Once again it is important to note that this post only talks about our experience working for one Christmas Tree organization in San Antonio Texas during the 2016 season, which was exceptionally rainy. After talking to people who have worked here in previous years and hearing anecdotally about the experiences of people who have worked in New York, Florida, and Memphis there is an excellent chance your mileage will vary. Even the four new couples who worked here this season had vastly different experiences because they all worked on different lots which had different sales volumes and physical lot characteristics. If there is that much variation why bother writing about it at all? I still feel there is value because I believe it is representative of an experience another person could have and being forewarned is forearmed. If you are a person that likes to start at the beginning before reading the summary start with this blog post.
We started this job for four couples who had never worked a tree lot before. Of the other 11 couples, two had worked the previous year (where they did record sales and sold out midway through December) and the remainder had worked several years for the owner. I didn’t get a chance to talk to every couple about their experience, but I did talk to the other new couples and their impressions of the job all varied. One couple really liked it and is definitely coming back. One couple, who worked at Amazon for 7 years prior to trying this, stated they would be going back to Amazon because it paid better and they had days off. The third couple was very upset that the “work was misrepresented” and stated they would never come back. Throughout the season we were somewhere in the middle. The job had its frustrations and was much more difficult than we expected, but we were waiting until we got paid to make our final determination. This post was written after we found out how much we got paid.
The other thing you should know is how we got this job. I heard about it while in Alaska from a couple who had done it for several years and asked several very specific questions. I was told the time period was roughly a month, we would make at least $5K if we weren’t complete idiots, and most of the labor would be done by our employees. Yes it was hard work, but we were managers of the lot not the employees. Prior to taking the job Lee had a followup conversation with the owners wife where he asked several questions. He was told staffing was never an issue as experienced people came back to work the same tents year after year and the employees did the bulk of the work. We would “pitch in.” In retrospect I think it was important these conversations took place in September, very close to when the season was starting. After talking to others who got their information earlier in the season, they seemed to have a better idea of what they were facing. Or maybe we just heard what we wanted to hear, or didn’t ask the right questions. That’s certainly fair and I would like to think it was misunderstanding rather than deliberate deception.
Another major event before we started was a conversation we had in training. When I asked a question about commission the owner took me aside, looked me right in the eye, and stated that they knew someone had to work the lowest volume lot, and said “if you work hard we will take care of you. Again in retrospect this should have been a warning sign, but I chose to accept it at face value. I honestly wasn’t concerned about the amount of the payment, just the timing, but it never occurred to me once I met him that he wouldn’t fairly compensate me. I was a little nervous, because I had never worked a commission job before, but after hearing everyone say what good people they were and how they took care of people I wasn’t that worried. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the job was both much, much harder than it had been represented and that we would have no opportunity to make the same sales commissions as the larger, busier lots. So that conversation was something I went back to on numerous occasions.
After the first weekend we knew we were selling less than half the volume of trees that other lots were selling, so of course our associated “sundry sales” were also lower. This coupled with the fact that we had learned that the couple on this lot last year had left early and we were particularly concerned. No one came right out and told us why they had left early, and when we asked we got numerous different answers. This was our second warning sign, and came pretty early in the experience. We actually talked about leaving at that point but the combination of the commitment we had made and the promise made to us, made us hope for the best and stick it out. Despite our best efforts though we couldn’t quite shake the feeling that last year’s couple knew something we didn’t know.
Finally, despite the ambiguity around how much we would be paid, we worked hard throughout the season to have the best Christmas Tree lot possible. Our desire to do a good job exists no matter what we are doing and is independent of the compensation we will receive. Our work kamping jobs are no exception to this as we live our life by a pretty basic Midwestern ethic. I grew up living the golden rule, and mostly believe that if you do right by others they will do right by you. to work hard, and you expect you will get treated fairly. That’s how we approach every job.
So keeping all that in mind I am going to dive into the detail. Let’s start with the numbers.
- We worked a total of 46 days, including mandatory training on November 5th & 12th, and finishing our tear down on December 29th.
- During the date range above we had 9 days off (a few days in the beginning, Thanksgiving, and a couple of days at the end waiting for tear down) which are not included in the total above.
- We worked 29 full days (11-13 hours) in a row with no days off. As a side note, we actually had it easier than the folks on the busier lots. Most of them worked 15 hour days.
- Our total hours worked (this is as a couple total) was 869.
- We sold 472 trees. Again, way less than almost every other lot which sold at least 1,000.
Number of trees sold was the most important number because commission is based on tree sales. We earned $1.50 for each tree (from 0-999, and then it jumps to $2.50 per tree from 1000 and up) so right off the bat, had we been on a larger/busier lot we would have made at least an additional $800 in commission from tree sales alone. There is a direct correlation between the amount of trees sold and the sundries sold (didn’t sell many stands to people who didn’t buy trees for example) and since we made roughly $3 in commission per tree I have to assume we would also have sold another $1500 in sundries on a larger lot. That adds up to an additional $2300 in commission alone, but let’s see what we actually made.
