FRANKLIN PARK, N.J. - On Christmas Day, their excess inventory turns into mulch. But sellers of precut Christmas trees are loath to discuss last-minute discounts. Most do admit they are willing to haggle as time winds down.

Anticipating the 30 or so Fraser and Douglas firs that are left over each year, John Van Cleef trimmed $10 off the price of every Christmas tree at VC Land on Millstone River Road in Hillsborough last week.

"It brings people in," he said, noting he sold 55 trees over the weekend when the red hand-painted discount sign went up and the price came down.

He started the season off with 500 trees ranging from $20 to $100 and has 50 left. For bargain hunters, he said, the two weeks before Christmas Eve is the best time to find a discount.

"It's good for me because the last-minute shoppers help me get rid of the trees that would be left over anyway," he said.

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, 78 percent of the 28.2 million trees sold nationally each year are precut.

Steve Belly, owner of the Potting Shed in Franklin Park, has been selling Christmas trees for the past 40 years and said he is a little more unyielding with his prices.

"We don't negotiate on our price," he said. "We give five different price points, so usually the customer can find something in their price range."

Belly said he's sold 125 to 150 trees on Christmas Eve.

"For the most part, people don't haggle," he said. "But when it's Christmas Eve they'll ask me, 'What are you really going to do with them?' "

Belly said it's better if last-minute shoppers are jolly when trying for a discount.

"It depends on their attitude, to be honest with you," he said. "If they're a jerk, then that's the price. But if you get a person who's nice about it, then maybe we can work something out."

Before switching to an artificial tree years ago, Sandy Einstein, a 61-year-old Denville resident, said the family's tradition of "Santa bringing the tree" made the last-minute tree purchase on Christmas Eve an inexpensive tradition.

"The closer to the day, the better chance you'll get a deal," he said.

Einstein advises last-minute bargain hunters to start scanning tree lots two days before Christmas Eve, but not to expect a lot of variety.

"All the good ones were gone by then, but that just meant you had to be creative," he said. "It was taking a couple branches off the bottom or covering a few holes with ornaments. It wasn't perfect, but it worked for us."