As I stated in the last post, we made arrangements to meet with someone from the company and arrived at our lot. In our case, the tent and fencing was already in place and it took some maneuvering to get our rig into place, but with help Lee did a great job fitting us into the spot. The tent is quite large and the fence goes beyond the tent in the back with a little section for our rig. My biggest concern was our rig would be right on the main road, but this is definitely not the case, and for the other setups we have seen, they are not on the road either. This company has 15 locations in the San Antonio and surrounding areas, and many of the people who work for them come back year after year. We did need quite a bit of hose though, and thankfully Lee always carries extra. The water spigot was pretty far away, but the water pressure is still good despite the hose length and it is city water which is nice.
Saturday, we drove into San Antonio for training at the warehouse and it was clear this was a mature operation. The owners have been doing this for 30 years and own the tree farm in Oregon along with living here during the Holidays. After some initial chatting with folks, Lee and I were separated into two different groups. He went with the men to learn about the care and setup of the trees and I stayed with the women and learned about the paperwork aspect of the job. As a general rule I am not a huge fan of division of labor by sex, but in this particular case I kind of understood it. These trees can be as large as 16 feet and and can weigh 175 pounds. So, the division of labor seems to be based more on physical strength than aptitude. That being said, I had three returning managers in my training session and they talked about carrying trees. So although there may be an initial division of labor, it sounds like it’s all hands on deck when things get busy.
Our group jumped right in and started going through the detail. I received a huge, hard backed three ring binder and several other folders with Lot #12 specific information. We were encouraged to ask questions and the returning managers jumped in frequently to add more information, and to be honest in the beginning it was a little overwhelming. The main problem was I completely misunderstood what this was. My only experience with Christmas trees was buying them from small, corner lots when they were small. This company is NOT the same as those. We will be providing 4 types of trees and they are all hand selected by the owner. Every tree comes with a warranty to live through Christmas as long as they are cared for properly and since they are “high end” trees their care is important. One of the main things we learned was the timing of when they are fresh cut and watered and there is relatively small window of time when the tree can leave the lot and be put up and in water at the person’t house. We also sell wreaths, garland, custom made stands, preservatives, floor protective coverings, and watering spouts. Some of these items I had never seen before (I was not alone in that) and others were much more high tech than what I remember from the past.
Along with products we also sell services which include flocking (spraying the tree or wreaths with a paper pulp product that looks like snow), tree delivery, and tree setup. Along with the overview of these items, we covered in detail different types of coupons and gift certificates, the nightly 3-page sheet that I have to fill out, and cash/credit card accounting. We also spent a significant amount of time talking about hiring, scheduling, and managing the temporary employees. After 6 hours my head was full and I went home with my cash register to practice on and an arm full of documentation to read. I also took an additional 4 pages of notes that included best practices from the more experienced managers that were there. It was about as different an experience as one could be from the beet harvest. This company gives you the tools and guidelines to sell the trees, but also encourages independent thought and ideas. The atmosphere is very entrepreneurial and best practices and new ideas were all openly discussed and encouraged. I was very impressed by this, but in many ways this presents it’s own set of challenges.
I spent my career working for large corporations and have little experience in owning my own business. We are learning with Lee’s video and RV Tech business, but this is still not a strong area for me. This will definitely challenge me though, and I walked away thinking this would be good for me as I will get a chance to stretch those “muscles” a bit. Plus the pay structure is designed (flat rate with commission) to encourage out of the box thinking. With that much openness though there is also ambiguity and you should keep that in mind before considering one of these positions. If you are a person who likes a very specific set of job duties and regular daily routine, this may not be the job for you. We are managers in the truest sense and expected to deal with most issues autonomously. We were given mentors (the other tent in New Braunfels) and thankfully the smallest operation in the group. Actually, I was really glad about that. I like a challenge, but the complexity of the operation is intimidating enough that I was happy our tree sale volume may actually be half what the busier lots is. Plus with a low set of expectations regarding sales, it’s much easier to succeed than competing with a very successful previous year.
