Pam Wills' tradition of buying a Christmas tree at the Canoeing For Kids lot near Lexington started several years ago.
"We just kind of discovered (the lot), and I loved the idea that the money was going to Canoeing for Kids," Wills said. "Now we go back because it feels good that it's going to something that matters."
A generation or two ago, sales at most Christmas tree lots benefited a charity. With more buyers flocking to big box retailers and grocery stores these days, the few remaining charities selling trees are thankful for loyal customers like Wills.
"The vast portion of our sales are to regulars," said Jay Alley, director of Canoeing For Kids. "I want to be part of people's tradition."
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He sees charity tree lots as a good fit for Christmas. He wishes more people felt that way.
Canoeing For Kids, which introduces disadvantaged children to the wonders of nature and responsibility on local rivers and lakes, started selling trees nine years ago at its headquarters at 114 Riverchase Court near Lexington. Now Canoeing For Kids relies on tree sales for about 10 percent of its annual $75,000 budget.
The breakdown of people who buy their Christmas trees from charitable groups dipped below 10 percent in 2006 and 2007 before jumping back to 18 percent last year, according to a survey by the National Christmas Tree Association.
The organization began its annual survey in 2004. Since then, sales at chain stores are the only market niche where sales have grown every year. Charities understand why: price.
"I walked in Lowe's the other day to pick up something and I saw the prices on their trees," Alley said. "I thought, 'Man, that's what I'm paying (to get) my trees.'"
Fortunately for charities, price isn't the deciding factor for some tree shoppers.
The Living Springs Lutheran Church youth group has been selling trees in the church's high-profile lot at 4224 Hard Scrabble Road for about five years, with the profits paying for the annual youth mission trip.
Their trees cost $45 and $65, and "when people find out what it's for, they'll give us more and say keep the change," said Sarah Flatt, who coordinates the tree sales at the church.
None of the local charity lots is raking in the dough with tree sales. But every little bit helps.
The Breakfast Optimist Club, which sells trees at Trenholm Road United Methodist Church (3401 Trenholm Road, Columbia), makes $5,000-$10,000 per year on tree sales, according to club member Gordon Whittaker. The proceeds from the Optimist lot are funneled to such youth programs as Camp Kemo, the Soap Box Derby and Canoeing For Kids.
The Optimist Club encouraged Alley to get into tree sales and helped him get started. Disappointed in the trees he shared with the Optimist Club lot the first year, Alley organized a group of friends to drive to North Carolina and cut trees on a farm owned by another friend. Now, Alley provides the trees for the Optimist Club.
The club, which has been selling trees for more than 30 years, is one of the few holdovers from the era when charity lots were everywhere. Whittaker understands why other charities have stopped.
"It's labor intensive to staff the lot," Whittaker said. "And it's 100 percent volunteer-driven. Our numbers of club members has dwindled in recent years, and it's getting to be more of a challenge."
Charities still have to run tree sales like a business. Alley tried a second lot in downtown Lexington last year, but sales were low so he didn't return to that location. A new Canoeing For Kids lot in Columbia's Vista area is heading in the same direction this year.
At another charity lot, the business angle actually is the focus. Oliver Gospel Mission is selling trees this year for the first time out of the parking lot at Greenhill Baptist Church, 1734 Augusta Road, in West Columbia.
While the money raised goes back to the mission, the effort was set up to teach job skills to people trying to get their lives back on track. "It's teaching them entrepreneurship," said mission spokeswoman Beth Well. "They have to get licenses, permits, do the accounting. They learn about insurance, taxes and staffing."
The mission started small, buying only 50 trees. While some customers balk at the $50 and $60 price tags, others gladly fork over the cash.
"People who support the mission, they don't blink an eye at the price," Well said.