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Dreaming of a Bright Holiday Season

REBECCA PETERSON | Landscape Lighting

It’s a time of year when people see smiles everywhere they go, when everyone makes an effort to be friendlier. The holiday spirit gives us warm, fuzzy feelings inside, like a hug from grandma, or receiving a child’s handmade gift.

One large part of the holiday spirit is holiday lighting. In the winter season, lights seem to twinkle from everywhere you look—almost every residence, business, and shopping center is wrapped in them, like so many shining presents. You probably remember your mother or father, or even brother or sister, putting lights on your house while you were growing up.

That’s not necessarily what happens with the new generation. With more double-income families having less spare time, they spend more money on services than the generation before them. This has opened new opportunities for service businesses.

Over the past few years, more landscape contractors have begun installing holiday lights as an additional revenue stream. Equally as important, it’s an easy business to get into. Many irrigation and landscape supply stores that you’re already buying from, offer training for installing holiday lights. Not only is it a business decision that makes sense, it can also give you an incredibly warm feeling of holiday spirit.

“Holiday lighting has extreme aesthetic value. There’s a lot of emotion attached to it,” says Laurie Reinders, merchandising coordinator for Reinders Distribution, Elm Grove, Wisconsin. “There’s nothing like the face of a customer when you install their lighting and turn it on for the first time. Sometimes, people are so happy they cry. You can’t get that with anything else. You might design the best irrigation systems in your state, but it just won’t make people weep with joy.”

Brad Finkle, owner of Creative Decorating, Omaha, Nebraska, agrees. “When you install holiday lighting, you can see people enjoying your work. It’s very rewarding. Sometimes I’ll go out at night to displays I’ve done, just so I can watch the smiles on the kids’ faces as they drive by.” Santa only comes one night a year, but your work can make the whole season more special for your clients. Talk about holiday spirit.

Jingle bell benefits
However, adding a holiday lighting service to your business is about more than just warm-fuzzies. More contractors are discovering that it’s a sound financial decision. In many parts of the country, the winter season is a notoriously slow time for those in the green industry. There’s not much landscaping to be done if the ground is covered in snow, or the turf has gone dormant for the winter. “Contractors typically have to lay people off,” says Brandon Stephens, Christmas Decor, Lubbock, Texas. “They still have to pay the rent and for their equipment, but there’s no money coming in.”

The problem with laying people off is that you don’t know if you’re going to get them back in the spring. These workers need a steady income, so they get another job. If they’re happy with that situation, getting them to return to your company can be tough.

Installing holiday lighting is a great way to keep employees busy year-round. It takes the seasonality out of your business. “You’re not printing money, but you’re recovering costs when other people are losing money,” says Jeff Oxley, director of operations for Swingle Lawn, Tree, and Landscape Care, Denver, Colorado.

The profit margin is nothing to be sneezed at, either. “You’re looking to make as much as 60 to 70 percent profit from your holiday lighting jobs,” says Scott Heese of Holiday Bright Lights, Omaha, Nebraska. “It’s a huge profit-generating business. It’s a short season, and it fills a void in your schedule.”

One benefit of the shortness of the season: homeowners have to make a decision about it quickly. “This isn’t something where you go out and do an estimate, and they tell you they’ll think about it and maybe do it in spring,” Heese continues.

Gary Fouts of Principle Lawn Care, New Lenox, Illinois, has found holiday lighting extremely profitable for all these reasons. “It’s the most profitable side of my business,” he says. “I wish I could do it all year round.”

It’s easy to get this business started because you can begin by marketing to your existing customer base. However, it’s the beauty of your displays that will really make your business boom.

Dennis Broughton, owner of Broughton Lawn Care, Lake Delton, Wisconsin, says he installed holiday lighting for five houses in a row on a lake—the homeowner of the sixth house always insisted on hanging his lights himself. After a few years, the man approached Broughton. “He said, ‘You’re embarrassing me,’” Broughton recalls. “He complained that, thanks to me, his display just didn’t fit in with the rest of the neighborhood anymore. Then he hired me. He said he didn’t care how much it cost; he wanted his display to be able to compete with his neighbors’.”

If you’re quick to respond to maintenance calls to replace burnt-out bulbs or re-hang lights a storm may have blown down (many companies try to respond within 24 hours), you’re sure to get great word-of-mouth referrals as well. Broughton says he doesn’t even need to advertise anymore—his word-of-mouth referrals fill his schedule.

“If you can’t find business in your area, you’re not looking hard enough,” Finkle says. Oscar Welch, owner of Welch Creative Lighting, Windermere, Florida, agrees, saying, “You don’t have to be a master salesman to sell holiday lighting. People want this service.” Many contractors state that they have so much work, they’re actually turning it away.

