Somewhere around seven or eight years ago the holiday season took on a different flavor for our family when the older of our two children joined a Boy Scout troop that sells Christmas trees as its annual fundraiser.
My wife and I love this about the troop among other things because it means no lugging wrapping paper, popcorn or light bulbs to the office and strong-arming colleagues into buying your stuff so you can return the favor in a couple of months when the Girl Scouts start selling cookies. Nope, we’re a one-and-done kind of scout troop, and the formula works to the tune of 1,500 trees a year.
The troop has been running a Christmas tree lot in the front lawn of the same church for the past 52 years, so it relies less on advertising and more on tradition than your typical business. The boys, many of whom are so small when they start out they can barely lift the little Charlie Brown trees let alone the 10-footers on the back of the lot, earn money to go to camp and along the way they pick up a lot of important life lessons.
My wife (who by the way is the camper in our family) and I feel blessed that our boys have both spent time selling trees on the lot. Not only does it defray the camp costs and provide a nest egg for the troop’s annual spring break ski trip, it also allows the kids to spend time learning some valuable life lessons about the world of retail, which will pay off in the real world when they go looking for a full-time job. These are simple lessons yet lasting lessons that many grownups spend a lot of time and money trying to obtain later in life. These life lessons serve us all well whether we’re in the middle of a long-lasting career or trying to eke out the next chapter of our job history.
Our older son picked up on the tricks of the trade fairly fast, the first rule being, know your inventory. For a first-year scout, knowing all the varieties of trees and where to find them on the lot is a pretty big accomplishment, but the kid who can tell the customer the nuances of each kind of tree needle and how often to add Tree Life to the stand will find themselves making some pretty good sales.
The second lesson most of the kids learn comes from the world of pro football where there is an adage that says you can’t make the club when you’re sitting in the tub, referring to the fact that injured players sitting in the team hot tub seldom make the squad. The same can be said for selling Christmas trees. It takes some of the kids at least one selling season to figure out that you can’t sell trees if you’re living in the break room sucking down hot cocoa while your friends are out on the lot working.
In addition to learning the inventory, the kids learn how to look the customers in the eye, give them a firm handshake and then pay attention without hovering. Kids learn fairly quickly how to establish that safe distance where if the customer needs something they are right there to provide service, while not standing over them making the customers feel uncomfortable.
They also learn that it’s OK to ask for help. I have this theory that the smallest of the small scouts always sells the biggest tree from the farthest reaches of the lot. Often these behemoths require one if not two adults to lug them from the back of the lot to the tree stuffer for wrapping and ultimately placement on top of the family truckster. So the kids need to work with older scouts or adults to get the trees moved once they have been sold.
One of the most important lessons a scout can learn is that the job isn’t finished until the paperwork is done, and even then it might not be done. Son No.1 learned fairly quickly that you have to stay with a customer through the checkout process to guarantee that things get paid for properly and the proper tree is loaded onto the family’s car. The second part is to make sure to stick around and help with the loading process. Too many kids do the sale and don’t help with the loading, and so they miss out if someone were to offer them a holiday tip.
Most important, the boys learn that age-old lesson that the customer is always right. Most of the kids are used to dealing with their parents or teachers but the general public offers a whole new set of idiosyncrasies. There’s something about Christmas tree lots that brings out the quirkiness in people, and the kids learn a lot about dealing with all sorts of individuals, but at the end of the day, the customer is always right.
Sadly these will probably be my last volunteer shifts on the old Christmas tree lot. Our younger son is among the 7 percent of scouts nationally to earn their Eagle Scout rank, and he will be taking one last High Adventure trip next summer with the troop before hanging up his neckerchief. Our troop has a much higher rate of Eagle Scouts, and I’m sure some of it comes as a result of selling trees. I know it has for both of our two boys.
Over the years, we’ve watched many kids grow from being squirrely first-year scouts into young men who have gained a great deal of poise and confidence from working on the tree lot – traits that will serve them well when they go looking for not just their first jobs but throughout their careers. Traits that were forged by time spent on bitter cold days selling Christmas trees on the old Boy Scout lot.