their trees. Gregg Germain, presiding over the dozen trees remaining at the Annandale Boys Club tree lot, said that "hundreds of people come back. We've had some customers who say they've been buying from us for 15 years."

Germain, an insurance salesman, played soccer with the club as a teen-ager in the late 1970s. He said working the tree lot is a Christmas tradition for him.

"I grew up in the Annandale Boys Club," he said. "It's my way of paying the club back." The club makes an annual profit of nearly $3,000 from the sale, which began in late November with 1,000 trees, Germain said.

People's tastes in trees can be as definite as their traditions are strong, according to several tree sales people.

"I expect to show each customer 10 trees before they pick one," said Grossberg, holding up a seven-foot Douglas fir for two customers.

"We looked a half-hour before we found the right one," said Maria Santillo, who was buying a tree for her mother at the Apple House in Alexandria. "It has to be tall. We'd find the perfect height and then it would be flat on one side."

"Here in Oxon Hill, they shop around and compare," said Morse. "They like to walk up to a $20 tree and say, 'Is this $12?' But they're mainly interested in courtesy. The better you treat them, the better they treat you."

Morse said white pines have been his best sellers this year, with Scotch pines second.

Germain agreed that the Scotch pine is the big hit with Annandale Boys Club customers. "It's the American tree," he said, "strong, sturdy and fairly priced."

Johnson's does not stock Scotch pines, offering a variety of firs instead. Among the most popular, according to Grossberg, is the Fraser fir. Despite its price tag -- $60 for a seven-footer -- many people are seeking them out for their scent and durability, he said.

Frasers take 10 to 17 years to mature, according to David Baumann of the Christmas tree association, but more tree farmers, particularly in the Appalachian Mountains, have begun to grow them.

"They've made a significant contribution to the economy of that region," Baumann said.

And what about those trees that never sell? Jean Chong, manager of the Apple House, looked out over about 200 unsold trees, a surplus that she said was not unusual for her business.

"Off to the mulch company," she said.