The Best Time to Buy Your Christmas Tree in 2021

And why you should expect both artificial and real trees to cost more

Fake Christmas trees in a store to purchase Photo: iStock

It might seem like a holiday flora faux-pas to buy a Christmas tree before we’ve even picked out our Halloween pumpkins—because how many months of Christmas can a person handle, really? But if you’re planning to buy an artificial tree for this Christmas, you might want to get a head start: Experts say that pandemic-related supply chain disruptions will send prices for artificial trees soaring, making an already expensive holiday even pricier.

Prices for artificial Christmas trees could be as much as 26 percent higher than last year in some markets, according to Jami Warner, the executive director of the American Christmas Tree Association, a trade group that represents the artificial Christmas tree industry. The average artificial Christmas tree cost $104 in 2019, according to the association; this year, that same tree could cost about $131.

Some retailers project modest, but still sizable, increases. “We expect to raise prices for artificial Christmas trees by around 15 percent,” due to increased shipping costs, says Brian Chee, the director of portfolio business at Treetopia, a Christmas tree retailer. To soften the financial blow, Chee recommends buying early, when prices tend to be lower. 

MORE on CHRISTMAS TREES

While Warner says the cost of shipping containers has quadrupled compared to last season, experts say a constellation of factors is behind the price hikes.

For example, most artificial Christmas trees are made in China, but labor shortages and weather events as far away as Texas this year took a toll on supply: According to ​​S&P Global Platts, an analytics company focused on energy and commodities, Texas plants that manufacture the PVC used to make many artificial trees saw capacity reduced by as much as 57 percent. These and other global supply chain disruptions are why artificial Christmas trees will cost significantly more this year.

So, what can you do about it?

Consider Buying a Real Tree This Christmas

If you were planning to buy an artificial tree this Christmas, you might want to hold off a year or two until the global supply chain has steadied. In the meantime, consider buying a real tree—which, after all, will smell delightful and won’t have to be stored after the holiday.

Most real Christmas trees sold to American consumers are grown domestically and aren’t subject to the same international shipping delays plaguing the artificial tree supply. Prices of real trees are likely to be higher this year too, but only slightly. “Real Christmas trees cost much less than artificial Christmas trees, and their prices are not likely to rise by more than 5 percent,” says Venky Shankar, the director of research at the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School. This cost increase is largely due to a labor shortage in the trucking industry. The median cost of a real Christmas tree in the United States in 2020 was $81.

How to Shop and Care for a Real Tree

Real trees require a bit more care than artificial ones. When shopping for a Christmas tree in person, snap a branch. If it snaps easily, or if the needles fall off easily when you run a hand through them, move on to another tree. 

Ask when the tree was cut down. If more than 6 hours pass between the time a tree was felled and when you’ll be setting it up, cut a half-inch off the bottom so that the tree can drink as much water as possible when you put it in the stand. “Do not let it go dry,” says Tim O’Connor, the executive director of the Real Christmas Tree Association, a trade organization that represents farms and businesses that sell real Christmas trees.

“A tree will use a lot of water the first week, so it is critical to keep the water level above the trunk end 100 percent of the time.” If you let the tree go too long without water, the bottom will seal with sap and will no longer take any water unless you cut another inch off the bottom, he says. Real trees can last for several weeks when properly cared for. O’Connor recommends waiting until right around Thanksgiving to buy a real tree.

Keeping the room cool will help ensure that your tree doesn’t dry out, so turn off any nearby radiators or close the grates on neighboring heating vents. The same goes for sunlight, which can warm up and dry out the tree. Put it in a shadier corner of the room, away from windows, to keep the needles green and bright.

Alternatives to New Artificial Trees

If you have your heart set on an artificial tree this holiday season, consider buying one secondhand, such as at a local thrift store, Facebook Marketplace, or eBay. Just remember that a used Christmas tree can come with certain risks.

“If you are in the market for a second-hand tree, we recommend keeping safety and energy savings in mind as there have been some innovations, in lighting, especially,” Warner says. To reduce risk, look for a pre-lit tree with a safety symbol from UL, a nonprofit safety organization that evaluates the safety of artificial Christmas trees, among other products.

A metal tree is another artificial option. “There is a market for the very hard-to-find retro aluminum trees that were popular in the 1960s,” Warner says. An aluminum tree won’t necessarily save you money, but it certainly makes a fun, unique statement. A new metal tree may be cheaper than a vintage option, although they will likely also cost more than in previous years, because of a global aluminum shortage.

Then again, who says you have to use a traditionally shaped tree? “Get creative. Maybe a Christmas cactus would be fun,” says Steven Carnovale, an assistant professor of supply chain management at the Saunders College of Business at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Whatever You Do, Shop Early for Your Christmas Tree

Most years, the cheapest time to buy a tree—real or artificial—is in the last few days before Christmas, when suppliers are trying to offload inventory that will pretty much be useless on December 26. But because of widespread supply shortages, most experts recommend purchasing a tree earlier than you typically would, regardless of whether you opt for real or plastic.

“Consumers should buy as early as possible and be willing to wait longer to receive their items,” says Rudi Leuschner, an associate professor of supply chain management at Rutgers Business School. 

Chee at Treetopia advises consumers to not only get their trees early, but other holiday items and gifts, too. “We do expect to see this [pricing] trend impact across the retail industry, not just with artificial Christmas trees and holiday décor,” he says. “Once you see the tree you like in stock, don’t wait to purchase, as it might not be restocked until next year.” Buying early, Chee says, will help ensure that you can get the tree at a lower price.

Most national retail chains that sell Christmas trees, such as Ace Hardware and Target, will put up their holiday displays in the week or so after Halloween. If you’re shopping for an artificial Christmas tree online, sites like Balsam Hill and Treetopia report that they have well-stocked inventories, but supplies are sure to dwindle as the season goes on. So, if you want an artificial tree to put the gifts under this year, the time to start shopping is now.