Selling Christmas trees in the time of COVID
by Courtney Llewellyn
The time is fast approaching when happy families will be participating in a ritual that often kicks off the holiday season – visiting a Christmas tree farm to pick out their tree for December. But what will that ritual entail this year?
That’s what Elizabeth Lamb, senior Extension associate at Cornell University, discussed during a recent interactive online presentation. The biggest goals, obviously, are keeping farmers, their employees and their customers safe. The good news is there is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted on plants or plant products.
“You want to encourage customers to come to your business but at the same time reduce your liability if someone gets sick at your operation,” Lamb said. The key is to write everything down and have a plan in place. Having a written safety plan is security for growers.
But what information do farmers follow? It depends on the business model (U-cut versus agritourism). You have to adapt the guidance based on your situation, because everyone is different. Although the information from Cornell is New York-specific, much of it can be applied to all operations. For U-cut operations, check out https://tinyurl.com/y4h86xqb; for agritourism, visit https://tinyurl.com/y2csdvqo.
The National Christmas Tree Association also offers more specific advice for the industry at https://tinyurl.com/y2be3uok.
Lamb said the basic principles still need to be followed: No matter what situation you’re looking at, you need to maintain physical distance between customers (think about space for groups and not just individuals); you need to reduce the spread (enforce mask wearing where necessary, sanitize surfaces and provide hand sanitizer where needed – although in winter, you may not need as much outside due to people having their hands covered by gloves and mittens) and make sure you communicate clearly and often.
Communication with employees is crucial. They need to know about testing procedures and what will happen if they can’t come to work. They can also communicate to you where there are bottlenecks in customer flow and if you need to change where employees are positioned.
In communicating with the public, social media and real time communication become essential. Let people know what you’re doing to keep customers safe, when you are busiest, if you’re at capacity, if you have a reservation system and if you have a curbside pick-up option. On site, “Put up more signage than you think is necessary,” Lamb suggested. “And have fun with it. Make it a little different and people will tend to notice it.”
Lamb also suggested growers look around the internet to see what other farms are doing. A prime example she shared came from Krueger’s Christmas Trees in Lake Elmo, MN, which has a comprehensive plan for customers to peruse on their website (kruegerschristmastrees.com/covid-19-preparedness-plan).
Jill Poremba of Darling’s Tree Farm in Clifton Springs, NY, shared that they sent a survey to their customers in late September to see if they’d be interested in curbside pick-up or pre-cut trees. They found people tended to want the same experience they’d had in the past. “It’s funny,” she said. “We are more worried about the safety than they are.”
When it comes to selling procedures, Lamb reminded growers again that their goal is to maintain physical distance. That may mean implementing an order and pick-up system, scheduling arrival times, having customers pay in advance, online or upon entry and putting up clear barriers at checkout.
“Buildings have capacities. Outside space is tough to figure out,” Lamb noted. There are ways to calculate your maximum capacity – and then your state-approved capacity for health measures – based on acreage. But do Christmas tree farms figure that number out by rows? By the number of parking spaces? Again, it’s about adapting to your location.
“Think about what’s best for your operation and do the best you can,” Lamb said.