Amazon this year launched a new service to deliver full-sized, fresh Christmas trees to customers’ homes, betting that lots of people will prefer convenience over experience. The mega-etailer has shown time and time again that it can change consumer buying habits and longtime traditions, and that is making purveyors of fresh Christmas trees around Houston nervous.
Devine said he was flabbergasted that Amazon would try to break into the business. Shortly after Amazon began selling trees, Devine said, he burned his Amazon Prime card and swore to never buy anything from the online retailer again.
“Amazon has just gone too far with this, coming after our livelihood,” Devine said. “They’re going to hurt small, independent nurseries like us. We rely a lot on tree sales.”
Amazon isn’t the first retailer to ship Christmas trees direct to consumers. Specialty retailers, such as Williams-Sonoma and Hammacher Schlemmer, have delivered fresh Christmas trees for years, while Home Depot, which sells 2.5 million Christmas trees a year, started shipping trees in 2014. Third-party retailers have sold Christmas trees through Amazon.com for some time.
But Amazon’s direct entry into the market raises the threat to Christmas tree lots to a new level. Over the years, Amazon’s relentless drive into new markets has wiped out book stores, sellers of toys and electronics and long list of other retailers. When Amazon bought Whole Foods last year, the $13.7 billion acquisition sent a shock wave throughout the grocery industry, ushering in a new era of e-commerce.
Today, most major grocers in Houston offer online ordering, curbside pickup and home delivery of groceries. H-E-B, Kroger and Walmart are investing heavily in new technologies to compete with Amazon.
Tree farms, where Houstonians can cut down their own trees, said they’re not that worried about Amazon. Many farms host activities such as photo shoots with Santa and Christmas light shows, which Amazon can’t match online.
Larry and Mary Emerson have sold Christmas trees at Dewberry Farms since 2009. The husband-and-wife owners have planted nearly 17,000 Cypress and Blue Ice trees on some 20 acres on their farm in Brookshire, just 10 miles from a new 1-million-square-foot distribution facility where Amazon’s trees will be shipped.
The Emersons sell between 2,000 and 2,500 Christmas trees a year, ranging in price from $40 to $300. Tree sales are down a little from last year, but the farm is still doing well, Emerson said, declining to give specifics. Dewberry Farms attracts as many as 100,000 visitors a year to its fall pumpkin patch, Christmas tree farm and attractions, like big slides, a carousel and petting zoo.
“Our customers, they’re not just looking for trees,” Mary Emerson said. “They’re looking for tradition.”
I’m the wrong person to ask about this. I grew up with an artificial tree, and we buy our tree at Lowe’s every year. I figure when the kids are grown, we’ll just get something smaller. If we wind up getting that from Amazon, it won’t be a net loss for the tree farmers, since we were never their customers to begin with. Does tradition matter, and if so how much? I will note that there are still some independent bookstores out there, and they do the sort of in-person amenities that the tree farmers do to stay in business, so there’s at least some hope.