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’Twas Two Months Before the Holidays

| Landscape
Twas two months before the holidays and all through the land, landscape contractors called customers and dusted off plans. For the next hundred days, they were busy as bees, hanging holiday lights along rooflines and trees.

Holiday lighting is an American tradition that touches the heart. Families know that there’s nothing like pulling into the driveway on a December evening and seeing their home lit up in celebration of the season. Whether in snowy Maine or tropical Hawaii, holiday lights evoke warm memories, high spirits, and sometimes even a closer connection to the Almighty.

For decades, people designed and hung their own holiday lights. Untrained, unprofessional, and mostly unaware of the dangers of frayed wires and electrical overload, homeowners and business owners would use the same lights year after year, climbing rickety ladders to put up and take down their displays.

To be fair, some of the results were terrific. More often, they were less so. Sometimes they were even dangerous, as people augmented their displays from year to year but didn’t call in electricians. It was not uncommon that house fires started due to holiday lighting displays.

Starting a couple of decades ago, we in the landscape business did what we do best: we came to the rescue. Some of us came to understand that holiday lighting is just another kind of outdoor lighting to be designed, installed, and maintained.

The only real difference is that unlike most outdoor lighting, holiday lights are temporary.

That’s a good thing. We get paid to put them up, and we get paid to take them down. They’re an annuity that can be part of your core business, just like shrub and lawn maintenance, hardscape design and build, or irrigation installation.

In some ways, holiday lighting is even better than those landscape contracting staples. People like their lawns, their patios, their annual beds, and their drip irrigation systems. They love their holiday lights.

“It’s an emotional buy,” says Craig Tkaczenko of Creative Images Landscape, Little Ferry, New Jersey.

“Customers don’t get impassioned about other things in our business the way they do about their holiday lights. Even now, when the economy is softer, people will still find the money to put up their lights because it’s Christmas and the lights make them happy. As one of my customers said to me, ‘Even if I have to sacrifice a vacation, I’ll find the money to do the Christmas lights.’” Tkaczenko emphasizes the ‘kid factor.’ Not only does a homeowner’s beautiful holiday lighting display evoke memories of a simpler time, but the display also makes cherished holiday memories for the homeowner’s children. As Tkaczenko says, “They know their kids will absolutely love it.”

For all the love showered on holiday lighting displays, it’s still a hundred-day business. You’ll begin work in earnest in October, doing designs and hanging lights in time for Thanksgiving. Then, following New Year’s, you’ll take those lights down.

When landscape contractors first began to install holiday lights, they worked mostly with strings of lights owned and stored by their customers. You’d arrive at the customer’s home on an October fall day, the customer would bring out some boxes with their strings of lights and tell you where to put them.

Now, things are different. Many landscape contractors are in the lighting design business as well as the installation business. Jimmy Tompkins, JT Landscape, Wake Forest, North Carolina, does his designs for customers with the help of Drafix’s PRO Landscape software. There are other software programs exclusively for holiday lighting. These software packages let the customer see what they’re getting even before any lights are hung.

“We go into the customer’s home,” says Steve Ruth, president of Pro- Curb Lawn Care and Landscaping Services, Darlington, Maryland. “We meet with them, do a design with a price quote, and show them a map of their property that indicates what we can do for them.”

Many contractors won’t hang lights that the customer either owns or stores. These contractors insist on owning the lights themselves, and storing them at a clean, dry, and secure off-site storage facility. Bernard Wilson, owner of Cutting Edge Lawn Care & Christmas Lights in Pelzer, South Carolina, is one of those contractors who won’t work with lighting strands provided by a customer.

“It’s a matter of efficiency and safety for both the customer and for me,” he says, “as well as economics. If I let the customers store their own lights, and the wire gets chewed up by their dog at the very end, I might not get to see the chewed part until I’ve spent hours on the ladder.”

“My first year doing installations, I did install with customers’ lights,” Wilson recalls. “To be frank, it took too long. I found myself wondering who would be liable if there was a serious problem with the wiring. The customer’s insurance company would blame me. My insurer would blame the customer. It would be a mess.”

Wilson has been installing holiday lights for just a few years. He got into the game after reading about and talking with Tanner Maxson, who runs the Christmas Light Installer University program, in conjunction with a landscape contracting business in Flower Mound, Texas. Maxson offers a video, e-book, and marketing package that covers applicable subjects from electricity calculations, to bidding, to the intricacies of hot glue.

Like many contractors, Wilson has moved to a system where he designs, installs, maintains, removes and stores. “At least if I store it, I know it’s safe,” he adds.