Total gross income as a couple for the 2016 tree season. $6001.65
The breakdown was as follows:
- $2500 base pay
- $1439.45 commission on trees, wreaths, garland, and sundries (stands, preservative, etc)
- $200 postcard bonus (collected names and addresses from over 80% of the customers who made a purchase)
- $1,000 performance bonus.
- Other fringe benefits – Free campsite with electric, water, and weekly sewer pump out; Christmas lunch. Since our budget for campsites is $600 a month you could add $1200 to the total above, but we never look at work kamping jobs that way. Especially ones where we are staying in a place we would not normally stay, but some people do so it’s worth mentioning.
(I vigorously refuse to consider this as part of the compensation. It is possible to stay for free at various places, so we could have done that. I also do not consider the electric, water and tank pumping to be part of the compensation for the same reason. – Lee)
Not a bad chunk of change on the surface, but let’s break that down a little.
- We made $7.13 an hour, which is less than Texas minimum wage. Some people don’t care about this figure, especially in a “management job”, but I always compare the jobs we do to how much we could make working a $10 an hour job. Since this was less what we were paying our employees I really had an issue with it. Some people don’t and I get that so let me put it another way. If someone said to us upfront “You will be working 70 hours a week, have no days off, and make less than minimum wage” we would never have taken the job. But that’s just us. Your mileage may vary.
- Our “per day” rate was $130 which is actually not a bad day rate for low stress, low physicality jobs, gate guarding pays that for example. But since this job was both stressful and highly physical, I personally do not feel the day rate was adequate. (If you calculate based on all days onsite that number is actually $88. – Lee)
- Did it cover our budget of $3500 a month? Everyone had different budgets and we know ours in on the high side, but whether or not we take jobs is dependent on what we will be doing and quality of life. A job we would really love we are willing to go under. A job we found hard for extra money is often a fair deal. To work this hard and not even break even was tough, especially because it puts us in a position where we need to immediately start looking for another job. It is doubtful we would have signed up for this job in advance if we knew it would put us in the hole financially, plain and simple.
Why did we end up making so little in performance bonus? Well, to be honest we are not completely sure. When the check was presented to us, I asked if there was a formula to determine the performance bonus and was told “not really.” Immediately after saying that, the owner did state it was partly based on our labor costs, and ours were very high. After reviewing labor it seems clear that every dollar we went over on labor was taken out of our bonus. This was despite the fact that I spoke to him at length about the staffing and was told “to not worry about it, it would work itself out.” I knew that wouldn’t be the case even when he said it to me and made a conscious decision to staff, so I can kind of live with losing that money, but we never discussed the additional money he had promised to put us on par with the other lots. Not only did we receive a reduced performance bonus, but our sales compensation was not brought level to other couples. This was a double hit. (I have a different take on this. Now that we’ve actually done this, it’s very clear that the base pay and commission adds up to very little in comparison to the hours worked. If we had made the additional $2300 in commission by being on a larger lot, our hourly rate would have been around $9.55. Based on the amount of work we did, the lack of time off, and all the other factors, even if we had made that additional money it still wouldn’t have been worth it to me. So from my perspective, the bonus is where it becomes worth it, if it’s going to. Unfortunately the bonus is totally subjective and discretionary. You can do all the work, never make a mistake, sell more trees and sundries than anyone else, have a labor rate that is far below the target, or even zero, and in general be the greatest tree lot operator the world has ever seen, where songs are written about you, streets are named after you and statues are erected in your honor, and the owner can still pay a zero bonus. I know that seems like a stretch, and it is certainly the most extreme example, in order to make the point. Reading that, you might ask, “Why would he do that?” For me the most obvious reason is that if he doesn’t want the couple to return, or if he thinks there’s a good chance that they won’t return, then why not do it? As an added benefit, he gets to keep that money for himself, or use it to boost someone else’s bonus at no cost to himself. Of course, that’s all conjecture, but in the absence of any explanation, conjecture is pretty much all that’s left. – Lee)
The second thing he mentioned in the meeting was he wished he would have talked to Lee more. There were various methods of communication used throughout the season. We received emails and we received texts on three different phones (our two personal and one work phone we were given). We also received messages from employees, or via phone calls from either owner. In turn when we needed to communicate it was often unclear which was the best method to take. More importantly, at least to me, was who communicated with who. Despite the fact that I was titled the cashier and Lee was titled the manager, we always treated the job as co-managers. In the beginning Lee talked to the owner quite a bit, but once he was comfortable directed most of his follow-up questions towards the full-time employee we saw almost daily.
