Christmas Tree Work Kamping Overview

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?

  1. 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) 
  2. 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.  
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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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First Time Selling Christmas Trees – Waiting to Get Paid

New Years Eve we received an invitation from the owners for a “no host” event at Red Lobster.  I had never heard this expression before, but after googling it learned no host means that every person pays for their own meal.  We generally don’t go out on “amateur night”, but since the dinner was at 7pm and we love Red Lobster we decided to go.  Since we hadn’t gotten paid yet and had no idea what we were going to make, I was a little concerned about spending the money, but we decided to roll the dice and go ahead and go.  We were on time, but the last ones there, and the open seat was next to the owner.  Actually this was pretty cool as I had a chance to talk to him about the tree business.

The business analyst in me was fascinated by the parts of the operation we couldn’t see and he was happy to describe it for us.  It’s definitely a year round operation, with selection of trees happening in August and September.  Apparently different trees are pretty at different heights and the only way to know is to walk the lots and hand select them.  That’s what the owner does and is the main reason his trees are so beautiful.  Every tree (whether it is selected or not) is trimmed every year.  Here’s a pretty cool video that shows how they trim them.

Along with care of the trees and tree selection, deliveries need to be scheduled.  Here again the owner differentiates himself from many other tree stands, because instead of just doing one or two cuts a season and having the trees sit, he schedules numerous cuts and deliveries.  The end result is a fresher tree, but the logistics of that are tough as the tree is cut around three days before it is shipped.  The main schedule for the cuttings and shipping is set up in October, but then the owner oversees the process from Texas and makes adjustments the best he can depending on the sales.  There are sales patterns from year to year, but then sometimes outside factors throw a wrench in things.  That’s what happened this year with all the rain on the busy weekends.  The trees come in large semi trucks and then need to be unloaded and separated by what each tent needs.  Really interesting, and clearly a first class tree organization.

So dinner was enjoyable but not great on the wallet.  We spent way more than I was hoping on dinner and definitely put the final nail in the coffin of this month’s eating out budget.  It’s really tough to not eat out when we are working these long hours.  We don’t have nature type entertainment so you sort of default to other kinds, shopping, dining out, which are all obviously more expensive.  Maybe I am just particularly sensitive to it because the year end accounting is looming.  I like providing the budget information, and think it’s important for us to stay on track and to help others contemplating the lifestyle, but I don’t always like seeing it in black and white!

Sunday I was all ready to watch the Rose Bowl Parade and was curious to see how the TV watching experience would be different after I got to attend last year in person, but realized this was one of those weird years where New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday and the parade was moved to Monday.  We did a little research and it turns out the Sunday exemptions started in the 1800’s and was because the parade organizers were afraid the parade would spook the horses that were at the churches along the route.  That “never on Sunday” exemption has continued to today, so no parade on Sunday for me.  That’s OK though because I had football to watch.

During the day,  I also had a friend send me a picture of a political ad that showed up on my blog.  I have been paying $20 a year for the site and getting close to running out of storage, but never really worried that much about the ads.  I assumed if they appeared they would be generic in nature and not offensive to anyone.  Once it was brought to my attention, I looked at the Word Press site and discovered it would be $79 a year to turn the ads off.  I could participate in their ad program to help offset the cost, but since you have no control over what type of ad content occurs, Lee and I just decided to pay the extra $79.  The Word Press version that allows you to pick and choose your custom ads is much more expensive at $279 a year and frankly I don’t think there are enough products at this point I would want to advertise to make it worth it.  I was contacted a few times this year by people wanting to place an ad on the site, but in every case I didn’t feel the service/product was something I would use. I’m old school that way, believing an endorsement should only be provided if the person actually uses and values the product.  Anyway, that’s where we stand right now.  I own the domain and at some point I could just move the blog to a different provider, or create my own website, but that task is pretty daunting since it is outside of my skill set.  2017 may be the year to tackle it though, if for no other reason than I have to have the space to upload pictures.  For the time being the ads should be completely turned off and if you see them, please send me an email at camperchronicles-at-gmail.com and let me know.

Simultaneously, Lee noticed that the hose on our blue boy was completely broken.  It happened from age and exposure to the elements and unfortunately since the blue boy has been discontinued we are not sure we can get the parts.  This is an absolute necessity since we are headed to Quartzsite, so the best thing I can say about it is better now than later. We discussed just getting a standard holding tank, since we leave it on the back of our truck anyway, but Lee really likes that it has wheels just in case.  So Monday morning this will be on our list of things to take care of.

On the positive side, one of our readers lives in the San Antonio area and she reached out to me when we arrived to see if we could meet up for dinner.  We love talking to people about the lifestyle and we love meeting readers so we were happy to go.  We met at Crystal Springs Restaurant which claims to have the best catfish in Texas.  That may be true, and Lee said it was pretty good, but he still likes Anna J’s catfish in South Carolina better!  The conversation was great and we were thrilled when we learned they had signed up for the RV-Dreams rally.  Just in case I haven’t mentioned it lately if you are thinking about full timing, we absolutely think the best thing you can do for yourself is attend an RV Dreams rally. We had a great time talking to them and really appreciated them buying us dinner.  So glad Linda reached out.

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We sat outside on these picnic tables and talked after dinner for awhile in the courtyard

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Loved the sign

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The inside was super cool and just packed with memorabilia

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A mound of yummy onion rings

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My shrimp was outstanding

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Lee’s catfish

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Larry and Linda!!

 


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

First Time Selling Christmas Trees – Tear Down

Tuesday we had the guys come in and the first thing they did was knock all the remaining trees down.  I think everyone enjoyed doing that, although at the end it did look a little sad.  We had 78 trees left on the lot and needed to push them down and remove the stands and wash the bowls.

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A stack of bowls drying before they go back in their boxes.

All done

All done

The tear down process is actually pretty complicated.  I had three different ending inventory sheets and everything was counted and put in separate piles.  Some items for our trailer at the end (tarps, signs, stands, bowls, office supplies) and everything is carefully counted and inventoried.  Each tent has a “kit” with a prescribed number of items and the extras or items that are damaged are removed and placed into a different pile.  Just doing my office supply box took a couple of hours as I had a three page checklist I had to check off.  It makes sense, because then next year everyone will have a complete box, but it was time consuming.  While the guys did the stands and bowls and Lee took down all the electrical lines, I counted and made separate piles.  Most of the excess new inventory goes back to the warehouse to be redistributed, but some items (like floor covers) stay in the trailer.  I also was missing one inventory sheet that included how many trees we had left, but thankfully called Greg with a question and found out I was missing something.  The guys pulled all the tags from the downed trees and then we did one last inventory.  The owner called and said he thought the trees would be picked up the next day and we were also told the trailer for all of our equipment and inventory would be arriving Wednesday or Thursday.   That was OK though, because we had plenty to do.

