Once again as in olden days -- Gazette.Net


From LED lights and miniature village collectibles to Fraser firs and poinsettias, the trappings of Christmas are back with a boost for many Maryland businesses.

“Some things people are just not willing to give up, especially holiday traditions,” said Nick Leinbach, owner of Christmas Decor by Watermark in Laurel, a franchise with the Lubbock, Texas, company. “We’ve been seeing increases across the franchise.”

Leinbach sports a thematically appropriate white beard and a love of lights, which spreads to the 80 commercial and residential locations his company decorates each year.

“It’s been wonderful,” he said, adding that many decorators are switching to energy-efficient LED lights because they consume 10 percent of the electricity used by incandescent lights and are less fragile.

Because LED lights are easier to assemble than the incandescent variety, customers are willing to pay for more, said Phil Key, vice president and director of Ruppert Landscape’s management division in Laytonsville. About 20 percent of Ruppert’s clients rely on the company for holiday decorations, including the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore and Georgetown business district in Washington, D.C., he said.

Marion Mullan, vice president and co-owner of Christmas Decor by Mullan Nursery in White Hall, said she also is feeling good about this year. Mullan decorates about 100 homes and 10 businesses annually.

While retail accounts for the lion’s share of the annual holiday boost to the U.S. economy — with sales exceeding a half-trillion dollars — the tree and decorating sector can be profitable, too, with overall sales approaching $8 billion, according to trade groups.

Leinbach’s and Mullan’s stories echo those throughout the Christmas industry, with most businesses reporting stronger sales than in recent years.

‘More in the mood’

“People are more in the mood this year than last year,” said Jos Roozen, owner of Roozen Nursery in Fort Washington. He compared the renewed interest this year in spending several hours shopping for a Christmas tree to what he saw 30 years ago. In recent years, on the other hand, people have “just wanted to get it over with,” Roozen said.

Roozen said he often sold as many as 900 trees a year in the 1980s; these days, that’s closer to 250.

He sticks with Fraser firs and pines because they are less likely than other varieties to shed needles, which can lead to unsatisfied customers, Roozen said.

Americans spent $1.07 billion on Christmas trees in 2011, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. An additional $670 million was spent on artificial trees. More than 33 million live Christmas trees are sold annually.

While his prices are unchanged, Roozen said, the quality has improved because newer varieties of poinsettia and orchids are easier to grow. If purchased from a high-quality nursery, these flowers can last through March, Roozen said, adding that orchids have surpassed the poinsettia as the holiday flower of choice for many.

Hallie Butler Van Horn, assistant market manager at Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, credited the favorable weather with bringing in more sales than last year, adding to the growing popularity of cut-your-own-tree farms such as Butler’s. Butler’s features Douglas firs and white pines, along with pre-cut Canaan firs, with that variety available for cutting next year.

“It’s becoming an experience for people again,” Butler Van Horn said, adding that sales tend to rise after a snowfall, as it’s evocative of a traditional Christmas.

The growth of nearby Clarksburg also has added to Butler’s sales, and the orchard has reached out to that community with fliers about discounts and frequent Facebook and Twitter updates, she said.

Butler’s, which hopes to increase its Christmas tree acreage to 50 acres next year from 40 acres, has been selling trees since 1950, Butler Van Horn said.

Tree sales are up 20 percent over last year at King Farm in Clarksburg, said owner Sterling King. His 20-year-old farm offers five types of trees on 8 acres, including the popular Balsam fir and blue spruce.

New holiday strategies

Patuxent Nursery in Bowie has adopted a few new strategies in recent years to enhance sales.

The nursery offers Fraser and noble firs, which are considered at the upper end of the tree market, said manager Robert Brashears. A portion of Patuxent’s trees even find their way to the White House and the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., home of the vice president, he said.

Brashears predicted that sales will be up as much as 15 percent from last year. Patuxent trees sell for $65 to $250 each. The nursery sells about 900 trees annually.

“People want to have a little Christmas. They’re tired of being told they can’t spend money,” he said, adding that Patuxent has reduced some of its prices to encourage shoppers.

Patuxent also specializes in 30 varieties of poinsettias so that it doesn’t compete with the common type sold at major retailers, Brashears said.

The average American is expected to spend $18 on seasonal flowers and $47 on holiday decorations this year, the most in the seven years that the National Retail Federation has tracked such sales. Americans are on target to spend $6 billion on Christmas decorations, up 8 percent from last year.

Seasons Nursery in Gaithersburg is jumping into the heart of this renewed interest with the opening of its new Christmas shop this year. The shop offers items such as ornaments and tabletop decorations, but it plans to expand into pre-cut trees and wreaths next year, said greenhouse manager Cindy Hagerty.

The nursery stopped selling holiday plants eight years ago due to costs, she said.

“It’s a work in progress,” Hagerty said.

Potomac Garden Center in North Potomac and Urbana has seen success from its coupon program, said co-owner and buyer Janet Angell.

“People are ready to decorate again,” she said. “We also carry lower price-point ornaments and such than we used to. That might also be driving sales.”

Potomac Garden has been featuring its penguin-themed decorations, Department 56 miniature village collectibles and Byer’s Choice carolers, which represent a large portion of its holiday sales, Angell said. Some customers come from Virginia to buy these items, which are no longer commonly carried by department stores.

Modern decorating

For others, such as Interior Plantscapes in Laurel, the season also has been prosperous, bringing in new clients, said office administrator Cathy Miller.

Interior Plantscapes provides settings ranging from simple poinsettia arrangements indoors to entire tree and plant decorations throughout an establishment. The company handled the plant decorations at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport this year, Miller said.

“Everything’s been good,” she said, attributing some of Interior Plantscapes’ growth to its new sales representative.

Interior Plantscapes typically picks up clients that also will use the company for yearly and seasonal decorations.

While Ruppert has seen sales similar to last year’s, it has been providing more modern takes on holiday decorating, including steel-frame trees covered in fabric with lighting inside and baskets full of artificial plants that are changed periodically from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, Key said.

Not a banner year everywhere

Still, not all Maryland businesses are so seasonally sanguine.

Tanner’s Enchanted Forest anticipates sales on par with last year, said Lucretia Tanner, who co-owns the 135-acre farm with her husband, William. About 10 acres of the Brandywine farm is dedicated to Christmas trees.

One of the farm’s returning buyers is 90 years old, she said. The farm was visited by a Chinese delegation several years back, Tanner said.

But the 50-year-old farm has faced increasing competition from artificial trees that are looking more like live trees every year, Tanner said.

“This isn’t a major money-making operation. It’s a different kind of experience being outside and doing something with nature,” Tanner said.

R&K Trees in Boyds is phasing out its Christmas tree sales and expects to sell for five more years, said co-owner Judy Boswell. The Boswell family, which started the operation 25 years ago as to help fund its college expenses, also sells handmade wreaths.