Each year in December, scores of Christmas tree vendors descend on New York City from as far as Quebec to turn the city’s sidewalks into a virtual pop-up forest. What makes this seasonal opportunity so appealing? The “coniferous tree” exception, a City Council law dating from 1938, says vendors can sell and display Christmas trees on a sidewalk in December without a permit as long as they get an ok from adjacent building owners and they don’t block the sidewalk. Sellers lobby adjacent storefronts for permission, sometimes paying a fee and often in competition with other sellers. This year, as the New York Times reports, competition from chain stores–and other vendors jockeying for prime spots in parks and other public locations that come with high fees–are chopping into the profits for the army of tree sellers that descends on the city at holiday time. Costs get passed to consumers–and prices are soaring.
According to the Times, prices have actually been rising for a while: In 2008 the average buyer paid $36.50 for a Christmas tree in 2008; last year that number was $74.70. Mom-and-pop sellers are facing more competition from chains like Whole Foods, who can buy trees in bulk and is selling seven- to eight-foot-high Fraser firs for $34.99–a 40 percent discount.
Scott Lechner, who manages the stand in Washington Market Park and several other park locations auctioned by the city, said, “We’re an endangered species.” Other factors are at work, too, including scarcity. A shortage of trees can be traced back to the recession of 2008, when fewer trees were harvested to be sold, meaning fewer new trees were planted. Trees being trucked in from Canada are incurring an uptick in shipping costs. A high-stakes bidding process for permission to set up shop in a small number of available locations in the city’s parks can now cost vendors as much as $25,000 in fees.
Vermont farmer George Nash, who has been making the pilgrimage to sell Christmas trees in the Big Apple since the 1970s, prices his festive wares–highly desirable Douglas and Fraser firs–according to the neighborhood they’re being sold in. “Our high-end locations are subsidizing all our cheaper locations in the barrio, where we need to sell our trees for $35 to people who really don’t have much more than that.”
This year, there’s no reason to worry, but take note: Doug Hundley, a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association, said, “We’re not going to be short — everybody looking for a real tree will be able to get one. But it is a tight market, and prices will rise.”