First Time Selling Christmas Trees – First Weekend Complete

Saturday things seemed to be turning around, but Sunday it became very clear that that was not the case.  Just so you don’t think I am being overly dramatic here, let me walk you through the day.  We didn’t open until 11am and we had a delivery scheduled at 2pm.  I scheduled two employees in at 11am, a brand new one at 1:30, and the fourth at 2pm.  Since  our team was exhausted at closing time the night before, we had several “holes” on the floor to fill, and we set the first two people working on that as soon as they came in.  This process is taking a tree that is already standing up, but not untwined, moving it to the appropriate hole (often with a dolly) and then cutting off the twine and putting the pre made tag on it. Not that difficult when nothing else is going on.  We started getting customers right at 11am though, and once again we had steady traffic throughout the day.  That usually is  2-3 groups looking at trees (often with 2-4 small children) so we need to be very careful how we are moving trees around them.  We also have to stop the moving tree process to help take their selected tree out to their car.  It’s extremely difficult (with the size and experience of the staff we have) to stay ahead of that curve.  Once you fall behind you can only wait for a lull to get caught up.

It takes anywhere from 5-20 minutes to get a tree out to a car because of a variety of factors.  Does it need netted?  Extra time, and requires two people. Are we putting a new stand on?  Extra time.  Does the customer need bottom branches trimmed?  Lots of extra time.  These are all services we offer, and we never know until the time of sale what the customer would like. There is also a huge variation in time based on what kind of vehicle they are driving.  Generally trees going in a pickup are super easy, just load it in the back. But if they have a car the tree needs to be tied on, and it can take much longer. If they have a tall SUV, we need to take a ladder out and that could actually take three people depending on the size of the tree.  While this is being completed the hole stands empty, which is totally fine, unless you sell 5-7 trees in a row like that and then you are looking at 5-7 holes.  The third person can fill solo with some of the smaller trees, but we definitely trend towards the 8 and 9 footers which require two people.

If we sell a 10′ or larger tree everything has to stop while we focus on that.  They are never netted, but require 3-4 people to lower them onto the mule (A custom built type of dolly) and then extra time to place them in the truck.  We have put 10′ trees in a 5′ truck bed successfully, but it requires some careful placement. Generally we try to sell these with our stands on them, but if the folks absolutely don’t want them, we need to remove the bolts holding the commercial stands in place. Plus I need to make sure anyone with small children stays clear of the center of the tent in case the tree would fall or roll.  It’s never happened, but we don’t take safety risks.  Those trees take at least 20 minutes and sometimes Murphy’s Law says those sales always come in the middle of a rush.  Once we take care of the big tree, and the 4-5 smaller trees that have stacked up by then, we now have several holes to fill, and a very tired staff.  There are people who can do this type of physical labor for hours on end with minimal breaks, but none of them have applied here.  Trust me, I would have hired them.  I hear they exist though, and apparently this is what we need to solve our problem.

Anyway, we were holding our own until 2pm and then the truck came in.  It had (25) 6′ Nobles, (3) 8′ Nobles; (15) 9′ Nobles/Nordmann’s; (4) 10′ Nobles/Nordmann’s; and (2) 11′ Nordman’s.  I also received 10 more wreaths.  Greg came with the delivery and by this time I had 2 experienced guys and a trainee.  I am going to be perfectly blunt here, the next 4 hours were a complete shit show. We had a steady stream of customers from 2-5 and between servicing those customers we could only unload the truck and then get (3) 11 footers and (2) 10 footers raised.  None of the smaller trees were processed because we needed the big ones out first to make room in the processing area to work on the others. We also sold 3 of the big trees within an hour of when they were placed, and since one was immediate processing everyone had to stop to get it out the door. This left me with very few Nobles on the right side of the tent and we lost some customers because they could see them laying on the tarp, but not being processed.  Greg had to leave at 5pm and then we had to fill holes on the Nordmann/Douglass side, because many folks did buy those trees since that side was pretty full.  By the time all this was done around 6pm we only had 4 trees left in back stock, and still had all the Nobles waiting to be processed.  Oh, and did I mention that the new guy I brought in, who seemed so promising, within two hours very politely said he didn’t think this was for him because he would rather play music downtown for tips?  Yesterday he told me he was a starving artist who desperately needed the money and was not afraid of hard work, and after 2 hours apparently decided he was OK with “starving.”  At least he was polite about it.

