Mike Gutzman was braced for sales to be soft after wildfires destroyed thousands of Sonoma County homes that might otherwise be warmed this time of year by the glow of a Christmas tree from his north Santa Rosa lot.
Instead, it appears fire-weary consumers are eager to turn the page on weeks of shared trauma and grief, and are turning to the joyful traditions of the winter holiday season for consolation.
As soon as Thanksgiving was over and done, fresh-cut tree lots began luring droves of people keen to find the perfect centerpiece for their Christmas celebration, several vendors said.
“We were very concerned about the loss of houses,” said 42-year veteran Gutzman, owner of Kringle’s Korner Christmas Trees at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts. “But we had the biggest weekend ever.”
Amid a much-publicized nationwide shortage of fresh-cut Christmas trees, strong opening sales at local specialty lots may simply reflect shrewd consumers’ desire to shop early while availability and selection are at their peak, though local vendors said they were having no problems obtaining stock.
A reduction in the number of stand-alone Christmas tree lots in Sonoma County also may have concentrated customer demand at those that remain. At least three lots are no longer in operation this year for reasons that aren’t related to the fires, including one at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, one in Cotati and another in Healdsburg.
But judging from comments and conversations with customers, some sales personnel said, many consumers — including some forced by fires to set up housekeeping someplace new — appeared grateful for a festive family outing to turn to after Thanksgiving, given the bleakness of recent times.
“Most people seemed to want to put (the fire) behind them,” Gutzman’s niece, Amy McCoy, said during a lull in business one recent morning. “There was one gentleman: just got a new job, a new place to live. He just wanted a tree.”
Sales at home improvement centers and stores with more generalized merchandise have yet to gain real steam, according to representatives. But they tend not to emphasize the experience as much as family-run operations, where there is often more focus on fun attractions, a high level of customer service and a wide range of products.
The bouncy house and artificial snow field — it’s actually cold! — at Crazy Rudolph’s Christmas Trees, now at Coddingtown, was filled with kids playing last weekend, lot manager Tim Kelly said. The coming weekend could be even busier now that December has begun, he said.
Marsha Gray, communications director for the national Christmas Tree Promotion Board, administered by the U.S. Agriculture Department, said those who tend to be choosy about yuletide trees should shop now just to make sure they can find what they want.
A representative for Sonoma County-based Pronzini Christmas Trees, which has fresh-cut lots in Petaluma, San Rafael and elsewhere, said high-elevation-grown Silvertip firs appear to be in short supply in some locations. Lindsey McAllister, a longtime employee, said Pronzini has been getting almost 500 calls a day, mostly from people seeking the open-branched trees. She’s got them.
But the nation’s fresh-cut Christmas tree growers — chief among them, those in Oregon, the main source for western states and the country’s top producer — should have no problem providing enough trees for everyone who wants one, Gray said.