I called the owner several times about the staffing issues because I was struggling with trying to create a workable schedule and I felt those conversations went well at the time. But in the final meeting the owner stated that he “rarely spoke to the cashiers”, leaving that to his wife I realized that I had crossed a line somewhere. Lee and I have always worked as a unit and since I had more experience with staffing and scheduling it made sense for me to take over those duties. When I ran into trouble I reached out to the owner as the expert, not only to get some concrete help, but to make him aware of the issue. I knew we weren’t cutting it in this area, but thought based on our conversations that he would make allowances for our newness, difficulty staffing, and my willingness to adjust tactics based on his advice. Not only did he not make any allowances but it also appears he penalized us for my being the person who was handling the issue. I simply don’t know what to do with that.
Ok so enough about the money, let’s talk about the experience. When you think selling Christmas trees, almost everyone’s initial reaction is “that sounds fun.” Heck that was my initial reaction as well. After doing it, there are moments where it is fun, but it is also extremely hard work.
- Physical Exertion – My number one concern about this job was the level of physical exertion. We are both hard workers, but are not large musclebound people, and Lee in particular needs to be careful about how much he lifts and how he lifts because of an old back injury. The only way for us to make our labor target was for at least one of the managers to physically work with the trees full-time, essentially becoming one of the employees. It didn’t matter if you were on a high volume lot or not, there simply aren’t enough labor dollars to pay for an employee all day, every day and still get the trees processed. Don’t get me wrong several people did make their labor targets, but they were also pretty open about how they did it. The man in the couple handled trees, worked alone a majority of the time, and only had helpers on the weekends or when trees came. The last two weeks the manager had no employees at all. Early on we did make the daily labor rate ($4 per tree) a couple of times and got to see firsthand what that looked like. Lee was absolutely exhausted at the end of every day and after a few days in a row was seriously hurting. Partly that was because of an old back injury he has but also because he is not very tall. Being tall is a huge bonus, because the shorter you are the harder it is to handle the trees, regardless of their weight. When we discussed this during the performance bonus portion of our meeting, we were told that we should have made the customers help load the trees. This was quite a surprise to both of us, but the owners stated firmly this was a regular practice in the tree business. (Once again, my opinion differs. The overall vibe of the operation is to have the best trees, and an exceptional and high-end experience for the customers, which goes along with the very high price of the trees. They’re clearly shooting for a higher end customer, and these are not typically the type of people who are looking to be part of the process. At the end, however, when we discussed how that costs money in labor, we were simply told “you should have had the customers help you carry the trees and put them on the roof of cars.” This is just ridiculous. First of all, if that were really how they wanted us to run the lot, that would have been explained to us in training. What we WERE told is that if any customer wanted to look at a tree all the way around, we should pull it out into an open area for them to look at it. We were specifically told NOT to let them move the trees. We were also told that once they had picked out a tree, that they should go to the front and pay for it while employees carried it to the front and processed it to go out the door. That’s perfectly reasonable, but it’s completely different from being told at the end that we should not have had employees on site and that customers should help carry the trees. – Lee)
- Staffing Issues – We were told numerous times that employees would just show up on the lot and most of them would be experienced. (When I spoke to the owner’s wife, right after she told me that we would have employees doing all the heavy lifting, I asked her where I would get these employees. Her answer was that as soon as the tents went up, they would line up looking for work. I was told that MOST of them would have worked at a lot in previous years, and that we would have more applicant than we needed. This was ABSOLUTELY not our experience. When we expressed concern about not having staff, we were told that it was too early, that we shouldn’t worry, that they would come. Simply didn’t happen. I also want to point out that if we weren’t really supposed to have staff, as discussed in the previous section, we would have been told that during this discussion. – Lee) That was the case on some lots, but not on ours, because it was new. We struggled with staffing from the beginning and were never able to hire the type of people we needed. If you are extremely limited on staff then it is important you hire tall, muscular guys who can easily handle trees alone. Our employees were great, but were unable to manage anything above a 6 foot alone which necessitated having two of them there together or Lee handling every tree with them. The amount of time it took in the beginning to hire, on board, and train employees also was excessive in the beginning. We hired 19 people throughout the season and had a very hard time getting people who were strong to stay with the job for the $8 an hour we were paying. The owner was aware this was an issue, we discussed it several times, but eventually I was told to “stop worrying about it”. He specifically said to treat the daily labor rate like I would “a check engine light” on my car and “mentally put a piece of tape on it.” (I want to clarify this to make sure there’s no misunderstanding. Once we expressed our concern that our experience was not lining up with what we were told to expect, we were specifically told to ignore the labor target and staff as needed. But again, at the end, we were told the exact opposite. – Lee) The thought was if we stocked the tent then sales would come. Unfortunately our sales never increased and I ended up with a $9 per tree labor rate, more than double our target.
