All I want for Christmas this year... is a tree

Demand for real trees outstripping supply amid Covid-19 travel curbs, shipment delays

Workers packing Christmas trees at Far East Flora on Wednesday. The overwhelming demand for Christmas trees this year has taken nurseries by surprise.
Workers packing Christmas trees at Far East Flora on Wednesday. The overwhelming demand for Christmas trees this year has taken nurseries by surprise. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

For some families celebrating Christmas, having a real tree to put presents under is at the top of their wish list.

But those pining for some festive foliage to spruce up their homes this year may be disappointed.

With Covid-19 curbing leisure travel and causing shipment delays, demand for Christmas trees seems to be outstripping supply.

At least six out of nine nurseries and retailers that The Sunday Times spoke to last week said their Christmas trees were sold out.

Others had been left with very limited stock.

A spokesman for Dairy Farm, which oversees Cold Storage, said trees were still available in stores, although they were selling out quickly.

Ikea Singapore also said its live Christmas trees at its outlets in Alexandra and Tampines had sold out in less than two weeks.

Corona Florist & Nursery received 10 to 15 inquiries on a daily basis last month, with 40 customers vying for the last 10 trees available last Sunday.

Mr Ivan Wee, 40, retail manager of Island Landscape & Nursery, said its stock of 500 trees was sold out within two days.

The overwhelming demand for Christmas trees has taken nurseries by surprise.

Many, including Far East Flora, Island Landscape & Nursery and Ji Mei Flower, brought in a similar number of trees last year.

According to the National Parks Board, close to 9,900 Christmas trees had been imported into Singapore as at last Monday, a slight increase on the 9,800 imported in the same period last year.

"We expected reduced demand due to Covid-19," said Ms Sharon Goh, director of Candy Floriculture, who is in her 60s. "But it seems as if every resident has started buying a tree, since they are staying in Singapore and not able to travel."

Supply bottlenecks brought about by Covid-19 may also be putting customers at risk of missing out on their Christmas trees.

"We ordered about 200 trees this year but a portion had to be returned to our suppliers," said Mr Cedric Tay, 26, a shop assistant at Song Lang Garden.

"The trees had spent too long in the containers and were not in optimal condition," he explained.

Christmas trees are the latest casualty of a Covid-19 shipping crisis that is causing delays in shipment.

Ports around the world are seeing ships docking longer than in pre-pandemic times, said Associate Professor Goh Puay Guan from the National University of Singapore Business School.

"The port congestion could occur for various reasons, such as safe work measures that might reduce the number of workers allowed," he added.

Inspections of cargo or crew could also slow down the shipping process.

Meanwhile, demand for shipping is on the rise due to various factors, such as retailers that have started restocking inventory for the holiday shopping season, said Singapore Management University associate professor of operations management Onur Boyabatli.

Even so, vessels may not be able to scale up their shipment volume in time for Christmas.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, due to huge slumps in ocean freight demand, the carriers drastically reduced vessel capacity. They overdid it and... are trying to increase capacity... but it takes time," said Prof Boyabatli.

These challenges have not deterred some customers from hunting down a Christmas tree to deck the halls ahead of Dec 25.

Buying a tree is a yearly ritual for Australian Alex Rankin and his wife, who are spending Christmas here this year.

Mr Rankin, 34, who works in the technology industry, had to shelve plans to visit family in Hong Kong after the Singapore-Hong Kong travel bubble was delayed until next year.

"At the nurseries we visited, there were lines of trees that had been reserved," he said. "We even joined WhatsApp groups of 50 or more people to hunt down a tree."

Ms Janie Wong, marketing manager of Ji Mei Flower, said demand has definitely increased as more people, including expatriates, remain in Singapore due to travel restrictions.

However, the uptick in demand from individuals is welcome at a time when nurseries are seeing fewer corporate customers.

"Many hotels (are) turning into stay-home notice locations, so they do not elaborately decorate the hotels," said Ms Goh of Candy Floriculture.

Ms Gracelyn Lin, chief executive of Sing See Soon Floral & Landscape, said: "Due to the uncertainty of when phase three will begin, many hotels and restaurants have been unable to budget how much they wanted to spend on decorating their premises, with many only deciding now to request Christmas trees."

Ms Zenn Soon, 38, did not originally plan to buy a Christmas tree to decorate her cafe, Wakey Wakey, which she co-owns. She decided to do so after many of her customers requested one and even offered to dress the tree up.

"Everyone needs a bit of Christmas cheer," she said. "It's been a difficult year."

Good things come in trees: Family seeks to ring in Christmas properly

Ms Melissa Sarah Wee (centre) at home with her parents Dennis Wee and Lilian Lee as well as siblings Ryan and Sabrina back in 2017. They will be celebrating Christmas this year without their extended family. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MELISSA SARAH WEE

In previous years, Ms Melissa Sarah Wee would throw a Christmas party for over 30 members of her extended family.

But that is not possible this year, with households allowed only up to five visitors.

Still, Ms Wee has decided to ring in the Yuletide season properly and has ordered a Christmas tree.

Getting one was not easy. After sending e-mails and Facebook messages to four nurseries, the 36-year-old finally struck gold - or rather, tree - with wholesale company G.G. Fresh Flower last Thursday.

Ms Wee, who is the creative and food operations team lead at catering firm The Plattering Co, had started looking for Christmas trees last month after hearing that demand this year was overwhelming.

"My family usually start our search (for a Christmas tree) in December but we heard that the trees were selling out by mid-November," she said.

In the past, her family would order a 2.5m-tall Christmas tree for the benefit of her younger cousins.

"The adults would wrap presents and leave them under the Christmas tree for the children," she said.

With only her immediate family joining her for this year's party, Ms Wee is scaling back on the festivities. But she still purchased three much smaller trees, each 40cm tall, just to add a finishing touch to the decorations.

She is also rustling up a feast for her immediate family, complete with roast beef, oysters and pork crackling.

"It's nice to sit down and spend quality time with my loved ones after such a chaotic year," she said.

Jessie Lim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2020, with the headline 'All I want for Christmas this year... is a tree'. Subscribe