Other contractors say there are also bottom-line reasons for only installing lights that you’ve purchased for your customer and store in your own facility. You can charge more. If you’re working on an hourly-fee basis, all you can earn is your hourly rate. If you’re at $75 an hour to hang a customer’s own lights, and you work four hours, your gross maxes out at $300.

On the other hand, if the lights are yours, it’s easier to charge a flat fee for the whole process of install/maintain/remove/store (and you can add “design” to the mix, too.) You can build extra profit into your flat fee. Customers won’t question it.

Call this design/install/maintain/ remove bundle “full service.” Ruth has been in the landscape contracting business for 24 years, and added holiday lights to his mix of services offered in 1996. His full-service business has been a true success, amounting to between 30 and 40 percent of all his revenue in recent years.

“We’re in a service business,” he reminds, “a service business that is driven both by tradition and ‘looks.’ Some new customers just want to duplicate what they’ve done year after year. Some folks want us to create something new. We try to make it as easy as possible for the customers to get what they want.”

“From year to year, customers can change the combination of their decorations,” Ruth says. “Some want only white, some want red and green; we don’t charge to change colors. It’s an easy process, particularly now that we’ve moved so many customers to LEDs.”

Convincing customers to move to the more expensive LEDs has not been all that difficult, Ruth says. “Let’s say there’s a customer who now wants an entire roofline lit, instead of just a section. Once we point out that while there’s not enough electricity to power that new string of lights with old-fashioned incandescents, but there’d be no problem with safer LEDs, they tend to go for the LEDs. The long life of LEDs and their strength against the elements also helps to make the ‘sale.’” The word ‘sale’ is inside quotes, because what many contractors who hold on to their customers’ holiday lights in the off-season are doing is much closer to a ‘lease’ than a sale. “We own everything,” says Tkaczenko. “We provide a decorating service, from soup to nuts, and we store the lights. If there’s a problem, we come out and fix it within 24 hours. The homeowner doesn’t have to do anything but enjoy the lights.”

Even in a lease arrangement, there may be the occasional year when a customer decides not to put up their holiday lights display. In this case, many contractors will continue to store their lights for them, at a nominal fee. “At some point, if the customer doesn’t come,” Ruth explains, “we can recycle their lights into the displays of others, or put them to use in another way.”

Leased or not, you still need to educate yourself before you go to work. That’s when training services like Maxson’s “University” or a franchise agreement with a company like Christmas Decor in Lubbock, Texas, can be helpful.

Maxson covers everything from marketing to sales to the nitty-gritty of the work itself. For example, he talks about using hot glue to fasten strands of lights to a home. “Don’t put hot glue on any painted or stucco surface,” he cautions. “When you remove it, you’ll lose the paint or stucco, and you’ll find yourself with quarter-size circles all over the painted or stucco exterior. Just tell the customer ‘no,’ that lights can’t or shouldn’t be hung in those locations. They’ll appreciate it.”

On the franchise side, Christmas Decor gives the newbie in the business a complete turnkey holiday lighting operation, with nothing left to chance. With upwards of 350 franchisees across the country, Brandon Stevens, president of Christmas Decor, says that franchisees can take advantage of shared information. “If it can happen out there in the field, it has probably happened to one of our franchisees, which means we know about it. You can go to school on the experiences of others.”

Being a franchisee also means you can take advantage of the buying power of the franchisor. Stevens says that Christmas Decor sends representatives to China to work directly with lighting manufacturers, and to purchase millions of dollars of hardware yearly.

Whether you are a franchisee or on your own, holiday lighting can also provide great non-economic benefits for you. “One of the best parts of the business,” Tompkins reports, “is that it allows us to hold onto our employees. We could charge more than we do, I suppose, but I got into the business as a ‘labor thing,’ and that’s still driving my thinking. It’s such a pleasure not to lose my best trained and most reliable workers in the off-season.”

Tompkins also points to backdoor marketing benefits. “Houses with big holiday displays tend to be high-end homes. These are the kinds of customers we want for our landscaping business. I’ve seen that the holiday lighting business can be an introduction for us to these homeowners. It’s a way to convert them to regular clients.”

Clement Clark Moore, who wrote “The Night Before Christmas,” in December of 1822, was—sigh—not a landscape contractor. If he had been, maybe he would have changed the last two stanzas of his unforgettable poem:

We speak not a word as we do our work,

Not a gutter, or rooftop, or tree do we shirk.

’Til the lights are all ready for that first wintery night,

When the switch is flipped; oh, it’s glorious, and bright!

The family cheers, even cries tears of joy,

Especially the littlest of girls and of boys.

As for us, we exclaim, as we drive out of sight,

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight!”

 
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