One of our guys stayed 2 hours after his shift, but then he just couldn’t go any longer, so after calling every person I finally found someone to come in.  This guy is pretty slow, but at least it was a body, and we still had 2 people from 6pm- 9pm.  At this point I had to take a minute.  I gave Lee the register keys, went and ate what was left of the leftover turkey, and then called Cori and completely unloaded on her.  She was nice enough to listen and at least that released enough steam that I was able to continue.  Plus, right after that call I received a call from a lot 20 minutes away who said he had 11 experienced staff and had two good guys he couldn’t give enough hours to. Could I use a couple? Uh, yeah! It’s not a perfect solution.  They have to work together, because only one drives and they have to work at least 5 hours to make the drive itself worth it. He was sending them over 11-4pm tomorrow to see if they were a good fit and they could help us process the remaining 24 large trees laying on the tarp.

Simultaneously Lee was getting things under control in the tent.  The pace had slowed back down to only 1-2 families in the tent at a time and Lee was working with the two guys to process the smallest 6′ Nobles.  This was actually brilliant as it quickly filled the right side of the tent and these are small enough and light enough that one guy can handle them, so it went twice as fast.  We still had to stop frequently to load larger trees, but fewer people left the tent once they saw the trees were going up.  Many of them actually bought them as we unwrapped them, but again, since they were little that was OK.  Relatively easy to fill the hole.  We left the bigger ones alone, knowing we would have more help tomorrow and the tent itself looked pretty good by the time they were done at 9pm. Once again (third day in a row) we had only sold 38 trees, but again we did close to 5K in sales.  New stands, lots of garland, several big trees, and some flocking brought in the revenue.  The office was a totall wreck, but I just gathered everything up and decided to deal with it in the morning and then I called the owner and left a message for him to call me.  I admit it, I am in over my head here, and have absolutely no idea how to schedule in this environment, especially because I have no clue when the trucks are coming in.  Lee can’t keep working like this, and the scheduling problem needs to be fixed ASAP.

The conversation went pretty well.  He was tired and I was tired, but he was genuinely concerned and trying to help us solve our problem.  Initially he had a little trouble grasping the unique nature of our situation, but once I laid it out (pretty much the way I did above but with fewer words and less emotion) he slowed down and really thought about it.  I didn’t feel so bad when he really had to think it through and he stressed that we couldn’t possibly know how to schedule labor in this situation because it was unique.  Ultimately he suggested we work the two new guys 1pm -9pm 7 days a week and use our other labor to fill in. Because they have a small warehouse and have to run very lean, he simply cannot tell me when I will be getting trucks so the only solution is to have these guys available every day.  Now I have to figure out how to do that and give a couple other employees enough hours to keep them with us, because putting all our eggs in any one basket makes me nervous.  He also said these guys should be able to process the 24 large trees on the ground in two hours.  We haven’t even come close to that level of efficiency, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out tomorrow.  I picked up a second delivery, which I can throw their way as well, and at this point I am willing to give anything a try. Plus of course there is the added benefit of following the owners instructions, which is never a bad call in situations like this.

One thing though.  I was given an initial target of $2400 – $2700 in labor and so far my scheduling has kept us on track with those numbers.  It’s also kept our per tree labor cost under $4 which is “green” or good.  Doing some quick math having these two guys here until Christmas eve would cost us $3450 in labor for them alone and assuming they can always handle our volume with just the two of them  I still need additional coverage for weekend days and some weekdays.  Those labor costs will be double the number I was originally given.  Maybe that’s OK, I honestly don’t know, but since our bonus is weighted  heavily on labor costs, I absolutely care. Short-term though, I need to fill my floor and fill up backstop, and cover next weekend which is supposed to be the busiest two days of the season.  I will definitely use them 8 hours a day through Sunday and then stop and see where we are at.  The owner wants to talk daily for a while and I am thrilled to do that.  Frankly I think we should have been doing that all along. I’ve talked to his wife every day and she’s been wonderful, but his expertise is needed on staffing and stocking trees.  I will give him daily reports on the labor figures and if he approves the additional labor we are good to go.  If, however, he wants to cut back on labor I can accommodate that as well, but then I will need some sort of delivery schedule to make that work.

