Christmas tree lot operators are pining for more than profits

Vacant pieces of property all over Southern California are being transformed this week into small forests of holiday green. Haulers are delivering hundreds of thousands of trees, often in the dark of night, to seasonal merchants gearing up to profit from a beloved tradition.

The hours are long and the payoff varies, but selling Christmas trees beats most work even if you do spend a lot of time on your feet in a chilly parking lot, operators say.

As Black Friday dawns in the Southland, many small-business owners and nonprofit fundraisers will be cranking up the holiday music and welcoming shoppers into fragrant mazes of Oregon evergreens.

And unlike the cranky mobs who shop competitively for door-buster deals, Christmas tree buyers tend to be in a good mood.


“Everyone is upbeat and happy; no stress,” Carson lot operator Phil Johnson said. “People are excited about buying a Christmas tree.”

The excitement extends to landlords nationwide who can bring in some extra income by renting out a piece of land or corner of a parking lot they own, real estate broker Jamie Brooks said.

“It’s a revenue stream for any company that has land that is going to be dark for an extended period of time,” said Brooks, a retail real estate specialist at CBRE Group Inc.

Rents vary widely depending on the location, with high-traffic urban sites commanding the highest prices, he said. Contracts typically run for 60 days and cost $2,500 to $10,000 a month.

Tree lots are often the old-fashioned way to go for consumers. You can also cut your own, shop at a nursery, or buy one at big retail stores. Trees of many varieties and sizes are available and can cost as much as $200. According to the National Christmas Tree Assn., about 30% of last year’s fresh trees were bought at retail lots or from nonprofit groups such as the Boy Scouts.

For landlords, tree lots are similar to other short-term rentals of their properties such as renting to Hollywood film crews or the owners of pop-up stores that intend to operate only for brief periods. And, of course, there are the orange-hued pumpkin patches that appear from nowhere every October.

“It’s the same concept,” Brooks said. “An owner identifies a property that isn’t generating revenue and tries to find a short-term tenant.”

For many lot operators, the seasonal enterprise is an annual family affair. Torrance tree supplier Andy Tingirides said he and his family have been in the business for 85 years, selling both wholesale and retail.

“Four generations is something to brag about,” Tingirides said, before boasting that his 3-1/2-year-old grandson can drive a forklift.

His family sells about 30,000 trees a year on a three-acre Prairie Avenue site near the intersection of the 405 Freeway and Artesia Boulevard in Torrance, he said.

A small portion is dedicated to the family’s Christmas Tree House retail store, but most of the space is set aside for wholesale operations of Bishop & Mathews Oregon Christmas Trees.

The grand fir is the most fragrant, Tingirides said, but may dry up before Santa arrives. Widespread branches of the noble and the silvertip firs provide the most room for decorations. Nordmann and turkish firs, which are native to mountains around the Black Sea, have shiny needles and a reputation for lasting longer.

Among his wholesale clients is Louis Hollingsworth, who has been in the business since 1984 and earned the nickname Mr. Frosty years ago. After spraying snow-like flocking on trees, he ended up with the white stuff stuck to his eyebrows and hair. “People said, you look like a black Frosty,” said Hollingsworth, who is African American.

He recently stopped by Bishop & Mathews to buy 300 trees, his first order of the season, for his Frosty’s Famous $19.99 Christmas Trees lot. After seven years in a mall parking lot at Rodeo Road and Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, Frosty had to move this year to make way for a new real estate development on the site.

Now at Crenshaw Boulevard and Stocker Street on former gas station space donated by Arco, Frosty’s is a nonprofit business that raises money for charitable causes.

This year Hollingsworth plans to support View Park Preparatory Accelerated Charter Middle School in South Los Angeles and help buy band instruments for Peary Middle School of Gardena.

“We do nonprofit work throughout the community,” he said.

Christmas tree lots are classic small businesses. Getting started requires the right paperwork, of course. The Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, for instance, has issued 37 permits at a cost of $220 apiece to operate independent Christmas tree lots in 2013.

“The numbers are fairly consistent with past years,” spokesman Luke Zamperini said, “although some old-timers think there were more lots before the big-box stores started selling trees.”

Such a permit is just the beginning, said Johnson, the Carson lot operator. He estimated that it takes $1,000 worth of paperwork to get a tree-selling business approved, and then comes insurance, rent and the wholesale cost of trees.

“It’s probably $25,000 to get going,” he said.

Nevertheless, selling Christmas trees is an attractive business financially and emotionally, Johnson said. He and his family keep Tis the Season Tree Farm at the SouthBay Pavilion mall on Avalon Boulevard open 11 hours a day, seven days a week through Christmas.

The business offers the Johnson family the chance to make money and spread good cheer, such as offering discounts to families who have a loved one overseas in the military.

“Some people like to come in just to smell the trees,” Johnson said. “And kids like to run around.”

About 80% of buyers are families shopping together, he said.

So who makes the final decision on what tree to buy? When it comes to decorating the home for the holidays, he said, “The moms are the boss.”

Twitter: @rogervincent