The four of us worked 9am- 2pm and made pretty good progress.  My booth was disassembled, signs were taken down, and two nice sized piles (one for trailer and one for warehouse) had been formed by the end of that time.  It was incredibly muggy though.  It didn’t rain again, but it was 80 degrees and pretty soupy.  Lee had the worst of it as he was outside taking down the electrical and his shirt was drenched by the time he was done. This is where his live event experience was a huge plus though as he has tons of experience “striking” an event.

I unfortunately found a tree tally sheet that I had totally spaced on earlier in the year.  I had to go back to December 1st and hand write in all the trees (by size and type) we had sold per day.  The company is in the process of going paperless, but in the meantime there is some double entry, but the exercise was sort of interesting as I got a bird’s eye view of our sales.

For those who are interested we sold 472 trees in total and the breakdown is as follows:

  • 256 Nobles
  • 151 Nordmanns
  • 34 Douglas
  • 31 Grands

Of the trees we sold 45 (or a little under 10%) were 9 feet or larger.  We sold the first big one November 23rd and the last December 21.  Why that matters is because of labor.  We were originally given a rough estimate of $2700 in labor for the lot but completely blew that, spending $4550.  This is a huge discrepancy and is mainly due to needing a second guy to help with the big tree sales.  Since those sales were spread throughout multiple days we never knew when a big tree sale would come and I simply couldn’t help lift anything larger than an 8 footer.   I also took a look at our gross sales.  Unfortunately I had no idea what the benchmarks are for sales versus trees.  I also have no idea of expected costs.  But I am preparing myself, the best I can, for the bonus conversation.  Plus as you know I am a data junkie, and I found it all pretty interesting.

Wednesday we just waited.  When the city came and took our trashcan (somewhat unexpectedly) I did call and ask what we were supposed to do with the remaining trash and was told to put it in trash bags and haul it out.  I asked at that point if we were on the schedule yet for picking up our leftover trees, and packing up our trailer, and was told we were bumped because the tent company wanted to take the tent down in another location.  They thought it would be Thursday.  No word yet on when the guys would be coming to pick up the trees (I had originally heard maybe Tuesday) so we just waited.  I went and did laundry (sheets, blankets, etc) and Lee organized our desk area and then in the afternoon we started looking at summer work kamping jobs.  We had applied for a job in Oregon (and have an interview scheduled next week), but felt this was a good time to really dig in.

We use Work Kamper News primarily for camp host jobs and I look at their job hotline emails almost every day, but once every two months they put out an online newsletter and that has a more comprehensive list.  My friend Kelly is an absolute whiz at finding these jobs, but I find the whole process pretty daunting.  There are tons of ads and unless you know specifically where you want to be, no good way of sorting through them.  Ultimately we printed out the newsletter, read them all, and then circled ones we were interested in.  Since not all the ads are clear on the hourly wage or the amount of hours worked, followup is usually called for.  That’s the part that is super time consuming, so I like to narrow things down quite a bit before contacting the employer.  That involves looking at their web page, checking out their location on google earth, seeing what cities/attractions are nearby, and looking to see if they have ATT coverage.  The process is somewhat similar to campground searches, but since you will be staying there an entire summer more detailed research is required.

Since we found about 15 ads we were interested in though that was a ton of research, so Lee wanted to take another approach.  He is planning on writing a somewhat generic email with our resume attached and then sending it to the employers to try to get a little more information.  For us, there are three main factors in how we choose a camp host job and they are location, type of work/schedule, and wages paid.  Depending on the desirability of one of those three things we are willing to have less in another area.  That being said we need certain things in each category to make it work.  We need to get paid, we need to work 32-40 hours a week, we need tolerable weather, we need some type of cell coverage, and the job has to be somewhat interesting to us.  I’m not willing to work 40 hours a week just cleaning for example.  Just finding a job with our minimums is harder than you would think, and since Work Kamper News is for all types of RVers who want all types of jobs, we have to narrow it down.  It’s actually easier when we need a particular location (like when we were looking in Alaska), but this year it is somewhat wide open for us.  Anyway, it’s a process, and we’ve started it.

Thursday morning we got the call that the trailer was coming so we called in our two remaining employees to work.  About 20 minutes after the trailer came, the people just showed up without warning to pick up the trees.  Now at first glance this might make sense, but we couldn’t simultaneously load the trailer and get the trees out of the lot, so one thing would have to wait for the other.  At least it was all happening on Thursday.  We finished up the little bit that was left and verified the ending inventory then I sent the employees on a half hour lunch break.  It took over two hours for the trees to be loaded, but they finally got it done, and at least we didn’t have to lift, carry, or load them. Then we pulled our trailer in and set to work.  It took 5 hours for 6 of us to load the trailer and truck and then clean the lot, but a lot of that time was figuring out the jigsaw puzzle of the trailer.  In order to make everything fit each piece went in a certain way, but at the end it was all loaded.  Lee had a good time, he said strike is his favorite part of every show.

y004

Waiting for the trailer

y007

Tight squeeze but they backed it in

y009

Loading the trailer

y011

It was amazing how much they fit in there

y012

View from the top. I loaded the truck with items that went back to the warehouse so both the trailer and truck were packed

y014

Some stuff was left, but getting there

Friday morning they came with a different trailer and picked up what was left.  They also took down the electrical panel, but we still have power and water from a separate source.

 

y015

The second trailer

Empty tent!!!

Empty tent!!!

So everything was checked out and we were ready to leave, except…no.  We were told the port-a john and wastewater tank were getting picked up on Wednesday of the week, but the owner extended the service another week so people could stay longer.  Problem was we were never told, and now we are blocked in. Our tank was originally supposed to go behind our trailer, but there was no room to get it back there so it went in the front.  It’s completely full, (since we thought it was being picked up we did a last flush of our tanks) and where it is located blocks our ability to hitch up the truck.

y018

It’s hard to tell from the pic, but there is no way to back in the truck and hitch because of where the tank is located.

 

It can’t be moved (weighs about 1K full) and no room to hitch.  Even if we could hitch, the tent is so close that we couldn’t easily maneuver out.  Needless to say I was not happy.  We made an appointment to get our axle looked at on Monday morning and had plans to start heading to Quartszite.  The timing of all that was tricky enough since we can’t stay at the Camping World location and we were dealing with a holiday weekend.  Lee called the owner who said to call the company and see if they could do a supplemental pump out (Lee thinks he could move it out of the way empty) but they said they were nowhere in the area and they were closed Saturday – Monday for the holiday.  At this point I was really starting to feel trapped and that was NOT a good feeling.

