|By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano|
"It's time to put the holiday lights!" That statement either warms the cockles or chills the spine, depending on your point of view. Whether it's uttered by the owner of a home or a business, it signals that there's work to be done, and someone's got to do it.
But in today’s busy world, many owners have neither the time nor the inclination to do it themselves. That’s where you come in.
Many green industry professionals have added holiday light installation to their roster of services, to the great benefit of their bottom lines. Hanging holiday lights can be a very profitable business indeed, and even an enjoyable one. Plus, you probably already own all the equipment you’ll need.
We’re not just talking about hanging one string of lights on a little tract house for a couple of hundred bucks. Jim Berns, president and founder of Warren, Michigan-based Berns Landscaping Services, Inc., says that some of his high-end residential clients pay as much as $15,000 to $20,000 for one job. (In fact, his company won’t take any job less than $1,000.)
Think of all the lighting displays you see at that time of year. Municipalities, office buildings, housing developments—all of these entities hire outside contractors to put up their lights. “We have accounts of all different sizes, commercial and residential, for lighting and decorating,” said Timm Hahn, interiorscape and holiday décor department manager at David J. Frank Landscape Contracting in Germantown, Wisconsin.
“We do a couple of very large, prominent shopping malls in the Milwaukee area, right down to homeowners who might need just a couple of trees lit,” he said.
Stephen Lisk, president and CEO of Stephen Lisk Landscape Management in Mt. Ephraim, New Jersey, believes strongly in the business of holiday lighting. “This business could even become your prime thing,” he says. “You could make $50,000—or even $100,000—doing it, in addition to your other services.” (He’s even starting to get requests for Halloween displays). Also, it comes at a time of year when work may be slow, and your crews and trucks are idle.
So, if you’re thinking of getting into this potentially lucrative business, a full examination of all the pros and cons is in order.
“When we were first getting involved in holiday lighting, my guys looked at me cross-eyed, like, ‘Christmas lights? What are you doing?’” said Lisk. “They said, ‘We do landscape work; we do hardscape work. We don’t hang lights from roofs. We don’t like doing this!’ I guess they thought I was a little crazy, and gave me a really hard time about it. After awhile, though, they discovered that they did like it.”
One of the things they really liked was the continued income. “You’re always going to have to lay people off for a time in the winter,” said Lisk. “However, our layoff time has been shortened.” His company keeps busy from October to after the holidays, all from hanging and taking down holiday lights.
“We started doing it 20 years ago as an extension of our season, because in Wisconsin, it’s a relatively short one,” said Hahn. “We also did it to keep our employees working longer, and to further solidify our relationships with existing customers.” Berns got into it while looking for “additional sources of revenue for the course of the winter.”
All of these companies do snow removal. But even in New Jersey, Wisconsin and Michigan, you can’t always count on the white stuff. “If there isn’t any snow, this gives my crews an opportunity to keep working for another two-and-a-half months,” says Berns.
How do you find customers for this new service? Look at your client list. “Seventy percent of our holiday decorating is done for clients we already do business with,” according to Berns.
Lisk makes sure he gets the word out to all of his regular customers that he can also do their decorating chores for them. “A lot of residential clients assume they have to hang their own holiday lights,” says Daniel Gerdes, project manager at Christy Webber Landscapes in Chicago, Illinois. “Now that they know we can do it, they can have us add it into their seasonal contracts.”
Older clients, especially, appreciate this help. “It’s dangerous to get up on a ladder; every year you hear about people falling off of them, while trying to hang their lights,” says Lisk.
“I’ve already gotten a call this year from a client who’s getting a little bit older,” says Hahn. “There’s a big tree in his front yard he’s always lit himself, but it’s getting too tall for him.
He doesn’t want to discontinue the tradition, so he’s having us come in and light the top half of the tree. Then he and his family will do the lower half themselves.”