That’s one downfall of the short season—there’s only so much you can do in such a short time. However, it allows for several holiday lighting companies to co-exist in the same area—there’s enough business for everyone, and each company can only do so many homes.

Become an “elftrician”
After he trained his employees in holiday lighting, Welch nicknamed them his “elftricians.” Training for you and your employees to become “elftricians” is absolutely essential in the holiday lighting industry. “You can learn everything about the industry through trial and error, but it’ll end up costing you more than just paying for a class in the first place,” says Kevin Lipscomb, president of Outdoor Decor, San Antonio, Texas. Stephens agrees. “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There’s plenty of help and advice available. Getting some kind of instruction will save you hours and thousands of dollars.”

A training class will give you marketing techniques and strategies, estimating instructions, installation guidelines, design help, storage tips, basically everything you always wanted to know about holiday lighting, and then some. The most important aspect of training is probably the electrical part.

Although you don’t need an electrician because you’re working with low voltage, there are some electrical basics you’ll need to know to avoid overloading any circuits. However, if you install landscape lighting, then you’re already familiar with how low voltage works. If you’re not, installing holiday lighting can be an easy way to learn.

Another important aspect of training classes is their help with product selection. It is essential to know what products to buy and how to use them. Generally, you want to buy as high quality as you can. Less expensive products save you money in the short term, but when you are repeatedly called back to replace bulbs, you quickly give back what you saved, and more.

Broughton, now very successful, says he barely broke even his first three years doing holiday lighting, because he bought poor-quality products. “They just didn’t last,” he says. “The company might replace the product, but what kills you are the labor costs.”

Two important decisions you need to make are whether or not to buy into a franchise, and whether to rent or sell your lights. A major consideration with the issue of franchises is, of course, money. Buying a franchise can be expensive, especially a concern if you operate a smaller landscape business. However, franchises have their advantages.

“Franchises are very stable,” Oxley says. “They also have great purchasing power.” What it ultimately comes down to is doing your homework and then deciding what the best fit for you and your business is, franchise or not.

When it comes to selling versus renting, the debate is slightly more complicated. Many contractors feel that selling products gives them an additional source of revenue. Having been in the installation business for 25 years, this is what Finkle recommends. “You can go either way, but I’ve found that renting is less profitable for contractors,” he says. “I recommend selling.”

Lipscomb feels exactly the opposite—that renting is the wiser decision. “If you sell a customer a product, they can put it up themselves when the next Christmas rolls around. They don’t necessarily have to call you,” he says. “If you rent, they’re locked in. If they want their house to look as good as last year, they have to call you.” Again, it’s a decision that can only be made by doing your homework and deciding on what’s right for your company.

The biggest hurdle you’ll encounter with this business is time. You have a limited amount of time to do an almost unlimited amount of work. The best advice? Start early. Some contractors start marketing and estimating in August or September, and begin installing in October. Even if the customer doesn’t actually turn the lights on until Thanksgiving, at least they’re up and ready to go. “If you want to get into the holiday lighting business this year, be prepared to hit the ground running,” Reinders says.

Whether you sell or rent, or buy into a franchise or not, holiday lighting is a booming business that’s growing every year. Becoming one of Santa’s “elftricians” is sure to leave you saying, “Glow-ho-ho!”

HOLIDAY LIGHTS...THE NEXT GENERATION
You probably know LEDs best from the face of your alarm clock—LEDs are what keep the numbers bright and visible all night long. But LEDs, or light- emitting diodes, are now being used for holiday lighting as well.

An LED is constructed from tiny solid-state chips like those used in a computer. These chips directly convert energy to light without the use of a filament or glass bulb. This means there’s no filament to burn out, and no glass to break! They’re constructed of solid, flame-proof epoxy plastic, and are cool to the touch, unlike traditional lights. But the best part about LEDs is the energy savings they produce. They use 80 to 90% less power than traditional lights and barely ever need to be replaced—they have a 100,000- hour bulb life, or almost eleven years!

The 64' tall Wall Street Christmas tree in New York used 4,000 incandescent lights that required 280 amps of power. When the same tree was lit using LEDs, 32,000 lights were used, and required only 20 amps of power—that’s almost ten times as many lights at less than eight percent of the original power!

Broughton says he’s upgraded all of his holiday lighting customers to LEDs. “I was getting service call after service call with conventional lights. LEDs require virtually no maintenance, because they don’t burn out,” he says.

Naturally, all the benefits of LEDs come at a higher price tag than conventional lights. But Broughton hasn’t found this to be a problem. “It’s an easy sell when you tell customers that the lights will use 80% less power than conventional bulbs,” he says.
“LEDs are a big coming trend,” says Reinders. “If you learn about them now, and establish yourself as an LED installer, you’ll be that far ahead of the competition when this market really explodes.”
 
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