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Keeping Your Head Above Water

JENNIFER YURI | Waterscapes

Pond installers prove that a positive attitude and a willingness to change can be your most valuable resources in battling the recession.

It took several months before anyone wanted to apply the dirty word ‘recession’ to our current economic situation, but regardless of how dire we describe our financial predicament, it’s no secret that the past year hasn’t been exactly stellar. Some businesses have been shaken to their core, while others have toppled over completely. The good news is—the strong do survive and they seem to share similar traits that can be adapted by those willing to learn and expend a little elbow grease.

Landscape professionals may think water features are viewed as a luxury item that most consumers won’t purchase in a down economy, but it’s that very type of can’t-do attitude that can ultimately seal a pond installer’s doom. Pond contractors across the continent that have managed to remain profitable in 2009 attribute their success to one word: Attitude!

Jim Price of Pondtastic Water Gardens in Orlando, Florida, claims the right attitude has kept his business from sinking this year. “When the recession hit, I figured I had two choices,” said Price. “I could either circle the wagons or come out gunnin’!” He chose the latter.

Price’s water features business has faced an uphill battle this year as evidenced by the state’s unemployment rate that skyrocketed from 5% in January 2008 to more than 11% today, higher than the national average. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 2009.) Florida’s housing market has declined significantly due to unemployment and its tourism industry is in a tailspin. Orlando in particular, has been one of the most challenging markets for someone who installs decorative water features. But Jim Price is tenacious in his effort to fight all odds.

Price, a pond contractor and water garden retailer, says his sales are up from last year and credits this primarily to maintaining a positive attitude and the ability to change the way he does business. Eighteen months ago, Jim saw the recession coming and knew he’d have to make adjustments in order to survive. He stopped placing ads in the local newspaper and switched to full-color advertisements in high-end home magazines, targeting those with more disposable income. Price even went so far as to change his storefront location in order to gain greater visibility in the community. He says foot traffic has increased tremendously and in June, his sales surpassed 2008 totals for the year.

Word in Orlando has spread that Price is the man to call for both professional installation and rehabilitation of ponds. He has noticed an upswing in pond renovations this year with approximately 30 percent of his business resulting from rehab jobs. Price is getting called on to repair water features that were poorly installed by contractors who are no longer in business. Brian Dahle of The Fishman in Birmingham, Alabama, notes the same type of increase in pond renovations.

Like Price, Dahle armed himself with a proactive attitude when the recession hit. Dahle knew he’d need to get in the trenches and work both hard and efficiently if he was to make it out alive. He even went so far as to join a Pond Guys Peer Group to gain support and receive feedback on his business strategy.

Dahle has always preferred installing small to medium-sized features and found this price niche conveniently aligns with what Alabama consumers are willing to spend on landscaping during a down economy. “Ponds that are 16'x21' or smaller tend to be the most manageable from an installation standpoint, and they also offer the best margin,” claims Dahle.

Dahle didn’t lower his prices this year, but instead focused on streamlining the operational side of his business. His inventory levels are lower, his installation crew works more efficiently and he continues to rent equipment as opposed to making capital investments. Dahle also returns to his existing customer base to offer services, maintenance programs and pond supplies. Says Dahle, “When preparation meets opportunity, you’ll find success.”

On the other side of the continent, Bob Blasing of Ripple Effect Water Gardens in Redwood City, California also claims attitude as being a key component for his success in 2009. While other landscapers have given up, Blasing has worked hard to reinvent his business to face current challenges. To offset a potential decline, Blasing pumped up maintenance services and now performs pond clean-outs year round and offers monthly service contracts. He also began offering residential landscaping services in addition to water features, which now accounts for 20 percent of his installation business.

Blasing’s location sits adjacent to a premier landscape supplier that caters to homeowners and will refer water feature lovers to Ripple Effect.

Blasing understands the importance of consumers being able to interact with a water feature before they buy so he has several display ponds on hand, both indoors and out. Like Jim Price, Blasing’s storefront accounts for a healthy portion of his sales, with 30% of installations coming from customers walking into the store.

One significant challenge that’s faced all three pond installers is turning design consultations into paying jobs. Brian Helfrich of Aquascape Designs in St. Charles,

Illinois states his closing rate on design consultations a couple years ago was close to 90%, but now finds he has to touch the customer several times before sealing the deal.

Quite often, Helfrich will take the customer on a personal tour of several water features the Aquascape Designs crew has installed.

Followed by a trip to Starbucks, Helfrich builds a relationship with his new customer and can typically sell the job after a follow-up call or two. “Homeowners were ready to buy at the design stage a few years ago,” says Helfrich, “but today they need more prompting and more time to think about the investment.”

Blasing agrees. “Consultation closing rates are down,” he says and finds more of his potential customers are comparison shopping.

Blasing met this challenge by having his staff focus on follow-up calls. Sometimes it takes three to four calls before the customers commit to a project, but Blasing claims it’s worth the extra effort.

“Getting the first check is difficult right now,” said Price. Since buying a water feature is often an emotional decision, Price ties into the personal reasons that led the consumer to seek out this landscaping option in the first place. He finds he has to work harder to turn the emotional motivation into a financial commitment. Like Dahle, Price doesn’t lower his price to secure the job. Instead, he simply goes out and bids more often.

Like Price, Helfrich knows if he can get the initial design consultation, he has a good chance of selling the project even though it can take more effort and time. To secure more consultations, Helfrich remains active in area home shows and will often sell design consultations during the show when consumer interest is high. Although home show traffic is down from previous years, the leads coming through are still qualified leads. Helfrich also continues to advertise in higher-end home magazines noting that many of them are now offering special advertising rates as an incentive for local businesses.

“You definitely have to work harder in this economy,” Helfrich states. “But if you’re willing to do more bids and change your strategy to accommodate the financial situation, you can definitely be successful selling and installing water features.”

Price couldn’t agree more. He’s been in the landscape business for ten years and added water features to his line of products and services in 2003. Just six months ago, during perhaps the toughest segment of the recession, Price dropped general landscaping from his business altogether and decided to focus solely on water features. He was nervous, to be sure, but felt that residual landscape services were distracting him from what he felt would truly be his bread and butter.

Does he regret the decision? Not in the least. Price has already exceeded last year’s sales total and, with his positive, never-say-die attitude, will most likely have a strong year in 2010 as well. As consumers search for ways to add value to their homes in a slipping housing market, water features are proving to hold their own for those with the right attitude and the willingness to do the extra work to succeed.

EDITORS NOTE: Jennifer Zuri is marketing communications manager for Aquascape, Inc.

 
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