- Selling Trees – With the exception of very few customers this was actually very fun. The trees were beautiful, the families were happy, and I enjoyed being a part of a special experience for many people. Yes, we had kids running around (although less of that than I thought there would be) and we had days where everyone seemed cranky, but mostly it was a lot of fun. There was a ton of downtime though, and since someone has to stay in the tent regardless of the weather or customer traffic, it made for some long, monotonous days. Lee read several books while waiting for customers to come in towards the end. (Another important thing to point out is that while we didn’t count every person who came in the door, I can safely say we sold a tree to at least 90% of the people who came in. We had a fantastic ratio of traffic to sales, but very, very low traffic. Anecdotally, other lot operators seemed surprised by this. They appear to have had significantly higher traffic, with a lower ratio, which is more normal. I mention this because in my mind, THAT should be the basis of a performance bonus. – Lee)
- Other Work Kampers – The best part of the whole experience for me was how friendly and helpful the other work kampers were. Although we rarely physically saw each other, we stayed in contact throughout the season and I was assigned a mentor who was very helpful. The full-time employees of the company were also great, providing tons of support and help for us newbies in the day-to-day. There is a steep learning curve with this job and everyone we talked to said Year 1 was extremely difficult. You have to learn how to care for and process trees, all of the products and their characteristics to sell them, the cash register, credit card machine, and a pretty comprehensive daily accounting process. I spent about an hour a day on paperwork alone and we often received phone calls at 8am. But people were pleasant and helpful throughout the season.
Knowing all this what questions would we go back and ask if we could do it again?
- Where is the site? Many sites are on busy roads and there is almost constant noise. We were very lucky here with our site, but I saw a few others I wouldn’t have wanted to stay on. (On the other hand, we had ridiculously low traffic coming to our location, because it was only the 2nd year it was here, and there’s no access to the road. You have to come into the gas station lot and drive past all the pumps to get in. I would say that we probably had less than a third of the traffic other lots had. – Lee)
- What were last years sales? This is an important question because it makes you less reliant on a bonus and more reliant on your own sales skills. You are still taking a risk depending on weather, quality of trees, and other competition, but at least it is something to go by. If you are going to work this many hours, you might as well be on a busy lot. At least then you are guaranteed to make more money.
- What are the labor expectations? If we were truly managers and allowed to hire staff to do the bulk of the heavy lifting that would be fine. If the expectation was we would perform the bulk of the heavy labor we would have to pass. I don’t mind working hard, but cannot afford an injury which would impact my future earnings. Especially since most of these jobs do not have workers compensation.
- How much support is provided by the owner? I appreciate not being micromanaged, I actually think this is one of the major benefits of this job, but when I do bring a problem to the owner, support is important. There were many times in this job when we were completely out of our element and just didn’t feel we had the tools necessary to solve the problem.
- Hours of Operation? We knew we would be working 11-9 everyday, but were surprised by how much work happened during our limited off time. We received numerous unscheduled deliveries at 8am and were told in training the expectation was that we would have our phones on and be available from 7am -10pm every day. I don’t mind being on call. I’ve had many jobs in my life where that was the case, but we were contacted during “off hours” on a daily basis. The contacts ranged from answering a question to hurriedly getting dressed and going outside to unload a truck, but the expectation was always the task would be performed immediately. This made it very difficult to complete any personal tasks during our off hours and ultimately resulted in only one of us at a time not going more than a few miles away from our tent at any time. Just having a couple of off hours a day would have made a world of difference to our quality of life, but as they say it’s all about the tree once the season starts and that is certainly the expectation.
I would not do this type of work again unless the pay structure was more equitable. Now that we’ve done it, I feel the job is worth about $15-17 an hour. We made $7. For me, this experience boils down to a pretty serious misrepresentation of the job, followed by “don’t worry about it” statements during the season to keep us working, very clear promises that simply were not kept, and then being financially penalized at the end for doing exactly what we were told to do. – Lee
In summary, I wish I could separate out our experience here from the job itself, and give a recommendation solely based on the job. But since almost every most decision we made day-to-day ultimately impacted our compensation it is next to impossible. It’s quite likely that we are simply not people who do well in a commission only environment, and becoming full-time RVers has not changed that. I did enjoy learning about the tree business and I like working with the customer and selling them trees. This job is not primarily about selling trees though. The job is managing a Christmas Tree lot, which is quite a different thing. The staffing and scheduling alone was stressful enough that I would have serious reservations and couple that with the low compensation and I just can’t ever imagine doing this again. I came in optimistic and excited and am leaving tired and somewhat cynical. That really bums me out. I just want to move on to the next thing and hope we learned enough to never put ourselves in a similar position again.
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