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Decorating for the Holidays

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I used to watch my father spend countless hours stringing and stapling lights around the gutters, chimneys, rooftop and trees, only to watch him struggle to take them down a few weeks later. That part was a real chore. My job was to pull the lighting strands out of the boxes and untangle them -- often a process that would consume my entire weekend.

My father eventually got to a point where he'd leave the majority of the lights up all year -- unplugged, of course.

As I got older, I was permitted to get up on the roof and actually help. Not until then did I realize why not every homeowner in the neighborhood was doing it -- it's hard work! Not to mention how dangerous it can be -- especially in the states that get hit hard by winter weather. Icy rooftops, snow covered patios and black ice make for potentially hazardous adventures in holiday lighting, and most homeowners don't want to deal with it.

Some people don't want to risk injury while others don't have the time; still others just don't want to do it. No one wants to climb around on ladders and rooftops in the middle of winter, even if they live in the warmer climates. But what are their options?

That's where you come in. In the winter months when your landscape business goes into hibernation, hanging holiday lights and decorations can pick up the slack. You may discover that many of your clients don't, for whatever reason, want to deal with hanging holiday lights. It's akin to why they hired you to maintain their lawns. They want their landscape to look good, but they don't want to do it themselves.

It's not often that there's a business niche that allows you to inspire a sense of awe and happiness in people, as well as add additional revenue to your bottom line. In this slow time of the year, hanging holiday lights can generate income and wow your clients. "We're selling emotions and feelings at Christmastime," said Travis Freeman, Brite Ideas Decorating, Omaha, Nebraska.

"People aren't putting in ponds in the winter or installing irrigation systems, at least not in Omaha or other cold climates. Holiday lighting is the next best thing to doing something to make the home more attractive and recognizable."

"Hanging holiday lights can be a great source of income and serves as a great add-on service," said Freeman. "I started off in irrigation and landscaping, and moved over to holiday decorating in 1990. The snow hits us hard, and we tried moving over into the snow-removal business but it was just too inconsistent. We couldn't find any work that we could really depend on."

10.jpgOne thing that people can depend on is Christmas -- it comes around every year and the date never changes. It gives you a target date to plan for. "For a month-and-a-half, we're stringing lights, and then after Christmas we spend a month-and-a-half taking them down, which carries us right through to spring," said Freeman.

The business acts as a stabilizer during slow months when you'd otherwise have little to no work at all. "It has turned into a very popular thing," said Travis Lipscomb, president of Outdoor Decor, Inc., San Antonio, Texas, "Come wintertime, contractors start getting tight on dollars because their income has dried up. I was one of those little lawn mower companies that needed some extra cash in the winter. I lasted only two-and-a-half years spending my off season watching television. I then decided that being unemployed wasn't an option."

Holiday lighting and decorating is not limited to the states that get hit by snowy winters. Even those in the Southwest, the West Coast or the Sunbelt states can benefit from this service. "The profitability is driven by the emotions of the holidays," said Blake Smith, president of The Decor Group in Lubbock, Texas. "It's got a lot of excitement built around it, because it's so much more profitable than any other service that you can provide in landscaping."

Just because there isn't any snow on the ground doesn't mean that people don't want holiday lights. "It's interesting to note," said Smith, "that in a survey we did of a cross-section of landscape contractors, those who offered holiday lighting saw an average profit of 27% while the profits of those contractors who did not offer this service was in the high single digits."

There is certainly no shortage of work in this area. "We turn away 100 to 150 customers every year," said Lipscomb. "We have eight dealers in San Antonio, with another 27 around the country, and every year we get so busy that we are literally turning customers down at every location; we just can't handle all the business."

Everybody usually wants holiday lights, but very few people are willing to get out and hang them themselves.

Typically, you'll find that you can sell this service to your existing client base, hanging lights for the customers you already have. They know you and trust you, and you've already established a rapport. You now offer a myriad of services, and this is a great addition to your menu.

And the flip side of that coin is that if you pick up new customers through holiday lighting, you may be able to turn them on to your landscape services. If you impress them with one, they're bound to employ you for the other.

As an added bonus, holiday lighting and decorating allows you to keep your crews and trucks rolling year round. "When you look at the whole picture, it's pretty significant," said Freeman. "There's a ton of work out there for people in the irrigation and landscaping industry who tend to struggle in the winter. You can utilize your men, your trucks and the space you're already paying rent on. Your insurance has to be paid year round; why not find another source of revenue It's putting your investments to good use."

It also solves another big problem -- that of seasonal employment. By adding holiday lighting, you can eliminate layoffs that force your crews to seek employment elsewhere. Otherwise, you risk losing good people. "Some employers want to keep their people year round but can't afford it," said Derrick Wright, Virtual Rain, Pleasanton, California. "Adding holiday lighting can take care of that situation."

Unlike the landscape business, there's not a substantial investment that is needed up front. However, the opportunity for large profits is there. What you'll need is training.

As with everything else the more knowledgeable you are, the better off you'll be. "When we first start started, people were literally just handing us their lights, saying, 'Here, put these up,' and I'd spend all day on one house just untangling the lights," said Freeman. "I knew right away that I needed to come up with a better system. Now we can decorate a house in a couple of hours."

Learn as much as you can from those in the lighting business. Request as much information as you can from all manufacturers and distributors. "Between what the distributors and suppliers offer, contractors should get a wide variety of training," said Wright. "The manufacturers and distributors can offer great products at great prices, but if the contractor can't install them in a timely manner, or does not bid accurately, it may end up costing you money. Get the training before you start the work."

Before jumping in, you should have a good grasp of design layout, sales, marketing, installation, electrical calculations, bidding, estimating and safety. Some companies, like Brite Ideas, offer franchising opportunities. "When people buy a franchise we're shortening the learning curve, we're eliminating all the guesswork," said Freeman. "We've already come across and solved every problem. We show you how to take an all day job, and condense it down into about two hours."

Other companies offer a software program that enables you to take a digital photo of the house, design it, drop in the products from a catalog, and show the customer what their house will look like before you decorate it. For each item that you place on the digital photo, the program will calculate how long it will take; it plugs in your install time and take-down time plus labor. It also includes storage costs and gives you a quote right there. It provides hassle-free estimating and bidding.

As with any business, it will take some time to build up a steady clientele. The first year may be a bit hectic, but each subsequent year should be less chaotic than the one before. As you progress so will your skills, and eventually the business will become second nature.

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In most any business, quality is certainly better than quantity. If you stretch your jobs, lights, time, crew or estimates too thin, you'll be doing the same thing to your profits. What looked like a supplemental income can end up costing you if approached and executed poorly. Problematic jobs will drain your profits in the end.

Holiday lighting is a great niche for any landscape contractor who wants to expand his current client base and add to his bottom line. Your designs will act as the perfect advertisement for your business, and you'll be asked to come back year after year.

 
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