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Trying to Make Firs Fly : With Buying Down, Christmas Tree Dealers Chop Prices to Get Late Sales

December 25, 1991|KEVIN E. CULLINANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Christmas Eve, Todd Muilenburg, manager of one of the city's largest Christmas tree lots, had cut his prices in half as he tried to peddle 250 unsold evergreens, but customers were still hard to find.

Although tree dealers usually cut prices just before Christmas most years, "we're doing big-time bargaining this year," said Muilenburg, supervising sales at United Mellon Distributors' tree lot east of downtown Los Angeles.

Pointing to the empty lots that used to house his competitors, he said, "Those guys over there sold their trees for 10 bucks each, because they wanted to get out of here early. People are looking for bargains this year, and we're lowering our prices as much as we can."

A slump in the Christmas tree business prompted some Southern California dealers to pack up early, leaving their inventory up for grabs. But Muilenburg and a few other retailers were still peddling trees late Christmas Eve.

"It's Christmastime," said William Miller, president of Mission Hills-based Miller & Sons, a tree retailer and wholesaler. "Everybody thinks there's a need for a Christmas tree. But it looks like this year many people forgot."

Miller said his wholesaling operation was down about 10% from a year ago, and his retailing operation flat. Other sellers, he added, were not as fortunate.

"I've heard from people we sell to that sales are down as much as 50% to 60%," he said. "There has been a tremendous swing to less expensive trees from more expensive trees. And people have been buying smaller trees too."

Although Miller said the Christmas tree business has been one of the industries least affected by the sluggish economy, tree sales took a nose-dive this year compared to a few years ago.

"Last year, everyone (in tree sales) felt the recession a bit, and they braced themselves for what hit this year, which is less sales," Miller said. "They braced themselves for something that turned out to be the very worst."

Meanwhile, in other parts of the United States, tree sales were expected to hold even with last year and in some instances edge up slightly, continuing a slow growth pattern, said Joan Geiger, a spokeswoman for the Milwaukee-based National Christmas Tree Assn.

Geiger said this year she expects national sales to reach 36.5 million, up from 35.4 million a year ago. She attributed the growth to a larger population, a trend away from artificial trees and people buying more than one tree for their homes.

"A lot of people have told me that because of the recession, they will continue to put up a tree, but that they might cut down on gifts this year," she said.

Carrie Holden was one of those snapping up eleventh-hour bargains. Holden bought a 3-foot-tall pine at 32nd Street Market, near the University of Southern California campus, for $3--after the price was lowered from $7.99.

"It's big enough for my 1-year-old son," she said. "When I finish decorating it, it won't look so small."

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