Lee though was oddly fine with it.  For him we  had a free place to stay until January 4th, he could move the repair appointment to later in the week, and we wouldn’t have to deal with the holiday.  It would give us time to take care of more housekeeping items including my end of year financial review, which always takes a while.  We would have time to explore the area, which we have had no time to do prior to now.  And possibly most importantly to him it will be much easier to get the rig out once the tent and fence are down which should be happening Tuesday and Thursday respectively.

I saw his point but still wasn’t crazy about it.  And then the sewer company just showed up.  They were pretty clear to Lee it wasn’t going to happen, but they must have changed their mind.   We talked about it and Lee still wanted to stay the few extra days and I was totally fine with that.  Now it’s a choice, which makes it totally OK for me.


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First Time Selling Christmas Trees – I Finally Get That Pedicure

Before I say anything else I wanted to mention that this blog hit 200,000 hits and I am humbled  by that achievement.  It matters very much that what we have to say is worth clicking on our posts and pages so many times, and you all made it happen.  Thank you very much for the support, we are truly grateful.

Wednesday morning started out with some great Texas winter weather and we jumped in and started cleaning bowls, tearing down what we could, and basic prep to close the tent.  We also had a customer call looking for a big tree and he ended up getting one of the remaining 12-1/2 footers cut down to a 10 and then paying half price.  Quite a bargain. We also ended up selling a second one (again cut down to 10 feet) so I was really happy that both those beautiful trees in the front will fulfill their Christmas purpose.  Yes, goofy I know, but they were beautiful trees and deserve to be in someones home. We also dealt with a couple more return issues, but everyone was super nice about it and although it seems like a lot of returns all at once we sold well over 400 trees, so the return rate is less than 1%.  In all cases we called the owner and he went to some lengths to make the customer happy which I was very glad to see.  These trees are really important to him and they are his brand so on the rare occasion something goes wrong he always makes it right.

It was slow enough that I even got to leave for a few hours, and even though I still haven’t been more than 1-1/2 miles from the lot I did get that pedicure!!  Cori stopped by and we had a Green Tea pedicure which was awesome (my skin feels great) and then went to HEB where I bought a few groceries and picked up a gift for the gift exchange.  The limit is $10 for a girl present and $10 for a guy present (I didn’t make the rules) so I decided on Lottery tickets for the guys (that always goes well) and Cori found a cool electronic wine opener on sale. Score!  We also chipped in on the present for the owners.  All in it was $40 we weren’t planning on spending.  None of it was mandatory of course, and I I like gift exchanges and it’s been a long time since I have been able to participate in one. (I’m going to weigh in with my opposing view. I’m OK with the gift exchange (well, not really, I think it’s stupid to do a gift exchange between 15 couples when you don’t really know any of the people at all, but I sort of get that they’re trying to do something nice and fun for everyone for Christmas, so I’ll let that slide.) but to ask a bunch of employees who are working, to make money, to chip in $20 each to buy what will amount to a $300 gift card for the owners of the company is just bad form in my view. Things like this are always described as optional, but they never feel optional. It was presented this way to me: “We’re collecting $20 from everyone so we can buy them a gift card, so whenever you can get that to me, that would be great. Oh, and it’s optional. Is tomorrow OK?”. It certainly doesn’t help that overall I’m not feeling very “givy” to either of the owners, but even without that I think it’s just a bad practice. – Lee)

It was a whole three hours of freedom (I will remove those hours from the final wage analysis) and it was definitely needed.  We are in the home stretch here and that is a beautiful thing. I also made one of my favorite dinners, sirloin tips and noodles, so between the pedicure and dinner I am a happy woman. We only sold 3 trees, but at least I had a good day.

Thursday was more cleanup and our slowest day by far.  We only had 2 people come in all day and sold 1 tree, 1 wreath, and a bottle of Keeps It Green which is the solution you put in trees to keep them fresh.  I get lots of questions about whether this product really works (we have the scientific study results to show people), whether 7up or Sprite works (I have no idea), whether anything is needed at all?  It’s only $3.25 for the solution and since I have personally never used it I say it has been scientifically studied, it’s like a vitamin supplement for your tree, but that’s it. Lots of people buy it, and it certainly won’t hurt anything, but I don’t really push it.  I actually don’t push any particular product except for the stand if they buy a heavy tree. The stands are lifetime guaranteed and our trees are drilled to match the stand so the tree stands up straight in them with minimal adjustment. It’s a solid product and those plastic stands that are rated for larger trees, just aren’t going to cut it.  I always say the same thing when people don’t want to buy the heavy duty stand though, give yours a try, but if it doesn’t work put the tree in a bucket of water and come back and get one of ours.  This happens pretty frequently when people get home and discover their stand isn’t going to work. We have sold a ton of stands that way and I really feel like that’s good customer service.  Why buy an expensive tree and put it in a crappy stand so it leans?  Makes no sense. (We’ve actually made more in commissions on stands than we have on trees, so that tells you something. – Lee)

Every day we are getting calls on how many trees we have left ( we are down to 78 at this point) and I know they are in the process of determining which lots to close in which order.  This requires some coordination, because one of the full time employees oversees the removal of the last trees and the packing of the trailers, so it’s complicated.  They closed Laredo first because their sales historically stop early and it’s farther out of town.  Not surprisingly we have no idea where we are on that list, or when we will close so I have kept one employee during the slow days and the other on call in case we get “the call.” I feel bad about paying an employee when there is minimal work to be done, but we have talked about it several times (and I discussed the situation with the owner) so it is what it is. It’s only $80 a day in labor, so it’s not like we are robbing the bank here, but we certainly could be running leaner on labor if we needed to.  We still have some big trees left, but I heard what other lots sometimes do is cut down the bigger trees into manageable size and then the manager couple runs the lots themselves at this point. Like I said, we have talked about that, but at this point we have scheduled labor out until Christmas Eve.

The other reason we would like to close is the weather.  It was absolutely beautiful Wednesday and Thursday and since we have so many trees that need removed that would have been the perfect weather to take care of that.  We did get all the tasks completed that need warm weather though, bowls cleaned/dried and signs taken down and inspected, but we are facing at least 6 days of straight rain now so I am sure we will be loading trees in that weather.  Could be worse of course, we are getting the tail end of a massive storm that’s due to dump tons of snow on the northern states and thankfully we are just getting rain.  I miss the desert though.  More and more of our friends are hitting the desert for their winter and they are experiencing some amazing, sunny weather.  How funny it is that after all of my concerns about Quartzsite last year I am actually thinking of it with longing.  It’s not just the weather, but also the people who are there, and most importantly it’s a break from work.

