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Is there a Christmas tree shortage this holiday season?

Trees of pine and fir are still around, but your options may be dwindling.

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Time is running out to get your tree this year. 
Evgeniia Siiankovskaia/Getty Images

Putting on a sweater after Thanksgiving weekend to pick out a Christmas tree is one of my favorite childhood memories. It's not just the cold air that rings in the holiday season; it's the fresh smell of pine, that mess of needles and the comfort of graceful strings of lights. 

But most Americans don't buy real trees from a lot anymore -- they get fake ones. In 2020, 85% of US households had artificial Christmas trees, according to a survey from the American Christmas Tree Association. And like with many things this holiday season, supply chain disruptions could threaten the stock of artificial Christmas trees in the US, increasing the chances of December shortages. The website for Balsam Hill, a leading retailer of artificial trees, shows that trees are still available but many models are going out of stock.

The good news -- at least for me -- is that real Christmas trees should be plentiful. Though experts are still advising shoppers to buy sooner rather than later. "The market will be overloaded with people wanting to get a tree early," said Tim O'Connor, executive director of the National Christmas Tree Association.

Whatever type of tree you're going for this year, here's what you need to know to beat the holiday rush. 

What's causing holiday shortages this year?

Disruptions to the global supply chain sparked by the pandemic last year have extended into 2021. 

Experts expect increased demand for Christmas goods this year, which may create further kinks in the chain as people shop earlier for the holidays. Given shortages for things like microchips that power phones and magnets commonly used in toys, your holiday gifts may arrive late -- if they don't go completely out of stock. 

Will there be a 'fake tree' shortage in 2021?

Not exactly. There should be a robust supply of artificial Christmas trees -- but you may not find what you're looking for if you wait until the last minute, according to Mac Harman, CEO of Balsam Hill, a leading retailer of Christmas trees.

"The supply chain pipe has been 95% full for years," Harman said. "Right now, especially because everyone's at home, there is demand for specialty home goods. All of a sudden, the pipe is running at 120 to 130% capacity." He went on to say: "Big box stores didn't ship their trees at their usual time this year. They delayed it because they were busy getting Halloween over. Before Halloween, they were getting back-to-school over. Everything is behind."

Harman's advice: If you know what you want and it's available, buy it now. If you still haven't haven't purchased a tree, you may want to go with your second- or third-best option to ensure you'll have a tree in time for Christmas. 

Will there be a 'real tree' shortage in 2021?

No. But there's still a benefit to shopping early. And since we're already into December, that means you should shop now.

"We've never run out of Christmas trees in any community in this country, ever," said O'Connor. "We do have locations who will sell out," he added, "but that doesn't preclude you from going somewhere not too far away. And there's always unsold inventory at the end of the season."

Oregon -- the biggest Christmas tree farming state in the US -- has been beset by droughts, rising temperatures and water supply disruptions. But the impact of those threats won't be felt this holiday season, according to O'Connor, because Christmas trees take about 10 years to grow. The trees we'll be picking this year are mature, leaving the trauma of 2021 to be felt most acutely by the younger crops.

That said, the best advice is still to shop early for real trees if there is a particular tree you're looking for, if there's a particular place you like to shop at or if you want the best quality, according to O'Connor.

Will prices be higher?

Experts anticipated prices for both real and artificial trees would be higher this year, and they were right. Increases in inflation and growers' costs, including transportation and labor, are driving prices up, according to O'Connor. And higher shipping costs will inflate the amount you end up paying for artificial trees, according to Harman.

When is the best time to buy a Christmas tree this year?

Whether you're opting for a real or artificial tree, you'll want to shop as soon as possible. If you wait any later into the holiday season, you may be able to find a real Christmas tree, but it might not be exactly what your family -- or Santa -- wants.