Most importantly I liked the people. Everyone was very nice, and genuinely said “Call me if you need anything.” We were handed a list of everyone’s phone numbers and so far folks have made themselves available to answer questions. That may change once we get busier, but my plan is to learn everything I can in advance. The cash register has a training mode, and there is lots of documentation to dig into that will keep me busy. So what’s next? Our trailer was delivered Sunday and a team of people will be coming sometime this week to help set everything up. I also have several other business items that were put on hold during the beet harvest that need to be taken care of. Cori and Greg hit town on Thursday and if it ever quits raining we would like to find time to do a little exploring. There’s definitely plenty to do, and the main trick has been not letting it overwhelm us, but to try and tackle things in some sort of systemic way. I feel like we made good progress on that today, so I am taking a little break and writing this post. Now I need to get back to my to do list.
Oh and here’s a few potential challenges I learned about selling Christmas trees. I thought were interesting.
- The trees are roughly one year older than their height. So a 7 foot tree was planted 8 years ago. That makes the current supply of trees dependent on what the growers projected in the past. It’s interesting, because the availability of trees does change from year to year and is somewhat cyclical.
- Fire ants are a problem here. They can get into the trees and that’s not good. I have spent some time, treating every ant hill I can find, but there are lots of them. Hopefully the treatment works and this is a non issue.
- Feral cats can be a problem. We have two that regularly hang out at night in the car wash next to us and in the past people have had them climb into trees or even spray on them. The key is to make sure all trees are inside the tent at night. Flocking is done in the open air, so these will need to be moved inside before we close.
- The whole Happy Holidays versus Merry Christmas is still a thing when selling trees. When I was in a corporate environment working with people of many different faiths and cultures I was always careful to tell people to enjoy their holidays, but I think if they are buying a Christmas tree a “Merry Christmas” should come along with it. Plus here in Texas the sentiment is firmly in the camp of not “taking Christ out of Christmas” and you can offend people if you say Happy Holidays instead. I have always felt the whole argument was silly, personally, but I will be extra careful to say Merry Christmas in greetings.
- If the local power goes out you could find yourself doing things by hand. Since we have solar and a generator, we could run an extension cord from our rig and keep going. That may seem obvious, but I am glad they said it because I may not have thought of that in the heat of the moment.
- It’s super important to immediately tag and move a tree that is being placed on hold. If the tree isn’t tagged you could forget which one. Not cool. If it isn’t moved to the back, all of sudden people want to buy it and that could become an issue. I get it as the kids and I spent way too much time trying to find the “perfect” tree. To find it and then lose it would have been very upsetting.
- Service animals can be a challenge. By law you are not allowed to ask people about their dogs, so people bring them into the lot with expected results. Dogs and trees often equals peeing. Some of these trees are very expensive and you can’t easily get the urine smell out of the tree. Again, hopefully this is a non-issue, but will have to see how it goes. If people carry their dogs that solves the problem, but not everyone is willing to do that. (Technically, you are only allowed to ask two things of a person with a service dog. 1) Is it a service dog? and 2) What task or work has it been trained to perform. That’s it. Nothing else. Also, interestingly, a business has the right to charge the customer for an item if it is damaged by the animal. So this is a non-issue. – Lee)
- Not surprisingly constant cell phone usage is a problem with the younger work force. I am not sure there is any perfect solution for this one, but it should be addressed in the interview process. (I am 100% certain of the solution. No cell phone use while they’re on the clock. This is part time, seasonal work, and if they can’t go two or three hours without access to their phone, they can work somewhere else. I’m paying them for their time. All of it. – Lee)
- We don’t offer colored flocking, but I guess people can put food coloring in a spray bottle and lightly mist the flocking to make colors. You can’t get deep colors that way, but I am told the pastels come out nicely. (We do offer glitter on the flocking. It’s my understanding that flocking is messy operation, so I’m pretty sure I’m going to look like the ugliest stripper in the San Antonio area. – Lee)
- Speaking of flocking, people like to touch it, and since it is paper it can get ruined that way. So we are going to have a small demo, flocked tree for people and kids to touch and Do Not Touch signs for the others. Since I didn’t know touching the flocking damaged it, I understand why it’s necessary, but I wish there was a friendlier way to say it than Do Not Touch. Maybe I will come up with something. (How about “Touching This Stuff Ruins It. Why Do You Hate Christmas?” ? – Lee)
That’s some of the more generic things I learned, and since none of it is specific to their process, I felt comfortable sharing it. I think the overwhelming message here is “Who knew selling Christmas Trees was this complicated?”
Camper Chronicles is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, a program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com. We very much appreciate any purchase you make via our website links. There is no additional cost to you and helps support our blog. Thank you. Search Amazon.com here