We figured out this week that since last May we have not had more than four non-working, no travel days in a row.  We have either been working or traveling to get to a job and the pace has finally caught up with both of us.  We are still waiting to hear about whether a gate guarding job will be available and if there is one we will certainly take it, but if not I wouldn’t mind just taking a break.  I’m tired,  Lee is tired, and we really miss nature.  One of the great things about our Alaska job was we had time off to explore and see cool things, but aside from one trip to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Montana and one trip to the Riverwalk here to have lunch with my brother we have done nothing fun in months.  If I judge my life by the pictures I take (and to some extent I do)  it is falling woefully short. Where is the balance?  And to be super clear, now I am talking about more than one specific job.  We judge these jobs based on their own individual merits in our summary’s but this is more about the pattern. Most people who take these jobs have income coming in, so this infusion of cash supplements them for the entire year. Plus it helps keep costs down, which again helps manage the annual budget.  Any or all of these jobs may make sense for them because they are only doing them for a portion of their year.  Our situation is different.  We take these jobs in the hopes that we will earn enough funds to coast for a little while.  Work a little, play a little has been our goal, but there has been precious little play.

Let’s step back a minute and take the “50,000 foot view”. We left Alaska essentially breaking even, and needed to use a little savings money to travel to our next gig. Considering the costs for Alaska that’s a huge win in our books.  Then we made enough at the Beet Harvest to pay for our time there, then to get us to Texas, and then to cover us through November and December while we were waiting to get paid for Christmas Trees.  From a strictly financial perspective that is a pretty good deal.  At this point we have roughly $800 of the Beet Harvest money left which will be plenty to get us through until we get paid. When we leave Christmas trees, we will definitely have at least enough to cover our costs to get to our next job and at least a month, if not more.  We will either be in Quartzsite or gate guarding, and both would have a very low cost of living.  So from a strictly financial perspective we are staying ahead of the curve.

But you also have to look  at what we had to do to get here.  We had to work long strings of 10 plus hours days with no days off. We had to do physically demanding work under less than optimal conditions.  We had to travel quickly to get from point A to point B with no time for exploring in between.  We didn’t make enough to splurge on a special campground or a special trip at the end. Well, we did, but if we decided to do that it would put more pressure on us to get the next job sooner, plus to be honest I am to tired to do anything, anyway.  We briefly discussed Pedro Island or somewhere on the coast of Texas, but at this point I don’t have the energy it takes to plan something like that.  It could change, but I would much rather just go to Quartzsite, which at least is a known quantity.

Don’t get me wrong, at any time we could dip into our savings and take a break.  Heck, we could say “screw it” and live off our savings until they ran out.  Many people do that.  But we are really trying for a sustainable lifestyle.  It needs to be sustainable, but it also needs to have quality with quality, which of course is completely subjective to us as a couple. We seem to be behind others in figuring all this out by the way.  Lots of our friends who started when we did have figured out a good work/life balance.  Of course most of them have some income from other sources, but even that aside they seem to have a better handle on it.  Maybe in this case our desire to build a better mousetrap is working against us. Actually that’s mostly me.  I’m just not willing to settle into a pattern until I know what my choices are.  I think in all fairness that’s making Lee a little crazy, but so far he’s been pretty cool about it. Plus all these new jobs give me something to write about, which is important to me.

Anyway, I wanted to lay all that out for you, because that’s how we have to think about things.  It’s not just this job, but this job, and the next, and the next, and finding a way to balance those with the things we actually want to do.  Sure, it’s cool trying something new in the work arena (at least for a little while), but who wouldn’t choose staying in a national park over living on a vacant lot if they could?  I know I would, which I suppose is progress of some sort.  I have been a big proponent of volunteering/working even if you didn’t have to for a long time now, but if nothing else I now understand why some people prefer just hunkering down somewhere and living frugally over working.  If (and I am not saying that is the case, but maybe it is) your choices are to not work/not spend money versus working this hard, I would pick the former as well.  For us though that option is not on the table.  So we will keep plugging away and see where it leads us.  I haven’t given up on finding the perfect combination for us by any stretch, and I am sure ultimately we will get there,  it’s just not going to be as easy as either of us thought it would be.

Update:  After Lee proof read this post we had a long discussion about how things were looking for us.  These posts often spark conversation between us, which is a really good thing.  He found it all a little depressing, as we are working our way down the list of traditional jobs RVers do and not finding anything that really works for us.  The fact is though there are lots of jobs that can be done and truly the Millennials are my guides on this.  We could find mobile jobs, we could move to an area and find regular temporary jobs, we can pour more resources into our small businesses, or I can start consulting.  These are all options, and all things for us to explore.  We have no idea what this will end up looking like for us, that’s part of the adventure, but we are together and we love each other and we know we can make money.  At the end of the day those are the important things. – Trace

 


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First Time Selling Christmas Trees – All Trees and Greenery 50% off

Monday morning it was all of 56 degrees in the rig and 27 degrees outside.  We were once again having the conversation about whether we should back out some of my hours yesterday from the final revenue analysis (Absolutely not. – Lee) when we got a phone call around 9am.  They were on their way to pick up all of our baled trees (On stands and in water, but still tied up with twine) this morning and would be here in 30 minutes.  Neither of us had showered, and Lee was just getting ready to run to the post office and pick up our mail. So obviously that was out. I asked if they wanted us to call in employees, but we were told no, so Lee and I both layered up in long johns and went outside to help.  Not optimal in the 27 degree weather, but it did make his point once again that in the end, we are working a lot more hours than it appears, and that needs to be reflected in the final “Is It Worth It” analysis.

Theoretically we could have left it to the two guys they sent, but since both of them have been hurt this season, we couldn’t in good conscious do that do them. One thing Lee and I have managed to do (along with our staff) is avoid injury and it was only decent that we helped with loading the trees. The two guys that were sent aren’t to blame and at this point we frankly don’t want to make anyone mad because the bonus is still hanging out there.  That’s been sort of an ongoing theme, by the way.  Every time we think about setting some boundaries, the fact that our money is being held slows us down.  There is no doubt that this payment structure is by design, and I will even concede that it may have evolved over time because of bad behavior on the part of other managers, but personally  I have never worked this long and hard without seeing something in my bank account. For us that has been unsettling.

