Plug into Profits with Landscape Lighting

...what you need to know to get started

The holiday season is approaching with the speed of Santa’s sleigh. Before you know it, the sound of carols will fill the crisp winter nights, and the familiar smell of Christmas trees will permeate the air. Even the curmudgeonly among us will become infused with the holiday spirit.

For those of us in the landscape contracting business, it can often be difficult to revel in the good cheer that has become so closely associated with the holidays. The winter months bring with them a work slowdown. But you don’t have to let the winter months turn you into a Scrooge. There are a number of services you can offer your clients that will ensure a busy pre-holiday business rush.

In recent years, the installation of holiday lights has gone from being a burdensome do-it-yourself chore into a thriving niche market. People want their homes to be decorated with lights; they just don’t want to deal with the aggravation that comes with hanging them. As a result, they’re willing to pay someone to do it for them. There is no reason why that person shouldn’t be you.

“Holiday lighting is a wide open market, and it’s a great way to keep revenue flowing when business drops off in the winter months,” says Steve Christie, president of Automatic Irrigation Supply Company in Indianapolis, Indiana. “In a lot of markets, there is more demand for the service than there are people who offer it. I just can’t think of any reason why contractors couldn’t make money right off the bat.”

For landscape contractors, the transition into holiday lighting is a pretty easy one. You already have most of the tools you’ll need, and, more importantly, you have an existing clientele you can market to. “You have a captive audience that you’re associated with, so you’re not going to have to spend a lot of time trying to drum up new clients, and that’s half the battle right there,” says Mark Borst, president of Borst Landscape and Design in Allendale, New Jersey. “I’d say that about 90 percent of our holiday lighting customers were landscape maintenance customers first.”

Even in the lagging economy, the demand for holiday lighting remains strong. “Last year, with things the way they were, our numbers were up,” says Robert Evans, president of Property Creations, Cumming, Georgia. “They were not up as much as the previous couple of years, but the growth remained pretty solid.”

While holiday lighting of homes and residences will still be a mainstay, the commercial market holds tremendous potential. Retail stores, restaurants, shopping malls, etc., need to make their stores look festive. “Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a lot of businesses that used to install lights themselves—whether in a mall, a restaurant or a homeowner’s association—are now deciding to outsource the work,” says Evans.

“These companies need holiday lights—they’re not going to go without them, but it’s such a stressful and busy time of year that they don’t want to deal with the hassle of installing them. For this group of people, it’s worth the cost of having someone come out to do the installation for them.”

Initially, Borst got into holiday lighting as a way to retain his best employees. “Come November, we kind of ran out of work, but I didn’t want to have to let my guys go,” says Borst. “So we looked into some of the different things we could do to keep ourselves busy. When we came across holiday lighting, it was very obvious that it was the best route to take. It was a no-brainer.”

Today, thanks to holiday lighting, the winter months are one of Borst’s most profitable times of year.

This story is not unique. “We’ve really used holiday lighting as a way to take advantage of the winter slowdown,” says Evans. “In our market, the winter can be tough for landscape contractors. It’s really a great way to keep your crews busy during the holiday lull.”

Evans was first introduced to the business about 14 years ago when he went to work for a holiday lighting franchise. After working there for nine years, the company was sold, and Evans struck out on his own. He decided to start a landscape contracting company but chose to include holiday light installation on his roster of services.

“It was such a lucrative market that I just knew I had to get into it, and I knew light installation would fit in nicely with the other services we were going to provide,” says Evans. “Now, it’s by far the most solid of all the businesses we do, and we’re contractors for everything from irrigation to hardscapes to rain harvesting. In fact, I make more money during the holidays doing lighting than I do during the rest of the year.”

If Evans’ story seems too good to be true, you don’t have to take his word for it. Just consider the way his company has grown in the past five years. Property Creations was a solo act when it began in 2004.

Today, the company boasts nearly 50 employees and its holiday lighting division produces revenues in excess of $325,000. And remember, all that money is earned in just four months.

Holiday lighting is not just profitable for industry veterans. Evans estimates that contractors can earn up to $50,000 during their first season. But you won’t see a penny if you don’t know what you’re doing, so take the time to get what Evans calls “formal training.”

That phrase may sound intimidating , but don’t let it scare you a way . Becoming a lighting expert is probably much easier than you think.

Manufacturers and distributors offer short, simple courses that cover holiday lighting from A to Z.

The classes, which can last anywhere from one to three days, offer insight on topics such as product selection, installation and the basics of working with low-voltage lighting. If you install landscape lighting, then you’re already familiar with how low voltage works, and you’ll be ahead of the game.