A client may hire you first for holiday lights, but then convert to a regular landscape customer. Berns has had that happen quite a few times. So has Hahn. “We do have a few clients that are holiday lighting only, but it’s a very small percentage,” says Hahn. “A lot of them start out that way, and then start using our other services. Come summer, they’re using our lawn services, our landscape services and our landscape maintenance services.”
In fact, Hahn says that this is a big reason for becoming a Christmas/Hanukkah elf. “It’s another way of getting your name out into the community. You develop relationships with people who may not have considered using your company for landscape work.”
LEDs vs. incandescents
Holiday lights have changed a lot in the last few years. The biggest change is the advent of LEDs; these are getting more popular all the time. People appreciate the fact that they don’t burn out as readily, but burn cooler and cost less to run than the old ones.
Special effects are possible with LEDs that incandescents can’t do. There are color-changing bulbs and long tubular columns (called “snowfall” lights) that contain spots of white light that seem to “drip.” Strings of these, each with drips falling at different times, are still so new that they really grab attention.
But don’t count out old-fashioned incandescents just yet. The light strings we grew up with—the mini lights and the bigger C7s and C9s—are still popular. Hahn’s company uses both types, but says, “LEDs are becoming more and more popular every year, as they keep getting the colors better. And they’re always coming out with different styles and features.”
Older clients in particular tend to favor traditional strings, says Hahn, “because they’ve always used them. Sometimes the brightness of LEDs is a little too intense for them.” Also, incandescents are less expensive.
What these clients are missing, however, is that though LEDs may cost more at the outset, they cost a lot less at the power meter. LEDs require 90 percent less voltage to illuminate. More lights for less should be a selling point, especially for a client with a bill-boosting large display.
Berns appreciates the longer life span of LEDs.
“They’re less susceptible to damage, either by water or wind, whereas the old bulbs can be a nightmare with freezing and breakage. We buy ‘em, use ‘em once and throw ‘em away,” since it’s too time- and labor-intensive to test and replace broken or burned-out incandescent bulbs.
For many of us, the holidays mean color, and lots of it. But according to these contractors, most commercial clients, as well as people with larger homes, tend to favor a toned-down approach. “I would say we probably still do 60 to 70 percent clear lights, the warm whites,” says Hahn. “But people do like to add color with other décor elements.” Gerdes comments, “People want the clear white, incandescent bulbs; that’s the most common request we get.”
When clients do opt for colored lights, they tend to go with solid monocolors, such as wrapping trees entirely in blue, green or red. “Ninety percent of our jobs are going to be with warm white LEDs,” said Berns. “Occasionally, we’ll do one highlighted item in a color, like a red or a green.”
Sell or lease?
If you get involved in this enterprise, one of the first decisions you’ll have to make is whether you want to sell or lease your light strings to your customers, and whether or not you’ll be storing those lights post-season. Each approach has its own merits.
“Our lights are strictly sold, because they do have a lifespan,” says Hahn. “We won’t provide lights to a customer that have been used before.” Berns agrees, “The first time we do an installation, we provide clients with brand new lights. The next year, they might have five percent that they’re going to need to replace.”
He adds, “After the season, we put all their materials in storage containers labeled for each client. The next year, we go through and inventory everything again and replace whatever needs to be replaced.” Once a client owns his lights, his material outlay in subsequent years will be considerably less. If the first year cost $10,000, the following year might be $6,000— mostly labor.
Storing lights for clients avoids the “tangled ball” problem, as depicted in so many comic strips at this time of year. “It just makes it so much easier when we’re going out to jobs. We know where the lights are, and if they want them back for some reason, then we’ll give them back,” says Berns. “We’re not waiting for them, or taking a chance that clients might misplace or lose something.”
Sometimes, though, clients want to use lights they already own. Christy Webber Landscapes has run into that. “We’ll usually try to steer clients in the direction of getting new strands,” says Gerdes, “but some customers insist on including their old favorites.” Normally, Christy Webber leases lights to their clients, and stores them as well.