It certainly stops you from just walking away.  At some point, you have invested enough time and energy that walking away with no compensation would be pretty stupid, and maybe even financially impossible for some folks. And that’s a pretty big deal actually.  Many full timers take jobs that are lower paying and harder work than in their previous lives because they are temporary and they can walk away from them if things get to difficult.  We have had several conversations along these lines with folks and the most common comments are “We can do anything for a short period of time,” and “If it’s too bad we will just walk away.”  Personal ethics of course come into it, and some people find it very difficult to walk away from a commitment, but we all at least have the illusion that if we wanted to we could.  Not so much with this job.  The contract we signed is pretty clear on how long we have to stay.  And since the payment schedule is all at the end, I am assuming  there would be stiff financial penalties for leaving early. It’s not clearly stated in our contract one way or another, it just says if we leave early the owner will replace the positions and the cost of that replacement labor will come out of whatever money we have made to that point.

Don’t get me wrong, at this point we are certainly going to play this out and see what happens, but as our hourly rate at this point, based on the base pay we were promised and the commission we’ve earned on sales to this point, is $ 6.64 each, we know we are going to be relying more on the bonus to make this an equitable situation.  The owner was pretty clear that when everyone had a good year, he spread that around and based on what other managers have told me I have no reason to believe that would not happen.  But sales were lower than expected everywhere and generally in my experience this correlates to less bonus.  That may not be the case here, but I would be surprised if it was not.

I’m trying to be positive.  I am trying to continue with my wait and see attitude, but standing outside in 27 degree weather pulling frozen stands off trees and getting water on my feet and hands is not helping.   It was also made worse when I called the office to get some information on something totally unrelated and was told we should have brought employees in to help with the tree loading because “We don’t expect you to do that Tracy.”  Really? I asked, when I got the call letting us know they were on their way, if I should call employees in, and was told “no”, and for the record, I have been loading and unloading trees since day one.   Most of the time I don’t mind.  I am healthy, and no one gives me a hard time about lifting only what I can manage.  But to be doing all that work and have people not only not know I am doing it, but also tell me it isn’t expected, like I did something wrong. Well needless to say I was pretty upset.  I bit down on it though, and tried to keep those feelings in, but it was touch and go there for a minute.  I am sure she knew I was upset, but at least I wasn’t hostile about it.   I’m tired, my back is sore, and my feet are wet from moving 44 trees. Please don’t give me a hard time on top of that.

Still have some pretty trees left

Still have some pretty trees left

My poor flocked trees that haven't found a home yet

My poor flocked trees that haven’t found a home yet

 

Oh and something else I should probably talk about that is totally unrelated to this job but relevant to RVers.  We applied for the Affordable Care Act a couple of months ago, and even though I have paid the first month it still isn’t finalized.  First they asked me for proof of income to match the estimate we made, and when I called the help center and said I didn’t have one pay stub that would show that, I was told just post any of them and nothing would be done with it.  So we took one from the beet harvest and submitted it.  I received a phone call from another group who said that because it didn’t match, they would need to make an adjustment and immediately explained things again.  We are starting a new business and working a series of temporary jobs so no one pay stub will show our annual wage.  Thankfully this person understood the situation and said I needed to submit a letter of explanation stating exactly that, and then they could process it.  I was under the impression based on everything I had heard that you estimated your income and they adjusted at the end of the year up or down.  Well, apparently that is not always the case, so I thought I would let people know in case they were going to apply soon.  If we had a representative pay stub we could have used that for the whole year, but this year in particular our wages have been high and that would have overestimated our income.  If you underestimate your income then you don’t qualify for ACA and they want to put you on Medicaid.  Using a paystub also presupposes that you make that amount of money all year which is obviously not the case for most full time RVers.  Basically it can be tricky, so just forewarning you.

I also called about my life insurance which is a carryover policy from my employer.  They want a check payment or automatic checking account deduction and need a cancelled check to set that up.  Well I don’t have cancelled checks and I can’t believe in this day and age there is no online method to pay.  (I also find this incredibly bizarre. We haven’t had checks for about twelve years. We reached the point where the only thing we were using checks for was to pay a babysitter, and once our youngest never needed a babysitter, we just got rid of them. It’s truly amazing that there are still large organizations that don’t have an alternative way to accept money. You know how most people pay babysitters now? Paypal, Venmo, or some other phone based app. – Lee) It’s almost as if they don’t want my money.  I was going to shop around anyway since I am an AARP member, so I told Lee not to do anything dangerous until I get this life insurance thing sorted out.  Honestly it should not be this hard to give people your money.  Man I am cranky. (I don’t blame her. I’m getting pretty cranky, too. – Lee)

And to continue with my great day, we had another tree returned.  This guy was super nice about it and since I remembered the tree specifically I think it was just one of those things.  Luckily I still had 10 foot Nordmann’s on the lot and let him pick his favorite for an even swap the next day.  As I was walking back to the RV to tell Lee, I tripped over the orange rope we use to separate the customer area from the work area (you know, for safety) and fell backwards into the work area of the lot.  I went down hard and my shoulder hit a piece of rebar from a stand before I was able to stop myself.  Thankfully I had grabbed the line and the jolt stopped short of being a puncture, but I could have seriously hurt myself.  Those metal legs on the stands are no joke.  That put things in perspective.  Yes, I was having a not so great day, but it was warming up and things certainly could have been a lot worse. Definitely time to get a grip. (But I’m the one who is supposed to be careful while she sorts out the life insurance. I’m just saying. – Lee)

 

The entire back area was cleared and the stands are being twined together

The entire back area was cleared and the stands are being twined together

This is where my shoulder hit. Could have been really nasty. I was super lucky I grabbed the twine and it slowed my fall

This is where my shoulder hit. Could have been really nasty. I was super lucky I grabbed the rope border I tripped over and it actually held and slowed my fall

Monday ended up being a weird day.  We only sold 2 trees, but we did sell some wreaths and garland at the 50% off price.  Since our bonus is based on quantity sold on these items, that actually helped us, although my labor was $40 a tree for the day.  I always take the last hour of the day, and Lee goes in and eats dinner, and for the last several days we have had no customers between 8pm -9pm.  Since it was so slow, for the first time I called my daughter and we were in the middle of a nice chat when some folks pulled up at 8:37pm.  I immediately got off the phone and greeted a group of six slightly drunk people who had come in a beat up pickup truck with a beer keg in the back.  They were all in a jolly mood and pretty quickly picked out a beautiful 1o foot Nordmann.  I also sold them a stand, so they spent $350 in no time. That’s one reason (other than common decency) why I treat everyone who walks in the door the same, because you never know who has money in their pocket, and more importantly, who is willing to spend it. Since that tree was way too big for me to handle, our employee went and got Lee.  He stopped eating his dinner and came out to help.  He was a good sport about it, and the customer’s positive energy was infectious, but it is another example of the fact that no matter how slow things are, our time is simply not our own.

