Treetime in Lake Barrington: The Secret to Running a Holiday Business

When your business centers around one season, you make the most of it, just like the staff behind this Barrington establishment.

Great customers make great employees. At least, they do when you run a Christmas store like Treetime, 22102 N. Pepper Road, in Lake Barrington.

Just ask Darlene Wagge, who’s worked with the retailer for about a year and a half but has been shopping there since her daughter, Dawn – who also works at Treetime – discovered it eight years ago.

Chat with Wagge about the abundant displays of glittering decor and it’s apparent she knows a thing or two about Christmas decorating. Only then do you discover she sets up as many as 17 Christmas trees in her house every year. She loves Christmas.

“My husband was out shopping and bought me snowmen this weekend,” she confesses. “When we go out on vacation, he knows if there’s a Christmas store in the area, I’m shopping there. I have photos of myself in all of those stores.”

Wagge is quick to lead customers around Treetime’s 20,000-square-foot showroom, located in a warehouse off Pepper Road in Lake Barrington. Inside, displays overflow with high-quality Christmas trees, garlands, wreaths, custom floral displays and holiday decor. Wagge digs into granular details in a hurry.

“We want to give customers all the information we can while we’re selling them, so they know how to treat and maintain their products,” she says. “For example, watch when the lightbulbs go out. You need to replace them – and most of your lights are going to be out from underneath, even though you don’t look underneath.”

Laurie Kane, owner of Treetime, stands by nodding and smiling. She’s just as passionate about selling the holiday season, but she also recognizes how passion and knowledge are part of a winning formula that have brought this company through 12 years of Christmases, offseasons and retail challenges.

People may still be discovering what Kane considers “Chicago’s best-kept secret,” but word is getting out. And it helps that some of the most passionate people, this brand’s biggest advocates, are right in-house.

“We only focus on this. We’re not selling a lot of other things,” Kane says. “We dream and think about Christmas all year. So, we think about it a lot.”

The Business of Christmas

It’s easy for the average person to grumble when retailers put up Christmas goods in October. But when your business is the holidays, it’s never too early to start. For one thing, serious shoppers start early, says Kane. But it’s also the fact that this season is so limited to begin with.

“One thing people don’t really understand is that by the first and second week of December, our sales start going down, because if you’re going to decorate you’ve already done so by that point,” says Kane. “People who love Christmas, the types who set up four Christmas trees or more, they’re starting early. They don’t decide on Black Friday. They start planning early.”

Just how early do they start? Early enough that the showroom has a soft opening in June, a Christmas in July sale and a grand opening around Labor Day.

“Here’s the most common question I get: ‘Do you take the summer off?’” Kane smiles, preparing for the punchline. “The answer is no. Because, in the summer we are receiving products, we have to get our orders in the system, we’re pricing everything, we take everything down and set it all up again, and we’re already starting to plan the next year. Everyone assumes we take the summer off. We definitely don’t.”

In reality, the “offseason” – if there is one – is relatively short. January and February are shopping and cleanup months, as Treetime’s staff of 10 year-round employees break down the previous year’s displays and start planning for the new year. By March, displays are already starting to take shape. Within three to four months, things will be ready for customers, more or less. And by the fall, a team of seasonal workers is hired, trained and ready to go in both the showroom and the 30,000-square-foot warehouse.

Truth be told, the planning goes on even longer. This past August, Kane was already planning for next year’s Christmas trees. That’s just how long the supply chain takes, in a good year.

One of Treetime’s specialties is Christmas trees and garland, and these aren’t just your run-of-the-mill products. Rather, Kane and her team have direct contact with the Chinese manufacturers so they can sell a specialized lineup that now includes more than 200 styles.

“There are differences in their colors – you can get lighter green, darker green, lighter green tips – and different materials like flocking,” says Kane. “We have a black tree, we have a white tree, a platinum one, one with tinsel.”

Kane likens the manufacturing and design process to making a dress. It starts with a range of materials – hard needles, flat needles, round needles – and includes factors like size, density, lighting and color. Much of Treetime’s current lineup is built upon feedback from customers.
The design process alone can take several months, Kane says. Prior to COVID, she would travel to China, meet with the designers and flesh out ideas.

“I remember the first time I went there, one of the coolest things to me was that you would meet with the designers, tell them what you want, and then you’d head back to your hotel – and they would stay up all night prototyping it,” recalls Kane, who compares it to the slower, more deliberate style of prototyping you see stateside. “You’d come back in the morning and there it is, your 10-foot tree all done. It was a really cool process.”