In this lifestyle and these new jobs we have had, we have become fond of saying “not my circus, not my monkeys.”  This is our short-hand that ultimately whatever problems there are aren’t our problems.  That is one of the benefits of making less money and having less power in our positions.  This is different though.  It is our circus and our monkeys (and yes I see the irony that we are working out of a circus tent) and our compensation is based on how well we manage it.  It’s not only the money of course, we also want to do well for both our employer and our customers.  The owners have both said we are working hard, we’re trustworthy, and doing a good job, considering it is our first year.  That is no small thing. But all that being said, you stand in the tent that is just decimated after a long day and see the look of disappointment in people’s eyes who have bundled their kids into the car to go pick up a Christmas tree so it can be decorated, and the tent is is half empty, or worse, and that’s rough.  Some people absolutely would not care, but we do.  It’s just who we are.  Every job is worth doing well, but it feels like with the circumstances we have been given it is nearly impossible to do well.  The owner says having two strong employees will completely make the difference.  I hope so.

And let me just say one more thing.  The worst day I ever had on any job was when I was 22 and managing a fast food restaurant in inner city Columbus.  About 9 hours into a 10 hour shift, a woman ran her car into our walk-in cooler.  Thankfully no one was hurt, but the food was all damaged and worse, the building was no longer secured. My General Manager and my Area Manager were both out-of-town and unreachable (this was before cell phones) and I was left trying to figure out what to do.  Needless to say I was completely overwhelmed and did not handle it very well.  This weekend cumulatively was not that bad, but evoked images of that event, so it was bad enough.

And let me be clear here, I love selling Christmas trees.  Seeing people’s face light up, helping customers, that’s been largely great.  Unfortunately I spend little of my time doing that.  I unload trees, stand up trees, unwrap trees, place them on the floor, and water trees.  I do paperwork, inventory, and ordering supplies/trees. I also spend a ton of time managing employees which includes hiring, scheduling, and day-to day management.  I do get to flock trees a few times a day which I also really love. As bad as it is for me it is worse for Lee, because he spends 95% of his time dealing with trees.   I’m not saying it’s anyone’s fault, but the job I thought I was taking was selling Christmas Trees.  That’s simply not the case.  This job is managing a Christmas Tree lot which is not the same thing.

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10 thoughts on “First Time Selling Christmas Trees – First Weekend Complete

  1. I am hoping that having those 2 new guys will help you out so you and Lee can catch a break. I think you have to try and adopt an attitude of “I am doing my best and all I can” and let it go, which I realize is not easy, but you’ve got to try as you have weeks left. Believe it or not – Bill says he would still be willing to try it one day. Guess he was used to working in a chaotic environment. Hugs! ❤️

  2. Sounds to me as though you and Lee are grossly underpaid for the kind of work you are doing. I would think you have some leverage for changing your compensation, given how different the situation is from what you thought you were signing up for! Good luck!

  3. It’s like deja vu reading your posts. We did the same thing by deciding to take off on the road and work to make some money to travel. We soon figured out that nothing was as it seemed or was told to us. It seems the less one earns the harder one works in crazyville. We came from a high paying corporate environment so this was completely new to us. We started by working for a company that does leak tests on residential gas meters. They pay for you to travel the country doing leak surveys. Sounded great. NOT. From being attacked by dogs to people calling the police on us for entering their yards it was crazy. Nothing prepared us for the craziness. We got a new appreciation for the poor people who earn minimum wage but work 10x harder than someone sitting in an office getting mucho bucks.I really have to hand it to you guys for sticking it out. We dumped the idea after a few months. We were going to try the gate guard thing but my wife was totally over the whole episode.

  4. If someone tells me their life is hard, i am going to ask them, compared to what “selling christamas trees? I don’t thing so buddy.

    we love you guys.

  5. Wow. Having no idea when the trucks are coming seems completely unreasonable to me. Hard to see why that is so difficult to predict. You guys are troopers, and from my point if view I don’t think most people would put up with this. I think a lot of people would cut their losses and bail. Hope things get better!

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