We received a text late Monday night and were told they were coming to pick up more of our trees at 10am on Tuesday.  I appreciated the notice, because it allowed me to schedule our one employee to come in at 10am.  My back is still pretty sore from loading the trees and my fall yesterday, so I would love to not have to load this truck.  From this point forward all trees that go out are unwrapped and those are much harder to manage.  I can solo handle most 6 and 7 foot trees when they are wrapped (Where 6-7′ = 3-4′ – Lee), but the unwrapped ones are much harder to grab hold of, because my arms are short. Plus after getting chastised yesterday, I am perfectly happy to leave the work to the menfolk. Yes, I have still not quite gotten over that. We did have a nice moment when the young woman who has worked with us all season brought us a Christmas card.  It was so sweet and the note inside said “Sorry the weather down here is so bipolar.  Merry Christmas”.  It was so cute, it made me laugh.

Despite our hopes to the contrary, it was still pretty cold Tuesday morning although it did warm up a bit as the day went on.  We were also told that all trees were 50% off.  From what I understand this is the first time in 20 plus years that these trees have been discounted, so it’s a pretty big deal.   I posted the 50% off prices on the local Facebook sales group and also walked over and told the Fire Department that was behind us how much we appreciate the fact that they didn’t run their sirens late at night and let them know everything was 50% off.  Since most of our potential customers have been complaining about price over the last few days, I was thrilled about the discount.  Not sure it will translate into more sales or not, but at least I don’t have to have the “can
I get a discount” conversation with every single customer anymore.

Then I had a nice long chat with my grandfather.  My grandparents were full timers for three years (first in a Class A and then in a Class C) back in the 80’s and visited every major national park.  My grandfathers memory of those parks is absolutely amazing and it’s really cool when he talked about walking trails that I walked 20 years later.  He even shared a couple of bear stories from Yellowstone, which rival anything we have experienced.  Apparently bears have always been a major problem there.  It was a really nice chat and I enjoyed the fact that we always have something to talk about now.

Lee spent the time disassembling the flocking room and getting our rig ready for the RV tech to come.  We have been trying to get a mobile tech here since we arrived, and finally he texted he could come today around lunch time.  We definitely need to get the furnace working before we head out of here and it is much easier to get the work done while we are onsite.  Our backup plan is to visit the Camping World nearby, but they do not allow full timers to stay in their rigs on location because of problems they have had in the past.  It still might be our best option though if the mobile tech doesn’t work out because they understand the full timing lifestyle and work their scheduling around it as best they can.

Every bowl needs to be washed but we are waiting for the weather to warm up a little

Every bowl (these are just some of the ones that need done) needs to be washed but we are waiting for the weather to warm up a little

If it hasn’t become clear by now, we are trying to take care of the many chores that have built up during this job assignment.  One thing about working 10 hours straight, multiple days in a row, is there isn’t much time for housekeeping tasks.  Those things need to be done, and in particular rig related issues can really cause a problem if you let to many of them build up. One of our biggest issues is the furnace hasn’t worked since Alaska and since Lee diagnosed the problem enough to realize the furnace would need to be moved AND we have a warranty we have never used, we have been trying to get a tech to come and see us since November 15th.  Finally, the tech had an opening in his schedule and came out around 4pm on Tuesday.

The job was no joke as he and his son each had to crawl into two different very small spaces and disconnect all 8 of the heating ducts, and the gas line, and unbolt the furnace from the camper. The issue was that two screws that hold the blower motor housing to the furnace came loose (technically one came loose and one just fell out completely) which allowed the blower to push the housing away instead of maintaining the air pressure inside, which prevented the sail switch from ever engaging, and stopping the heating cycle at the first step. Simple problem, VERY difficult to fix as they had to work together from two different places simultaneously to move the furnace to get to the screws and then replace the screws and put it all back together. From the expletives the tech was muttering, it was not fun, and he was pretty open about how poor the design was in these models as it related to accessing the furnace.  (If you happen to have an exterior panel to access your furnace, consider yourself a very lucky person. – Lee) Afterwards, they adjusted the cables on one of our living rooms slides, and replaced a broken cable on the other living room slide. Again this was a job Lee had diagnosed and even got the parts for, but it required two people to do (one inside the rig and one outside) and was not easy.  Lee, who was feeling a little guilty about not fixing it himself, felt quite a bit better when he saw the level of difficulty and the two jobs all together took about four hours being done by someone who has been doing this for twenty years. (If it had been me, I would have lost my mind about an hour in, and told Tracy that she would just have to live without heat, and slideouts that don’t slide out. And then probably burned the rig to the ground to teach it a lesson. For whatever reason I have zero patience when I am working on my own stuff. – Lee)

Then to top off the evening Cori and Greg came by and Cori, who knows my husband well, brought him two mini pies.  I swear if she keeps feeding him like this he is going to leave me for her.  Lee loves his pie.  We had a wonderful chat and since it was so very slow (only 2 trees sold all day) it was a great end to the day.  The combination of better weather, the trees going on sale, starting the tear down process, getting our rig fixed, and their visit has really cheered me up.  Cori and I even scheduled a tentative date for pedicures tomorrow since things have been so slow!

See the look on his face. He hasn't looked at me like that in weeks :)

See the look on his face. He hasn’t looked at me like that in weeks 🙂


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First Time Selling Christmas Trees – The Last Full Weekend

The slowness continued on Thursday, we sold 6 trees, and Friday we sold 10 trees. Then Saturday, which I had some hope for, it rained again.  It feels like it has rained at least some every weekend since we have been here.  I suppose I could go back and check, but I don’t have the energy for it.  Major ennui has settled in and the constant cloud cover is not helping.  I did decide we should cut down some of the larger trees though, since we had a family looking for a ten foot Noble on Friday.  I guess that is common practice as we get closer to the end of the season, and after getting the owner’s permission, decided we could cut down at least one of each.

We still have 180 trees in the lot and no further discussion about taking any away.  Corpus Christi (the busiest location) already has a tent full of trees and they also had a chemical spill down there which has stopped people from drinking the local tap water.  Not sure how that will ultimately effect business down there, but they were always the location that sold the most.  We talk a lot about why business is off this year.  It could be the political uncertainty, it could be economics, but most likely it’s just the rain.  San Antonio folks don’t go out much in the rain. Or it could be the price.  There was a shortage of availability this year and prices were higher.  The closer we get to Christmas the more folks are looking for a bargain, but the owner is adamant that we don’t discount trees (beyond the 10% returning customer or active military discount).  Even when it finally stopped raining things were still slow and at 3pm we had only sold 4 trees.  The HEB down the street marked their trees down 50%, but as one customer who bought said, they didn’t have any large trees left.

