It was a cold day in December 1974 when George Nash hopped in his red Chevy and broke into the Christmas tree industry.
Young and daring, Mr. Nash drove a load of evergreens on his flatbed truck from Vermont to New York City. Propped on the corner of 86th Street and Broadway, he and his partners quickly sold hundreds of them for about $30 each.
But it’s not 1974 anymore, and that old Grinch called economics has made trees pricier for New Yorkers this holiday season. Last year, Mr. Nash sold seven- to eight-foot Fraser firs, the most popular variety, at an average price of $95. They’re going for about $110 this December.
A nationwide shortage of Christmas trees, experts say, is pushing prices to record highs, as vendors scramble to secure enough evergreens and industry experts warn holiday shoppers to buy early before trees run out. A decade ago, amid the Great Recession, growers from Oregon to North Carolina planted fewer Christmas trees; in turn, there are fewer full-grown trees this year.
Higher overhead and competition from big box stores are also threatening sidewalk vendors’ margins. And a cutthroat bidding process for the rights to sell trees in New York parks has some sellers paying the city more than $25,000 in fees every December. As they continue to increase their tree prices, they wonder how much more New Yorkers can bear.
Threatened by all of this is the very survival of Christmas tree sidewalk stands, a tradition that since 1851 has transformed streets into miniature coniferous forests.
Mr. Nash, now 69, has become a fixture of the Manhattan Christmas tale, returning every winter to sell trees.
During the year, Mr. Nash and his wife, Jane Waterman, run a 40-acre farm of poultry and swine in Wolcott, Vt. But they say their real joy comes in December when they move to New York and morph into Christmas tree sellers. They operate 18 tree stands in Manhattan, most of them in Harlem, and employ dozens of people.
Their workers, an eclectic group of out-of-state organic farmers and stonemasons, are put up in apartments. Software tracks the distribution of 20,000 Fraser and Douglas firs trucked in from Canada and Pennsylvania. Four employees replenish the locations overnight. They even adjust their prices according to the neighborhoods.
“Our high-end locations are subsidizing all our cheaper locations in the barrio, where we need to sell our trees for $35 to people who really don’t have much more than that,” Mr. Nash said.
This year, Fraser firs from the Beauce region in Canada cost the couple an extra $2 each. Freight was an extra $1 per tree, too. Those higher costs trickled down to shoppers, Mr. Nash said. Bigger trees, those 10 to 14 feet tall, cost the couple an additional $12 each, and can sell for as much as $350.
In fact, prices have been climbing for a while, according to the National Christmas Tree Association, a trade group. The average shopper spent $36.50 on a Christmas tree in 2008; they spent $74.70 in 2016.
“We’ll probably have tighter, lower margins this year,” Ms. Waterman said. “We have to at least triple what we bought the tree for or we don’t make any money.”
Every December, hundreds of vendors flock from as far as Quebec to set up Christmas tree stands on New York sidewalks. The main draw? They don’t need a permit.
A rule adopted by City Council in 1938 allows vendors to sell and display Christmas trees on a sidewalk in December as long as they have the permission of owners of buildings fronting the sidewalk and keep a corridor open for pedestrians. The sellers often negotiate a fee with adjacent storefronts to gain their permission, which can create turf wars among merchants jockeying for the best spots.
The parks department also auctions the rights to sell at some of the city’s most coveted locations. Vendors can bid on five-year contracts for one of 18 sites in parks or playgrounds.
The most sought-after spots in high-end neighborhoods have created notorious price wars among vendors plotting to outbid one another. The cutthroat competition has increased rents at some parks by as much as 500 percent in eight years, city records show.
These higher rents have trickled down to consumers, while squeezing the margins of vendors there.
SoHo Square went for $56,005 in 2016. The vendor selling trees at Washington Market Park in TriBeCa paid the city $8,963 in 2009; this year’s vendor paid $31,400.
“We’re an endangered species,” said Scott Lechner, who manages the stand in Washington Market Park and four other parks auctioned by the city. “The condor might fly this year, but I just don’t know about the next.”
Mr. Lechner says he sells “a small forest” every year, but is trying to keep up with his “skyrocketing” rents as other vendors bid against him. His locations in trendy neighborhoods allow him to sell five- to six-foot trees at $95 to $135. Even so, he said he was invested in better marketing in the hopes of selling more trees and avoiding price increases.
“Our customers already pay enough for Christmas trees,” Mr. Lechner said.
Sidewalk vendors are also competing with big box stores and supermarkets. The chains, the vendors said, could buy in bulk from growers and sell trees for less. In November, Whole Foods across the city sold seven- to eight-foot Fraser firs at a 40 percent discount, for $34.99.
“We can’t compete with that,” said Heather Neville, a vendor who runs four locations in Lower Manhattan. “We make sure people remember the experience. When you buy a tree from a tree stand, it’s a different type of experience.”
Ms. Neville, known for obtaining Korean and Nordman firs, considered the rarest of Christmas trees, said she scrambled to find her supply this year. She ended up paying 10 percent more for trees and increased her prices by 10 to 16 percent. Shipping costs from Canada were up 40 percent. The minimum wage in New York City increased by $1.
“Can’t they leave anything for the little guys?” she said.