These days, with travel more restricted, these conversations take place online, with videoconferences and mailed samples. Of course, this iterative process takes time, and so does manufacturing.

“We have them build prototypes, they send us samples, we give them feedback and then we can order,” says Kane. “The orders and the tree design have to be done on time so we can place an order in December for the following year.”

By late December, as the store is winding down, Kane and her team are in a shopping mood. They’re already scouting out next year’s merchandise.

“We start our first shopping trips in December,” says Kane. “We’ll go to Amsterdam and we’ll start buying. So, we haven’t even really finished selling one year’s merchandise when we’re already buying for the next. Our suppliers need time to take orders, make everything and ship it in time for us to sell it.”

The Customer Experience

From just outside Treetime’s front door, there’s not much indication of the winter wonderland hidden within. There’s no Swiss chalet covered in twinkle lights, no windows smothered with Santas or a billboard attracting tourists on the highway. Rather, this store is tucked inside an unsuspecting warehouse with a day care and some light manufacturing for neighbors. Just outside the door is a playful sandwich board, and out by the street, at the entrance to the parking lot, Santa greets passersby on Pepper Road.

“When you open the door, you go from, ‘They don’t have that much outside,’ to saying, ‘Whoa,’” says Kane. “People are always shocked by it.”

What they find inside is a retail showroom filled with colorful displays and holiday decor that’s far more than just Christmas. Thanksgiving and Halloween displays meld seamlessly with vignettes of well-appointed mantels, Christmas ornaments, glimmering 20-foot trees, and a wide variety of other seasonal decor. It’s a beloved hangout for residential customers as well as interior designers. Treetime also counts among its clientele online shoppers and businesses such as hotels and O’Hare International Airport.

But tucked where it is, among a light industrial corridor outside of Barrington, it takes a little more effort to attract shoppers. That’s where marketing comes into play.

“We’re certainly not in a location that’s frequently thought of as a shopping destination,” says Kane. “It’s not a mall, so we’ve got to keep working to be top of mind.”

Treetime’s marketing plan is an all-inclusive affair that leverages multiple outlets, from public events to print advertising (including this magazine), broadcasting and social media. The effort starts by September with events like Pepper Fest, which attracts shoppers to small retailers along the Pepper Road corridor. Once the holiday season sets in, Treetime hosts family-friendly breakfasts with Santa and draws out a circuit of radio and television broadcasters who scatter their message across Chicago.

Social media also factors in, not so much as self-promotion but as an extension of Treetime’s mission. Beyond simply selling high-quality holiday decor, the team strives to educate consumers on what they’re buying, why it’s different from competing choices and how they can use it within their homes.

“We really want to help people to be successful,” says Kane. “Our goal is to bring great products to you, and we believe the only way to make you successful in your decorating is to share really good information.”

On platforms like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, you’ll find regular videos posted by Treetime designer Cassi Nickolas. Each one shows some demonstration or explanation on how to create your own holiday decor.

In some of recent videos, she takes items found within the showroom – maybe a pair of snowshoes, some ribbon, a floral arrangement – and transforms them into a beautiful piece of wall art or a door hanger. These become custom pieces you can buy in-store, but they also become the basis for practical, DIY crafts you can source right in the store.

“The reason I’m doing these videos is that I want people to say, ‘I can do that. I can get the ribbon and I can do it myself,’” she says.

While it’s obviously a plug to come visit the store, it’s also an invitation to learn more inside the showroom. Not only is Nickolas available for insights, but everyone else on the team is well-equipped to dispense their knowledge.

A display of Christmas trees at the center of the showroom is a prime place to learn. A computer screen illustrates some of the basic tree styles and shows how differences in color, layering or density will affect your choice. Turn around, and you can see the difference for yourself.

“The sales experience is part of being in the showroom,” says Kane, as she demonstrates the process. “It’s really important for us to get you a tree that you love. It doesn’t do anybody any good to sell you a tree you don’t like. So, we teach you.”

She proceeds to demonstrate the process: Do you like this tree, which is more sparse inside and at the edge? Or, do you like this other one that’s dense inside but has room on the outside for ornaments? Do you like this more traditional needle, or do you prefer this molded needle? What kinds and colors of lights do you like?

Wagge, who fills her home with more than a dozen Christmas trees every holiday season, steps in and finishes the sale. Brimming with passion, she peppers in her own experiences as a shopper and admits it’s not uncommon for her to decorate a tree with a client right in the store – especially if it helps the customer to visualize their purchase.