It stayed slow all day and pretty humid with temps in the high 70’s.  I let one person go home early and called another one off before he even came in, but I never really got caught up on the labor. I did treat myself to a Pizza Hut online only pickup deal of a Thin Crust pepperoni and mushroom pizza for $7.99.  There is a small delivery hub right down the road and it was slow enough I could pop out and get the pizza.  I am also developing quite the love of Blue Bell Dutch Chocolate ice cream, which is the best chocolate ice cream I have ever had in my life.  Whatever weight I lost at the beet harvest, I am definitely gaining back lol.

At 8:30pm the wind and corresponding cold front started.  It got cold fast, and the wind blowing through the tent was pretty unsettling. We were prepared though and per instructions kept the cash register on and covered it with a blanket, disconnected the flocking machine and brought the metal spray gun inside, and closed up the tent flaps.  For the second time the wind was so hard it ripped one of the big banners off the metal fence, but we caught it in time before it blew away.  Feels a little Wizard of Oz when it’s that windy and you are hanging out in a tent.  Thankfully, by the time we did all those chores it was time to close anyway.  We ended up only selling seven trees and we weren’t alone with the slow day.  We heard later that the most any lot had  sold was  30 trees.  I know this is unusual because of the reaction of the more experienced lot managers. At the end of the day though it doesn’t really matter what past years have shown.  We have to deal with the cards we are being dealt.

The next morning it was COLD.  It was below freezing until after we opened at 11am, and we even had a thin layer of ice on the bowls of water the trees were in.  The water bowls in the trees closest to the edge of the tent where the wind came through were completely frozen. Plus still windy, so I was thrilled when Lee offered to sit in the tent this morning and let me watch some football.  I haven’t watched a game since we first arrived, and as an avid football lover have felt the loss.  Initially we had some trouble getting a decent FOX signal, but after downloading an app our friend Greg recommended (DTV Antennas) we got a very good signal.  So I worked on a paperwork mistake I had made, straightened up the house, did the dishes and watched some football, all while Lee sat out in the very cold tent.  It was super nice of him.  We have taken one of our space heaters and plugged it in the little office we have, but since it’s right near the tent opening and has no windows it’s still pretty cold.  I feel really bad for the helpers we have, because they have to sit outside the office with no heat source at all.  Occasionally they will go into their cars and warm up or I will bring out some hot chocolate, but it’s a pretty cold gig for them on days like today and not much I can do to make it better for them. When we have customers and they are active the physical exertion helps keep them warm, but when it’s slow it’s cold.

I called off two of the four people we had on for today, but we are still having 1 extra person at all times.  We talked about having no employees here at all, but there are a couple of reasons why we are not taking that step.  First, once people lose all hours it is likely they will find other work.  Since we know we need help during the tear down process, I am trying to keep at least two of our long term employees with some hours.  Secondly, we still never know when we will sell one of those big trees.  Almost every day last week, despite the extremely low numbers, we sold a 9 or 10 foot tree.  And I just don’t feel comfortable lifting anything that heavy after I almost hurt myself on an 8-1/2 footer.  No big deal, you might think, take the risk and then seek medical care, and under normal circumstances maybe I would roll the dice, but this job comes with no workers comp insurance.

Every single position we have held to this point, including our two volunteer positions, have had worker’s comp insurance.  And it’s not just hourly positions, but 1099’s as the gate guarding company offers it and they are 1099.  And ironically I have seen more people hurt in these jobs than at any other place we have worked.  One person dislocated their shoulder, another badly sprained an ankle, and a third ruptured two disks in their back.  Loading, unloading, and processing trees is extremely physical and when most activities are done with a second person it is relatively easy to strain or sprain something.  By now you all know I am a team player and I think I have shown I am not afraid of hard work, but I have to draw the line about putting myself in a situation that could involve injury and impact our future income.  Neither Lee nor I have ever filed a workers comp claim in our lives, but knowing the insurance existed gave us some peace of mind. That’s just our personal take on it.  The company is certainly within their rights to not offer the insurance, but I also feel we have the right to be as safe as is reasonable.  We must be somewhat alone in our concern because that the labor ratios require at least one person in the couple to work person in the couple to physically work most of a 10 hour day.  Regardless having one employee takes some pressure off of Lee.  He still has to lift every tree, but at least he is doing it with someone stronger than me. The cost of that is $80 a day in labor which I think is a reasonable price to pay. Will find out at the end if the owner feels the same.

We ended up only selling six trees for the day and one of us had to sit in the cold the entire day.  (Hey kids! Any guesses as to who that one of us was? – Lee) And it stayed cold.  Several of the water buckets with trees in them remained frozen solid and the wind never really died down.  Cori and Greg stopped by for a bit, which was awesome, and I got to watch my Patriots beat the Broncos which was also really great!  Lee bore the brunt of the pretty awful day though and I felt bad about that.  I only had to break him during his lunch and then again for his dinner at 8pm, which made for a long, cold day for him. I think at this point it’s pretty fair to say he’s over it. (I’ve been over it for about a week. – Lee)

Oh and on a completely different note, I received my bonus from the Beet Harvest this Friday.  I don’t know if it was the blog, the phone call I made, or everyone’s positive thoughts, but someone changed their mind.  I do know it wasn’t a clerical error initially, because I did verify that on the initial phone call, but someone, somewhere changed their mind and I am grateful for it.


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First Time Selling Christmas Trees – The Almost Busy Weekend

Once again we were all excited about the weekend and it started off really well.  On Saturday we had sold 32 trees by 7pm along with 3 flocked trees (my 9 foot flocked tree sold which was awesome!) several wreaths, some garland, and many stands.  We were definitely on pace for a record setting day, when the rain that had been threatening all day started and business just died.  We didn’t have one customer for the last hour and a half and the day ended with a thud.  It was respectable.  34 trees and $4100 in sales, just not what we were hoping for.  And worse it kept raining through the night and we woke up to rain on Sunday morning.  Thankfully it also got a little warmer and it was a light drizzle rather than a windy downpour, but as we have seen, the rain has a significant impact on everyone’s sales in Texas.

The hardest thing is knowing whether the sales are just lost or once again pushed to another day.  I still have people coming in regularly who say they were going to skip the real tree this year, but changed their mind and I have to believe those folks could go either way based on weather.  Then again, many of the people coming in are bringing reminder postcards, which means they had every intention of buying, they have just waited until the weather cleared.  One exciting thing is I am seeing a renewed interest in flocked trees.  We still have several for sale on the floor, and I continue to flock trees to fill those holes because folks have an interest in them. It’s an excellent way to jazz up a less than perfect tree, and I really enjoy it.  I’d flock all the trees if time allowed and people wanted them!!  The rain is a bummer for the flocked trees though, because they can’t be transported in the rain, and most folks aren’t willing to wait so buy a regular tree instead.  Ah well, what can we do?

