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Christmas trees and holiday lights selling out as Americans stick close to home

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The holiday break is starting sooner than expected for the owners of Papa Noel Christmas Trees in Austin, Texas, a family-run operation that typically runs out of trees just before December 25. This year is different: Papa Noel called the season a wrap this past weekend after it ran out of trees amid unusually strong consumer demand.

"I've been retailing Christmas trees in central Texas for 40 years now, and in all that time I've never ever seen anything close to what it's been this year — to be completely sold out as we are down to the last branch, and still have people hoping and waiting, it's heartbreaking for us," owner Jimmy Coan told CBS MoneyWatch

As it takes about 10 years for Christmas trees to mature, growers would have been hard-pressed to anticipate the country's appetite for trees and other holiday traditions in 2020. With supplies limited and demand high, other tree sellers around the U.S. are also running low or have sold out.

"We opened the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and immediately people were buying off the back of the truck," Coan recalled. The company's four tree lots in Austin and San Antonio had all sold out by December 7, with Papa Noel scrambling to keep up by sending a crew out to to the field to cut one late load of 700 firs.

Jerry Coan of Papa Noel Christmas Trees in Austin, Texas. Papa Noel Christmas Trees

"Until this year we could figure out when demand would hit and have supply," said the 75-year-old Coan, who has retired from tree farming but continues to run the family's retail operation with his son.

In Coan's experience, the only year that comes close to this one was 2001, "right after 9/11, when everyone was so thirsting for a nostalgic time. And now with the COVID nightmare, everyone is so ready for some semblance of normalcy." 

At Ward's Nursery & Garden Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, trees run anywhere from $50 to $350, but supplies have dwindled to less than 100. "We do have a few potted trees still left if somebody really, really wants to decorate something," said Jodi Cahillane, the retailer's head of customer service. 

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Ward's is also running low on wreaths, garlands and other holiday decorations. 

"We've had a huge run on holiday lights — we bought more and have less," Cahillane said, noting that the store's gardening supplies also sold briskly earlier this year as people who were sticking close to home due to the coronavirus pandemic planted vegetables.

The focus on holiday decorations comes as Americans search for safe things and as the virus continues to spread, leading states and cities to re-impose restrictions. Americans this fall flocked to apple orchards and pumpkin farms, and when those activities waned, "Our members started getting flooded with requests by consumers wanting to know 'when will you be open'," said Tim O'Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association. 

Customers shop for Christmas trees at a Home Depot store on Black Friday in Hawthorne, California, on November 27, 2020.  PATRICK T. FALLON / Getty Images

Most tree sellers opted to open a week early, rather than on the Friday after Thanksgiving, as has become custom, said O'Connor, who noted that trees are still available to consumers willing to drive a little farther. 

"On November 1, everyone's house changed into Christmas," said Nathan Gordon, president of Christmas Central, which sells lights and holiday decorations online and at five locations in and around Buffalo, N.Y. "Our family has had a store for 50 years, and we've never seen demand like this."

The company's revenues have doubled from last year, he noted.

"This year has been unprecedented in the demand for all seasonal goods — Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas — anything for the home, inside or outside, you name it," Gordon said. "It really started in the second week of March when the country started shutting down. We sold out of even our Easter lighting by the third week of March."

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