“There are times I might spend an hour with that customer,” Wagge says. “That’s just what they need. We want to make sure they’re fully satisfied.”

The promise of satisfaction extends well beyond that first visit. Because Treetime’s team has direct connections to the manufacturer, they can offer a higher-quality product, a stronger product warranty and hands-on aftermarket support that goes well beyond many competitors.

“Most retail places, you get a warranty and it lasts one season right out of the box,” says Wagge, who worked for a big-box craft store before joining Treetime. “Here, we do our warranties in house. We take care of you with customer service over the phone. We try to take care of you and find out how we can help you.”

Sometimes, that support is as simple as answering a question or guiding someone through assembly, she adds. Other times, it may involve more complicated issues. In that case, repairs can be made in-house.

“We have a great staff that’s really well trained and knows their stuff and shows you how to get what you want, how to use it, how to take care of it,” says Kane. “And we’ll provide the customer service when you need it.”

The Science Behind the Art

Kane likes to joke that she never set out to run a Christmas store. Rather, Christmas found her in 2011.

“My husband and I were landlords and there was a Christmas store here,” she says. “That went out of business and we decided to open our own Christmas store. We were entrepreneurs, and we saw the opportunity within opening a Christmas store.”

Laurie and Joseph Kane came from a background in manufacturing and engineering, at one time building automation for circuit-board manufacturing. While Laurie Kane felt confident in behind-the-scenes details like inventory and process, the Christmas store market was an entirely different experience. So, she hired the old store’s staff and started learning.

“There was no way we could have made it without them,” she says. “They needed us for back-of-house functions and we needed them for decorating and front-of-house things. We all came together, and it worked. A lot of them are still here. We’ve had a good time together.”

Along the way, Kane has built upon that experience with the work of other designers and longtime retail associates like Wagge and her daughter, Dawn Samples, who both come from long stints in retail. Nickolas joined Treetime after nearly a decade at Seasons by Peg, a home decor store in Woodstock that closed in 2015.

While much of Treetime’s team brings front-end experience in retail and design, Kane brings an engineering mindset to the back end. Behind much of this operation, there’s a feeling of science-like process that drives decisions and keeps things moving.

“The seasonality is the challenge for us, because we have to plan a lot,” says Kane. “We know we’re going to have to sell everything in a very short amount of time, so that means you have to get staff up and trained, and you have to plan for high volumes and low volumes.”

Staffing swings from about 10 permanent, full-time employees to nearly 30 employees during the peak season. Retail customers tend to come in drips during the summer and fall, then by the hundreds come November.

“Planning on how to ramp up and ramp down is very challenging,” says Kane.

And then there’s the supply chain, which brings plenty of its own headaches – particularly in recent years with challenges related to COVID and the economy.

For a team like Treetime, there’s a lot that happens behind-the-scenes to make sure the showroom looks flawless and inspired by the time shoppers arrive. There’s not just the ordering. There’s also receiving, tagging, stocking and displaying. Nickolas and the other designers spend nearly three months figuring out how to arrange displays. They consider where to arrange common themes and how a shopper might move through the store. There’s a distinct process and plan to bring the vision to fruition.

Throughout this behind-the-scenes process, the staff remains in close contact, always adjusting procedures and improving their plans as needed. Everyone has input and contributes to improvements, says Kane. But unlike a manufacturing setting, where every part of the process is tightly controlled and relatively predictable, the process at Treetime has built-in flexibility for the artistry that’s inherent to this work.

“The biggest difference is that you’re working with a lot of subjective things,” she says. “Art is very subjective, but it is art. We put all the processes we can behind the art, but in the end it is art. You can’t engineer art. So, we let the artists do their work and then we engineer behind them.”

Everyone’s Happy

On a sunny day in late summer, Christmas tunes are blasting from the speakers overhead. A little Frank Sinatra, some Bing Crosby and the Jackson Five, even an “Ave Maria” and some “Silent Night” are setting the mood.

It’s tempting for the outsider to believe there may be some Christmas fatigue, but not among this crowd. They love Christmas, and they love sharing the holiday spirit – no matter the time of year.
“It’s great. Everybody’s happy when they come here,” says Samples. “I like all the happy people who come here to shop.”

Kane admits she, too, is hooked.

“When we go in December to start shopping for the next year, I’m always sitting on the plane going, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again,’” she says. “And once we get there it’s, ‘Ohhh, this is great.’ So, we never get tired of it. I always wonder how we’ll come up with new ideas for next year, and we always do.”