Brace for Europe's Christmas tree 'Black Friday'

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Brace for Europe's Christmas tree 'Black Friday'
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This weekend is the one Europe's Christmas tree industry has been working so hard for all year as families across Europe head out to buy their tree for the festive season.

Christmas tree producers like Andrew Ingram in the U.K. told CNBC that it was "hellishly busy at the moment" as he, like other growers, focused on delivering their trees to the wider wholesale market and the public in the run-up to Christmas.

"It's hellishly busy and this coming weekend we expect it to be exceedingly so," Ingram told CNBC. His family business in Oxfordshire sells around 7,000 trees a year direct to consumers and a further 7,000 to wholesalers such as garden centers and farm shops. His larger trees will also be sold to London hotels, university colleges in Oxford and will end up gracing local town centers.

"We've focused on getting our wholesale trees and now we're focused on our retail trees. We're open seven days a week at the moment and we won't be able to take a rest until Christmas Eve," he said. "There are much bigger growers than us in the U.K. selling around 250,000 trees a year but I reckon my farm, and around 15 other sites, will do around 15,000 trees each a year."

Ingram is one grower among the 350 members (accounting for 75 percent of all U.K. growers) of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association (BCTGA). In the U.K. alone, eight million trees are sold annually, making the market worth £68 million ($111 million) every year, according to the BCTGA.

Christmas tree production can be lucrative for a hard-working grower, but they have to make the most of a confined trading period of just four or five weeks from late November to Christmas Eve.

For growers like Ingram, it made sense to become a retailer as well as wholesaler. "We used to produce around 50,000 trees a year but cut that back around ten years ago - really because the margins for retail trees are so much better than for wholesale - I can make £10 to £12 pounds more for a retail tree than a wholesale one."

"O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree"

The actual use of Christmas trees spread from Germany in the 17th-century and the country remains Europe's largest producer of trees, growing 22 million of them a year. Other countries dominating the market are Denmark, Austria, France, Belgium and the U.K., which is one of the smaller producers.

Despite Germany's largescale production, Denmark is by far the biggest exporter of trees, producing 13 million trees and exporting 10.5 million of them a year.

This made the country's Christmas tree export market worth around 1.6 billion Danish krone ($290 million) a year, Claus Jerram Christensen, the current Danish president of the Christmas Tree Grower Council of Europe (CTGCE) told CNBC.

Christensen estimated that Europe produces and sells 80 million trees in total a year. If each tree retailed at 30 euros each ($40), he added, that would make the Christmas tree production industry worth 2.4 billion euros ($3.2 billion) a year.

Christmas tree production is not without its "pests" and pitfalls. With the average production cycle of a tree from seedling to felling around 8 to 12 years, the success of a crop is heavily dependent on growing conditions and their effect on quality and, eventually, prices.

(Read more: The ChristmasTree indicator: Myth or magic?)

"In good times, more farmers tend to plant Christmas trees, and in times with poor prices, the opposite is the case, " the CTGCE's Christensen said. "But since the production period is 8-10 years, this fluctuation comes with a delay of eight-10 years. For now, Danish production is slightly increasing as a result of good prices in the beginning of this century."

For his part, U.K. farms like Ingram's has around 250,000 trees growing at the moment and he said he had to plant around 15,000 trees a year to keep the production cycle going. With the pressure on to keep the production cycle going, it's no easy life for a grower. Ingram said he works throughout the year to ensure his business survives.

"There's this general perception among the public that you plant a tree and then five or six year later a perfect tree has grown but it's not as easy at that at all."

Fake plastic trees

With their livelihoods dependent on the quality of their trees, production is not taken lightly in Europe. The CTGCE estimates that there are 10,000 European tree growers and many of these sign up to a certification system that guarantees certain standards regarding the color, size and quality of trees.

However, with some of the "evergreens" not living up to their name by dropping their needles, more and more consumers are choosing plastic trees that can be re-used year after year.

In the U.K. and Ireland in particular, plastic trees have a large market share whereas in Nordic countries and Germany, the share is lower, the CTGCE's Christensen noted. "On the one hand, the 'back to nature' movement ensures the position of an authentic natural tree, but, on the other hand, the demographic development with more people living alone and the increasing demand for convenience favors the plastic tree (or no tree) to some extent."

While natural Christmas trees require yearly production and replanting, transport and their disposal once used, the plastic Christmas tree, which mainly comes from China, requires a one-off export to Europe and can be re-used, despite taking a toll on fossil fuels in the process.

(Read more: Christmas Tree growers not happy)

Growers are also keen to point out that during a growing period of 10 years, one hectare of trees produces up to 105 tonnes of oxygen. As well as their environmental credentials, the CTGCE's Christensen believed the natural charm of the natural tree would maintain their popularity for years to come.

"Of course, producers of natural trees would prefer that there were no plastic trees but in some ways they have an advantage - such as for shop displays that have to last from late October to Late December. We follow the developments in the market share for plastic trees -- but we are not afraid of them - after all, the natural ones possess so many more advantages," he said.

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt

Follow us on Twitter: @CNBCWorld



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