Christmas came to Strange’s around the same time it normally does, but customers were eager to see the holidays sooner.
“We were getting phone calls in July, beginning of July, ‘When are you gonna have your trees up?’” said Heidi Oistad, the sales floor manager for Strange’s Florists, Greenhouse and Garden Centers in Short Pump. “The artificial ones. It was like, it’s July. It’s only July.”
Ahead of Thanksgiving, the store was a holiday explosion with displays of artificial trees and a sea of pink, red and cream poinsettias that sprawl out as far as the eye can see in the greenhouse. Outside, Christmas trees in uniform rows reach toward string lights.
The season’s all about a search for normalcy in a year that’s been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone’s happy to see decorations out, Oistad said. Assistant operations manager Jeremy Cochran called them a “happy distraction” for customers, with the holidays giving them something to plan for.
Sneed’s Nursery in South Richmond started getting calls about Christmas offerings in November, which operations manager Jenny Rash said was early for them too.
Everyone’s ready to start decorating a bit earlier, she said.
“Just as a garden center, our sales are up so significantly over last year, because everyone’s stuck at home and wants to enjoy their space and I think that decorating for Christmas is just another way to bring joy into your life,” Rash said.
As the Christmas season approaches, local Christmas tree sellers have seen increased traffic compared to last year.
“It’s like every day is almost a weekend,” Oistad said of business at Strange’s.
Cochran added: “It’s kind of pretty much following suit with the rest of the seasons so far, or rest of the year so far — busier than normal earlier in the season.”
It’s all a part of a larger trend that started once people began staying home more because of the pandemic, Cochran said. It’s given people more time to be outside at home, he said.
Overall, Cochran said everything is moving faster than it usually does in the store. Oistad said artificial tree sales are doing well. Cochran guessed live tree sales were up 20%. They anticipate selling out of trees like they do every year.
Sales at Sneed’s for the year are up 30% to 40%, Rash said. This year the store wasn’t able to get as many trees as it has in the past, citing an industry decline that’s been happening for years. Usually Sneed’s gets 1,600 trees. This year, it got 1,300.
At The Great Big Greenhouse in Chesterfield County, sales are up 42.4% for the year.
The store usually starts getting Christmas trees in around Black Friday. This year, they were two days early, said Rick Mills, an assistant manager.
Nick Atkinson, another assistant manager, said the store usually sells around 2,500-2,600 trees. It brought in more trees than last year in anticipation of a surge.
The Great Big Greenhouse will normally deliver trees to customers, but it’s had to cut down on setting them up for people. Mills said employees will put the stands on for customers, but the pandemic has kept them from going inside anyone’s house to help deck the halls.
Stores haven’t been able to run holiday festivities as normal either. The Great Big Greenhouse had to cut its train track display in half, Mills said. Sneed’s usually does a preview party that attracts 100 people in its cottage. This year, Rash said the nursery opted for a different approach and had people schedule appointments for $30 to come in for 15 minutes and shop with a gift card. Everyone was able to be safe and have mimosas and wine with straws under their masks, and they even got treat boxes to take home.
“My regular customers all tell me that they like to come here because they feel safe when they’re here,” Rash said.
Sneed’s did have to do away with hot cider, cookies and marshmallows to roast around the fire as people shop for trees. Rash said one family came in and the kids ran to her office to grab the supplies. They had to tell them it wasn’t happening this year.
Oistad, with Strange’s, noted that tree-shopping feels different this year as people walk around with masks. Something that’s normally fun for families has turned into a source of apprehension for some people, she and Cochran said.
At Sneed’s, they’ve been wearing masks since April despite most of the work being outside. Customers mostly have been thankful, Rash said.
“This time of year, I start to get customers that have not been here before or have only come here for Christmas. ... When I ask somebody who’s outside to put a mask on they’re like, ‘Well, I’m outside,’ and we’re about to stand 2 feet apart from each other and touch this Christmas tree together,” Rash said.
At The Great Big Greenhouse, a buffalo plaid chair for Santa sits on a raised platform surrounded by Christmas trees.
It’s shielded by a wall of plexiglass.