Thankfully the rain held off all day and we had a decent day.  Sold 30 trees and did some nice garland and wreath sales making plenty to cover our labor.  Then at 5:00pm we got a call saying we were getting more trees.  Apparently a truck came in from Oregon and the contents were being equally divided between the 15 locations.  We didn’t need any more trees, and didn’t have the labor to cover it, but were given no choice.  40 trees were on their way and we had to accept them.  Luckily I was able to get a hold of our one guy who didn’t work on Sunday and he was kind enough to come in. He showed up at 5:30pm but the truck didn’t get here until 8pm.  It took our three guys and Lee about a half hour to unload the truck, but we ended up paying an additional 3-1/2 hours of labor.  Why do we care?  It took our labor per tree from about $5 a tree (which is already over our target) to $6 a tree.  And all for trees that we really didn’t need.  I had a plan in place to change the footprint on the floor going forward and we could have coasted on the back stock we had until the end.  Heck, we don’t even know if they are going to keep us open to the end, so every tree we processed was probably going to another location anyway. The fact that we were doing it after already working 9 hours added insult to injury and Lee was about as angry as I have seen him over this job yet. Since we are cutting labor so close, he is doing a lot of the physical labor (I am also doing what I can), so we are working hard these 10 hour days, not just sitting around.

We also had to schedule extra help to process the trees Monday morning, and about the time the processing was done the phone rang.  The owner wanted to know if we had extra trees we could give to other lots.  Interesting question, especially since no one asked us the day before.  My answer was a polite “We are finishing processing the trees you sent last night as we speak and once they are done I will do an inventory and call you back.”  And just to be clear, I don’t mind being the storage facility for trees.  I also don’t mind us processing them for other lots.  What I do mind is our commission is impacted by the amount of labor we are using and I have no idea if all these extra hours will be taken into account or not.  I also mind that it puts extra pressure on Lee as he has to do the physical labor himself to process them and since we aren’t selling them we will not be the ones to get the commission.  I was assured in the beginning of this that the owners would “even things out” at the end of the season and that may well be the case, but since we have absolutely no idea how that bonus is being calculated it’s taking a lot on faith.  To be honest, since my bonus from the beet harvest was taken away with no explanation or recourse I am a little gun shy about the whole bonus thing.   Our low sales coupled with the hours we are working and the physical labor we didn’t expect, makes the bonus more and more important.  And in case you think we are being alarmist,  up until this point we have only made $2060 in sales based commission.

I should add here that almost everyone’s sales are lower than last year.  The heavy rain on the weekends has impacted business and some folks are down 30%.  The other lots are still selling much more than we are.  On my 30 tree days they are selling 100+, and although I don’t know what the percentage of sundries associated with those tree sales are I have to guess they are higher than mine.  Plus of course we get paid a small amount per tree, so even just selling more trees would put more money in our pocket.  By the way this is the first commissioned based job I have ever worked in my life, which is adding to the general unease.  I had many opportunities when I was young to go into sales, but I never felt confident or secure enough to have a job where the income was that variable.  If you are a person who has experience working a job that is commission based, this would probably bother you less, but if like me you never went that route you should definitely take that into consideration.

On Monday I also had my first returned tree.  The trees are 100% guaranteed ONLY if they get them in water within 30 minutes of leaving our lot.  We, of course, have no way of verifying that, so they need to bring back in the tree and the receipt.  I heard other people talk about this during training, but was frankly unprepared for how angry the guy was.  I get it,  He went out of town for two weeks and came back to a dead tree.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have the receipt or the tree, so I was reduced to verifying the tree was dead via a facetime conversation with his wife.  Then he has to fill out a form, because believe it or not there are people that return these trees every year.  The whole interaction was pretty unpleasant, but we did at least make it right and replace the tree because I was able to verify it was one of ours.  And no, I’m not allowed to tell you how we know it was our tree. Crazy.  And hopefully not something I will be dealing with often.

After the customer left I called a person at another lot and was told they only had one refund last year and that person was very nice.  OK then, let’s chalk it up to just “one of those things”.  I also talked a little bit about our situation with the labor and commission and essentially asked if they felt the owners were fair at the end of the day.  She immediately said yes, she felt they had been, so armed with that (and my personal ethic) we went and did a count of trees and I figured out what we could spare.  Some people might hold onto the trees in the hopes they would sell them, but then another couple wouldn’t have the opportunity, so that just didn’t seem right to me.  We completed the count and gave away twelve 4′ Nobles,  and fifteen 7′ Douglass’.  The Dougs in particular I know will sell on other lots, I  just hope whoever comes and picks them up brings some help with them.  I know this is just the beginning of the trees leaving though, and I appreciate the fact that the owner gave me some choice in what I was willing to send off the lot.  My understanding is that soon they will start moving trees around to lots that are selling and then my job will be to try to hang onto the trees I feel will sell.  For me the whole thing is rather deflating.  I would like to sell all the trees.  Lee though would be fine with getting done a few days early and having some time off.  Either way we will just have to see what happens.  I know I am saying that a lot, but there really is nothing else I can say.  We never really know from one moment to the next what will be happening.  I guess that’s just the way the tree business works.

We ended the day selling 11 trees (three were big ones) and about $1400 in sales.  Not a horrible day for a Monday, but not the boost we were hoping for since it was an absolutely beautiful day. They did come and pick up the 27 trees I gave up and since the folks who got them have been super helpful to us, I didn’t feel that bad about it.  In an odd way I knew they were going to a good home.  And yes, I know that seems a little nuts, but we have watered and cared for these trees since the beginning and I want them, as Phoebe from Friends says, to “fulfill their Christmas purpose.”  If they can’t do that here, so be it.  I just want them to go to a good home.  I know, crazy right? But when I heard two of the trees I sent were purchased before they were even unwrapped at the other lot, I felt better.

(In case you’re wondering, I’m keeping track of every hour we work, and every penny we make on all the various items we sell. I have a running spreadsheet that I update each day that tells me how much money we’ve made, and how that translates into how much we’ve made per day as a couple, and how much we’ve made per hour as a couple. The information is useless right now, because I won’t know the final tally until we find out what the bonus is. We believe that information will be given to us on Christmas day, although it’s possible it won’t be until after we’ve taken everything down and packed everything up, which could be New Year’s day. Whenever it is, we certainly will publish that information, because while all the experiences and narrative is helpful, I’m sure what anyone considering doing this will want to know is at the end of the day, was it worth the time? – Lee)

 


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