Quality remains king for UK Christmas tree buyers

Today's EU referendum result may be the big issue for the market right now but quality is still key for its customers, Matthew Appleby discovers.

Christmas trees: higher prices predicted for imports should the UK vote for Brexit - image: HW
Christmas trees: higher prices predicted for imports should the UK vote for Brexit - image: HW

The result of the EU referendum, to be revealed today, will dictate any changes to the Christmas tree market this year, according to growers, after a deluge of cheap imports distorted the market in 2015. Leaving Europe would raise prices from the continent, where hundreds of thousands of trees matured into 6ft saleable specimens and found their way to the UK for Christmas 2015.

A representative for the Cadeby Tree Trust says prices will not be set until after the 23 June vote on whether to stay in the EU. "If Britain leaves Europe prices of imports will go up because of changes in the pound against the euro. This will make trees coming in from Europe more expensive and will be good for British growers. The market was flooded last year with a lot of 6ft trees because of what happened in Denmark (a lot of tree planting) a few years ago. Everything is up in the air until the EU vote."

Similar price levels

British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA) secretary Harry Brightwell says: "We expect prices to be very similar to last year for a 6-7ft Nordmann grown by a BCTGA member. You will most likely be paying in the region of £45 to £55. For a Norway Spruce this would be between £25 and £35 typically. Prices do vary across the country and premium trees can cost more." Wholesale prices for a 6ft Nordmann were £2 or more cheaper in many cases last year.

Tillington Group buyer and Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker has been going to Scotland to buy Christmas trees for 25 years. On availability and prices, he says: "There will be not as many premium-quality trees but a lot more third-grade around. They will probably be coming from abroad. Prices at the top end will stay the same. We had to go over £50 three years ago, but that bit."

After a wet start to the season trees are now prospering, says Brightwell. Bunker adds that needle-drop issues cannot be predicted until harvest. "Because of the warm weather an increased number of trees had needle drop in 2015 as they had not closed down when they were harvested." Correct spacing is paramount to combat pest and disease issues and premium-quality trees sold in garden centres benefit from this, he explains.

Bunker's big concern is the impact of artificial trees on the UK's six-million-a-year real tree market, particularly as artificials are on the shop floor from October and trees are not available until the end of November, so the artificial ones get a head start. "It's a bit like the transfer market in football," he says. "Sooner or later we are going to get burnt. You can't expect to sell £300-£400 artificial trees and expect the real tree market to stay stable."

Garden centre trees tend to be 6ft 3in to 6ft 4in, not just 6ft, possibly because artificial trees are 6ft 6in and "customers expect a bit more", Bunker suggests. Nordmann is still "king" while other varieties have their pros and cons. "Norway spruce is available in limited numbers but drops needles. The Noble is a nice tree but difficult and expensive to produce. The one coming up on the rails is the Fraser fir."

Promising outlook

Lincolnshire-based Fillingham Christmas Trees owner and managing director William Rose says the UK Christmas tree market continues to go from "strength to strength" and the outlook for the coming season looks "promising" with the Nordmann fir the overwhelming favourite.

For the majority of customers quality rather than price remains the key prerequisite when purchasing their Christmas tree, adds Rose. People are putting up their Christmas trees earlier every year and they will happily pay a bit more for a tree if they know it will last the Christmas period and into the New Year, he says.

Rose believes that when it comes to buying a Christmas tree customers will always take into account the quality of the tree they bought the previous year. If their tree provided value for money in terms of quality, they will come back the following year. But similarly they will happily look elsewhere if the tree proved poor-quality.

Christmas is a peak period for retailers and selling good-quality trees can give them a competitive edge. "We cut our trees as late as possible to meet the needs of the customer to maximise the freshness of our trees over Christmas and aid needle retention. Working with a UK grower such as ourselves also provides peace of mind. Customers can see their trees growing in the farm, gain support and advice direct from the growers and see the hard work and agronomy techniques that go in to producing the best trees."

Rose adds: "At the time of going to press Brexit is a big issue for the UK. It may well be that as you read this the UK Christmas tree grower is having to adapt to the implications of the vote in June. No matter which way the UK votes, the quality of the product will still be the primary concern for our customers. Competitive price, while being important, should always be tempered by the old phrase 'quality is remembered long after the price has been forgotten'."

British Christmas Tree Growers Association

About 80 per cent of Christmas trees sold are Nordmann fir, around 10-15 per cent are Norway spruce and the remainder are lesser-known varieties. "The Carbon Trust estimates that a 2m artificial tree has a carbon footprint of around 40kg CO2 equivalent - more than 10 times that of real trees that are burnt," says the British Christmas Tree Gowers Association.

Andrew Ingram from Christmas Tree Common in Oxfordshire presented a Lasiocarpa fir at a peer-judged event in Hole Park in Kent in October last year. In December, his 20ft tree was lit outside Downing Street as part of a special ceremony. Hans Alexanderson from Santa Fir Christmas Tree Farm in Guildford won the wreath category in the national competition and was runner-up in the tree contest.

Greater footfall drives increase in Christmas tree sales at Highfield Garden World in Gloucestershire

Highfield Garden World in Gloucestershire confirms its order around September and sells about 1,100 real trees every Christmas, with the most popular choice being 6ft cut non-drop trees and around a third being rooted and potted trees.

Director and planteria manager Jon Mason says: "The total number of real trees we sell has increased from around 700 to 1,100 over the last couple of years, but we think that may be due less to higher local demand than it is to the higher footfall we've been experiencing here ever since we launched our new restaurant and expanded retail site.

"We all know if last year's tree was a success customers tend to come back the following year, so we're hoping our sales stay strong. We also price pretty keenly, keeping an eye on the competition and pricing at 10-20 per cent below."

Although the growing numbers of real trees being sold at Highfield may not be indicative of changes elsewhere, a different shift in buying habits possibly is. "Customers are beginning to favour narrower trees, with some even asking for Fraser firs by name," says Mason. "Fraser firs tend to have a slightly slimmer profile than others, so won't take up quite as much space in the room, and we think this is what's driving their popularity. We also offer to clip and shape any trees for customers, and cut the two inches off the bottom for them.

"Last winter it was still very mild in Scotland when our trees were cut. So, with the trees still growing and the sap still rising, the shock of being cut resulted in non-drop trees shedding more needles than normal. We had a couple of trees returned because of it. Fingers crossed for a colder winter this year."

At Highfield, it is not just the trees that sell well at Christmas. Mason adds: "Every year I'm amazed at how many stands we sell. We always ask tree buyers whether they've got their stand out ready at home, at which point many of them realise they've got one somewhere but no one can remember where. So they buy a new one in case they can't find it. There must be a lot of Christmas tree stands living in people's garages in Gloucestershire.

"People are decorating outside as well as in nowadays. Internal lighting has always done well for us, but over the last couple of years we've been selling more and more external lights too. One factor which has influenced that is the availability of battery powered external lighting now."

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