Typically, seminars conclude with some hands-on training. “We take our students out and walk them through a tree installation. We’re not really interested in just selling them lights and sending them on their way,” says Christie. “We want these guys to be able to turn a profit, because if they can’t make money, they’re not going to stick around this business for very long.”

Classes provide more than just training on the technical aspects of the industry. It’s important to know how to properly sell and price jobs. If your estimates are not accurate, it’s going to be difficult to stay out of the red. Many courses will detail exactly how jobs should be priced out. “You’re going to charge a different price for outlining a house versus outlining a stand of trees,” says Christie. “But for contractors new to the industry, there is no way to know that. We just want to make sure that they’re not under-pricing jobs, because that’s one of the ways you can get into trouble.”

One more advantage of taking a class is that it will allow you to build a stronger relationship with a distributor. “It’s important to establish a relationship with a quality distributor,” says Peter Brenner, a wholesale account manager for Christmas Lights, Etc. in Alpharetta, Georgia. “A good distributor will stand by their products and take the time to walk you through technical issues when they arise. You can also rely on them to ship out products quickly, so you know you’re going to get what you need when you need it.”

Taking a class is highly recommended, but remember, there is no substitute for experience. Don’t be afraid to head out to your backyard and do some experimenting. Invite your crew over, grab some lights and spend the afternoon doing some trial installations. This way, you can work out the kinks at home rather than at the jobsite.

Another way to shortcut the learning curve is to become involved with a franchise.

Although there is a cost to purchasing a franchise, it can have many advantages. “Franchising offers a support network that you can’t really get anywhere else,” says Jack Bush, vice president of Christmas Decor, Lubbock, Texas. “You’re going to get information from experts on what products to use and how to use them. You pay for the support network, but it’s worth it. It’s basically a roadmap to success.”

Franchising may not be right for everyone, but it may be right for you, so take the time to do some research.

One obstacle that tends to trip up those new to this business is the time crunch. You have a limited amount of time to do what can feel like an almost unlimited amount of work. The best advice? Start early. Some contractors begin marketing and estimating in August or September and will begin installations as early as October. Making an installation calendar can also be helpful. A calendar will keep you organized and on track—just be sure to leave room for new clients.

Product selection is another important consideration. Generally speaking, you want to buy as high quality as you can.

Less expensive products may save you money up front, but when you’re repeatedly called back to replace bulbs, those savings will quickly disappear.

The development of LED technology has made the transition into holiday lighting even easier to make. LEDs—or light-emitting diodes—are constructed of tiny solid-state computer chips and are capable of converting energy directly into light. They are virtually indestructible and use 80 to 90 percent less power than traditional lights, which makes installing them very easy.

With traditional incandescent lights, there are a bunch of electric calculations that need to be made based on how much electricity is available. If the total voltage of the lights being installed exceeds the total amount of electricity available, the breaker will be tripped and you’ll literally be leaving your clients in the dark. Because of the low-energy draw of LEDs, that’s no longer a concern.

“In my mind, LEDs are one of the greatest things ever to happen to the holiday lighting business,” says Brenner. “Their low energy output dramatically reduces the complexity of the installation process. You can connect up to 30 strands of lights to one power outlet, which is something you just can’t do with an incandescent.”

Another nice thing about LEDs is how durable they are. “The bulbs are plastic rather than glass, so they’re pretty much indestructible,” says Bill Frey, president and owner of Illuminating Design in Duluth, Georgia. “I’ve seen people jump up and down on them, and the lights were still good as new. They’re also very beautiful to look at. They give off a pure, defined light, which makes the homes look great.”

LEDs may cost a little more upfront, but once you inform your customers about the money they’ll save on their power bills, they should be an easy sell.

The demand for holiday lighting is driven in part by sentimental reasons. Frey, whose company has grown 35 percent over the past two years, has his theory as to why this business continues to thrive. “I think it really takes people back to their childhood, when every thing was simple and easy,” Frey says. “It really brightens people’s spirits. I can’t tell you how many grown men I’ve seen transformed back into little boys once their lights are flipped on. You just can’t put a price tag on that.”

It’s not only customers who get joy out of holiday lighting. “It’s one of the greatest things I could ever do,” Frey says. “I just never thought I would enjoy it this much. It’s incredibly gratifying to watch your customer’s eyes light up when they see the finished product.”

For all the happiness the business brings him, Frey does have one small complaint. “It never fails,” he says. “Whenever a bulb goes out on a house, it’s always the one at the very peak of the roof. Just once, it would be nice if it was the one at the very bottom corner.”