Sept. 1 2003 12:00 AM

Getting the jump on holiday lighting

For the past few years, you?ve thought about expanding your landscape offerings to include holiday lighting, but you weren?t quite ready to take the plunge. Sure, you?ve heard all the raves about 50%?100% profit margins, and you?re sold on the notion that holiday lighting offers a way to keep more of your crews employed through the cold, winter slow down. Startup costs are minimal, you figure, plus your existing client base should provide at least enough work to break even right out of the gate. But, as with any new venture, you have reservations. You want to ensure that your investment of time and manpower pays off. Mostly, you want to avoid making costly mistakes.

The case for offering holiday lighting is strong. By all estimates, the industry is still in its infancy and growing. Most home and business owners embrace the idea of lighting their properties during the Christmas season, but they don?t have the expertise or the inclination to scamper about rooftops to create a pleasing display. That?s where you come in.

So, throwing caution to the wind, you decide this is the year you?re going to offer holiday lighting. How do you get started? Here are some tips from the experts on how to maximize your odds for success, along with a few common mistakes to avoid.

Start with a plan
Is your goal merely to keep some of your core people employed a little longer during the slow season and perhaps break even, or do you want to develop another serious profit center for your business? The answer to this question could mean the difference between a $25,000 and a $400,000 season. Know your desired outcome before you begin, and then develop your plan accordingly. Once you have a plan, you can evaluate the resources you?ll need and create the timeline that will turn your plan into reality.

Start early
While the holiday lighting season typically spans the 100 days between mid-October and mid-January, the seeds for success are sown much earlier in the year. There?s no such thing as marketing your holiday lighting service too early. Spread the word among your existing clients as soon as spring cleanup begins. Also, consider the equipment, vehicles, and supplies you?ll need well in advance. If you wait until October to start buying lights, you may find the available supply has already run out.

Get training
The top piece of advice from all of our experts is this: learn what you?re doing before you start to do it. Holiday lighting suppliers offer training seminars on everything from product selection to lighting design and installation. Take advantage of these seminars, and also talk to your peers in the holiday lighting business. According to Steven Hiner, president of Good Nature, Inc., a full-service landscaping company servicing the northern Indianapolis area, ?The landscaping industry is pretty friendly and a lot of people are willing to share information.?

Even with training, expect to make some mistakes your first year, but adequate training will substantially shorten the learning curve and help prevent the most costly mistakes. Be sure your people in the field receive adequate training as well.

Use quality products
According to Blake Smith, president and co-founder of Lubbock, Texas-based franchise operation, Christmas D?r, ?Using cheap lights is the most expensive thing you?ll do in your business.? Nothing erodes profits faster than installations that require repeated service calls. Good quality lights will hold up to the weather and support continued use year after year. Especially when it comes to miniature lights, examine the sockets and choose lights that offer a tight fit, to prevent lamps falling out when the wind blows.

Consider the options
Will you sell the lights or lease them to your customers? If you lease them, will you box up the decorations and let the customers store them, or will you offer to store them as well? Do you have adequate storage space? What about the labor costs associated with storage? Do the potential profits justify the added expense?

Don?t create a marketing strategy that exceeds your goals
If you only want to generate enough business to break even during the winter slowdown, and you don?t plan to hire additional crews, then don?t invest in a massive holiday lighting advertising campaign that includes direct mail, fliers, print ads, and lawn signs. If you do, be prepared for the phone to start ringing 15?20 times a day come November. Instead, make sure you?ve got the manpower and the resources to handle the volume of business your advertising is likely to pull. And don?t underestimate the power of word-of-mouth advertising. A cheery, well-lit display bearing your company name can be a powerful source of referrals and can result in more requests than you?re prepared to handle.

Don?t sell yourself short
Your customers may have limited visions for their lighting displays. But Mark Strickland, vice president of Holiday Presence in Orem, Utah, suggests being proactive. Holiday Presence markets commercial Christmas lighting to wholesale distributors. Strickland recommends driving the discussion by laying out a design plan that paints the full picture. ?A lot of contractors sell themselves short. They may sell a small roofline when they have the opportunity to sell other items to the homeowner, such as trees, garlands, wreaths, and displays. Some guys would just like to get the job, and leave the option up to the customer. But if you lay out the full picture and let the customers choose what they want, and they want the full thing, then you?ll be glad you laid it out for them.?

Don?t bite off more than you can chew
Of course it?s difficult to walk away from potential work, but some projects are just not likely to be profitable. For example, very large trees and steep or difficult rooflines can be dangerous, labor intensive, and time consuming. Christmas D?r?s Smith suggests learning to recognize when a job has financial disaster written all over it, and then trying to sell customers on a design plan that is safer and easier to install. ?There are a lot of things you can do to decorate a property that will look nice that are a) not dangerous, and b) profitable. Try to steer your customers to something that?s safe and that?s systematic enough that you can get an efficiency in your installation process.? If customers are still unwilling to bend on the design, be prepared to walk away. Know when to say no.

September 2003