Lisk feels that there’s a definite business advantage to selling lights. “It guarantees you consistent work every year,” he says. “Once you acquire that customer, and they purchase lights from you, obviously they’re going to get them installed every year. It’s built-in repeat business, and that’s just guaranteed money.”
Shorts and ladders
Holiday lights may seem like benign old friends, but they’re still electrical devices. “You need to know how many lights can be plugged into each electrical outlet; you don’t want to short out an electrical box by plugging in too much amperage,” warns Lisk. “LEDs really help with that, because they’re very low voltage. But if you’re using incandescent lights, and you don’t know what you’re doing, it could become an absolute nightmare.”
“We only plug a certain number of lights in, end-to-end,” says Hahn. “That’s one of the most common mistakes people make. With LEDs, you can plug more strings in end-to-end, but you still have to keep count of the total number of amps. You also can’t plug different styles of LED lights together, like minis into C7s, because they draw different amperages.”
And never forget that water and electricity are like the Hatfields and McCoys. “Here in Wisconsin, we get rain, sleet, and snow—every type of precipitation you can imagine,” says Hahn, “so we always silicone our connections, especially if we’re using incandescent lights.”
“Be sure to keep all power strips, connectors and connection boxes up off the ground,” Gerdes advises. “We have to be extra careful to keep everything up out of the snow, so we try to mount things on building walls, if we can.”
Height is another safety concern.
“We subcontract most of our tall tree lighting out to tree companies, as we’re not equipped with bucket trucks,” says Gerdes. “We’re only cleared by our insurance to work up to fifteen feet, so anything beyond that we can’t even touch.” Check your own insurance coverage before you start hanging lights, and get more if you need it.
Some pitfalls to avoid
All of the contractors we spoke to have some advice to share, based on lessons they’ve learned the hard way. “Take your time; don’t rush into it,” cautions Lisk. “It’s not an easy business. Learn about incandescents and LEDs. Do your research about everything, and get some training.” Manufacturers and suppliers of holiday lighting offer classes. Have your crews take them.
“Test all your lights before you string them,” said Gerdes, “because dealing with a strand that blows out after you have everything in place is a real mess, and a lot more labor-intensive than you’d expect.”
“Don’t buy cheap lighting, especially incandescents, because they’re a hassle,” says Lisk. “The cheap big-box-store lights burn out easily, and you’ll find yourself going back to do service calls nonstop, for free.” Look for suppliers that sell “contractor-grade” light strings that will hold up year after year.
“Don’t get in over your head,” warns Berns. “If you don’t have the personnel or wherewithal to get those lights up in time, don’t even start.” There’s only about six weeks to the season, if you count the last week of November and the first week of January. If you don’t get the lights up until the second week of December, the customer’s already lost three to four weeks.
“The sooner you get started, the better,” says Gerdes. “We like to get everything in place as soon as possible, to beat the cold weather, which usually shows up very quickly after Thanksgiving Day.”
Berns’ crews start putting up lights around Halloween. “We get everything up, test them and make sure they work. When they’re ready to pull the trigger, usually just after Thanksgiving, we send our tech out, test them again, and adjust the timers.”
Beef up the labor side of your estimates, advises Gerdes. If your climate is very cold, take that into account too, as “crews take a little longer to move” in icy weather.
“Use the same crew year after year,” says Hahn. “That way, they get to know the jobsites, the customers and their little quirks, wants and needs. That makes everything go a lot smoother.”
A satisfying business
As we’ve seen, holiday lighting can be a very rewarding business, and not just in terms of money. One of the perks is getting to see people’s faces as memories flood over them. Some even cry.
“People really, really appreciate it,” says Berns. “What really enhances things is when we get snowfalls. The lights glisten against the snow, and they really enjoy that.” You can, too. Have fun with it, take it slow, and your lights won’t be the only thing glowing come January.