“The tree is the place where people put all these precious things they bring out once a year that have amazing sentimental memories,” says Mac Harman, founder of Balsam Hill, the leading seller of luxury artificial trees. “At the end of the day, the tree is the centerpiece of Christmas. It’s such an important part of the holiday experience that people are willing to pay for the best canvas they can to display these cherished and important things.”
Nearly 100 million U.S. households put up a tree every year — and not just one tree: One in 5 homes put up two. Thirty million are real, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, but Americans prefer fake by 2 to 1. According to a PBS NewsHour poll last year, 63 percent of Republicans said they planned to buy an artificial tree compared with 44 percent of Democrats.
Americans are festive, and we are also lazy.
We like fake trees because there’s no sap, no watering and no needles to sweep up. Experts warn a real tree can stay up for four weeks before becoming a fire hazard. Since Thanksgiving was so late, that’s less of an issue this year, but for those who put up trees early and keep them up into the new year, safety is a huge selling point.
But there are artificial trees and there are designer artificial trees. And there are customers willing to pay big bucks for a fake that, like a knockoff Picasso, looks real on close inspection.
Harman founded Balsam Hill in 2006 after seeing an ugly artificial tree at his in-laws’. His brother-in-law is allergic to real trees, so the family set up what Harman described as a really bad fake — the kind with shredded green paper on stick branches. There had to be a way to make a more realistic version, he thought. And so the Stanford Business School grad created faux trees designed to look like Fraser firs, blue spruce and other popular varieties. Today, his business sells “hundreds of thousands” a year and dominates the high end of the artificial tree market that generates about $1.2 billion in annual sales.
The vast majority of artificial trees are sold in big box and home-improvement stores: People pay $100 to $400 for a tree they expect to use for about a decade. A live tree costs about $75 — from a purely economic standpoint, buying a fake tree is cheaper than buying a real tree every year. According to the Commerce Department, about 15 million artificial trees were purchased last year.
But if you’re singing, “Santa Baby, slip a sable under the faux tree for me” — well, some Christmas fanatics want nothing but the best.
Frontgate, a home decor and lifestyle catalogue, rolls out its trees in the end of August. “I thought it was terribly early,” says Christopher Christie, senior director of merchandising. “But we have such a dedicated fan base when it comes to Christmas that our customer is willing to buy early, making sure they can get what they want.”
Frontgate trees start at $999 and go up — the 7½-foot Starry Night is sold out this year, but the nine-foot tree is still available for $2,474.
The average luxury fake starts at $500 and can run into the thousands, depending on height, needles, and lights. Every tree starts with molded polyethylene (PE) needles designed to mimic the real evergreens — the more realistic the tree, the more PE needles. Less-expensive trees use PVC, a flat plastic cut into needles or have a few PE needles on the branch tips. The rest, as they say, is filler.
The most expensive artificial trees are replicas, both in shape and needle feel. (The perfect fake doesn’t look perfect because then it wouldn’t look real.) But trees, like fashion, have trends: People with large ornament collections want artificial trees with smaller needles, stronger branches and more open space between the branches. Flocked trees are back. Some customers have multiple trees in their home or buy trees for their city house and their mountain or beach homes.
Next on the list of must-haves: lights, with all sorts of technology to play with. “In the past, you either liked clear white lights or colored lights,” Christie says. “Now you don’t have to choose one — you have the ability to keep it on one color or, based on how you decorate your tree, it could go from white to red, purple to blue to green to yellow and back again.”
Modern trees have the electric connection built in the tree pole, and almost all the trees have LED lights, which last longer and shine brighter than the traditional incandescent tree lights. “Fairy lights” are trending: tiny microlights that twinkle. Most trees come with remote controls; now, there’s an app that maps every light on the tree, allowing tree geeks to create patterns or draw their names on the tree.
None of this comes cheap. The average 7½-foot Balsam Hill tree sells for $600, with prices higher for bigger trees with more lights. There’s an 18-footer that does very well (some people have really tall ceilings) and that was purchased for $6,500 to decorate Rhode Island’s State House because the 2017 real tree died before Christmas.
“Rhode Island’s perennial challenges with the State House Christmas tree have been well-documented,” said Gov. Gina Raimondo. “Due to conditions inside the State House, it’s challenging to keep a real tree alive and thriving from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.”
Here’s the weird part: For all the emphasis on realism, most artificial trees are sold online, where customers can’t really see or feel the tree. The business model is heavily brand-specific, bolstered by a seasonal ad blitz — Balsam Hill is all over the Hallmark Channel and provides trees for about half of its holiday movies. (Proper fluffing of the branches is so critical to the look of artificial trees that Harman sends a company representative to set up the trees.)
To combat the loss of market share, tree growers are trying to win over millennials with an appeal of authenticity and sustainability, although live Christmas tree sales continue to drop. But here’s the problem: The trek to the tree farm is magical when your kids are young, less so when they grow up. Boomers are opting for the convenience of artificial, plus a few evergreen-scented candles.
And for the real tree die-hards?
Future customers, says Harman: “That’s great for me because the people who switch from real to artificial tend to grow up with real trees — and then when their kids go to college, they switch.”