December 8, 2014

Service firms use holiday lighting to equalize seasons

Busy homeowners often lack the time to shop for — and install — outdoor Christmas lights, and some may not have the physical agility installation requires. This has opened up business opportunities for enterprising green industry firms.


Since 1999, Paul Gaspar, co-owner of Weedman Lawn Care (Toronto), has been selling and installing outdoor Christmas lights through the franchise Christmas Décor. He and his staff design, supply, install, take down and store the decorations so their customers can relax and enjoy the holidays.

Gasper added Christmas Décor to his core lawn care business out of a need to provide extra work for his crew. “There were always a number of lawn care employees that we’d be laying off and wondering whether they would be available after we trained them to come back and work with us the following year,” he says. “The Christmas work keeps them coming back,” he adds, “because once the decorations are up, they get two weeks off and work again through mid-February. Then they get another four or five weeks off before they start work again in our lawn care operation. We’ve been able to give them 1,800 to 2,000 hours of work per year this way.”
Holiday lighting provides lawncare companies an
off-season revenue stream.
Although holiday lighting might not be a panacea for attracting and retaining employees, it can boost a green industry company’s annual revenue in a relatively short period of time. Gaspar says that Christmas Décor now represents 21 per cent of his gross annual sales. And, it’s a natural fit for a lawncare or landscape service firm. There isn’t a lot of extra overhead and you can operate out of the same facilities with existing trucks and trailers. To avoid renting extra space to store customers’ lights, Gaspar installed racks in his warehouse, reserving the floor space below the lowest level for lawn care supplies.

Premium or basic service?
As with any business, however, success depends on choosing the right business model and delivering reliable products and service. Gaspar initially identified his current lawn care customers as a likely market for Christmas Decor, but soon realized that, “it’s far more difficult to transition a lawn care customer to holiday lights than it is to transition a holiday lighting customer to lawn care.” That is because lawn care is perceived as a necessary maintenance purchase while Christmas displays — however beloved — are considered a luxury. So Gaspar carved out a niche of upper-middle and high-income homeowners as his primary residential clients for Christmas Decor. “Our clients want to achieve a special look, and they want it done professionally,” he says.

That look typically involves structural and landscape lighting as well as such daytime décor as garlands, wreaths or figurines. “Some clients choose to have a wreath in every window and have every tree and bush lit,” he adds. “We have residential clients — a number of them — that pay in excess of $6- or $7,000. They understand the first year they’re going to be purchasing the materials and I let them know how much that costs. Then what the installation and takedown would be in subsequent years. They can see that 45 to 55 per cent of the first year’s cost is for materials.”

There are opportunities to serve less affluent homeowners profitably if you offer a more basic service — as Barbara Johnson of Calgary, Alta., can attest. She started Light Kings holiday lighting service sixteen years ago in conjunction with her lawn care and snow removal business, Empire Yard Services. Today, Light Kings represents about half of her gross annual sales.
Some customers prefer simple, dramatic lighting
for their outdoor holiday decorating.
Johnson’s residential customers are varied, ranging from middle to high income. “A lot of them don’t want anything extravagant in outdoor Christmas lighting. They just want something neat and tidy,” she says. And although she sells lights to many customers she will also install and take down lights for people who already have them. “Most of our profit comes from the service side,” she explains. Understandably, she does not warrant lights that she didn’t provide. Nor will she install lights that are in poor condition or that she knows are unreliable from her crews’ previous experiences with them.

Johnson ensures a steady supply of reliable, energy-efficient LED Christmas lights through a relationship she developed with a local supplier. “We can purchase on an as-needed basis so we’re not carrying a lot of inventory,” she says. “Toward the end of the season we might need some red lights and our competition might need blue lights. So I’ll phone the supplier and say I’ve got lots of blue lights left. If any of your other guys need blue let me know I’ll bring them by.”

Gasper obtains LED lights through the Texas-based Christmas Decor franchise. According to Brandon Stephens, its Vice President of Marketing, lights are made to their own specifications with extra UV protection in the shell. “We use a polyacrylic shell that doesn’t cloud up — it remains good and clear,” Stephens says. Their lights are also packaged to be installer-friendly. “They’re rolled up into a ball so when we take them down it makes it faster to put back up.”

In addition to product, Christmas Décor provides franchisees with hands-on training in designing and installing displays. Special emphasis is placed on electrical, ladder and roof safety.

Plan a safe and profitable season
Regardless of the business model, a holiday lighting service requires careful planning — from ordering product early enough, especially if it has to pass through customs — to resisting the urge to overbook at what Johnson calls “a crazy busy time of the year.” Both she and Gaspar begin bookings in early September, and Gaspar said he does the more difficult aspects of installation in October and early November, anticipating the impact weather could have on their capacity to install.

Contracts are drawn up with the stipulating phrase, “weather permitting.” Stephens says that some of his franchisees, “don’t do roof ridges because they don’t want their people up on the roofs with a lot of snow and ice.”

There are still ways to earn customers’ loyalty and referrals without sacrificing worker safety.

It could mean making sure the display is installed in time for a customer’s Christmas party. Or trudging out to make repairs after the storm of the century. Says Gaspar, “Our clients know we warrant our products and we’re going to be there to support the installation. Last year, when the ice storm came through Toronto our busiest two days were the 23rd and the 24th of December, when the power came back on. We went around putting lights back up and making other adjustments. We have a phenomenal commitment to follow up with clients. It’s not about just selling them.” 

Trends in outdoor Christmas decoration

Looking back on almost three decades that Christmas Décor has been in business, its marketing VP Brandon Stephens recalls that, “for the longest time everyone wanted clean, clear and classy displays.” Over the last five years — likely a result of the economic downturn — people want to be cheered up with a lot more colour, “whether it’s multi-coloured bulbs or the incorporation of colour in holiday displays.”

He’s not talking about over-the-top colour. “People still want their displays to look tasteful,” he adds. “But there are a lot more requests for patterns; like every third bulb red. Or every third bulb green. And then let’s have some red or blue lights in the trees or shrubs — that kind of thing.”
There is also more demand for greenery, like garlands and wreaths, to maintain the festive look during the day. As well, Stephens says that more people want a unique or signature look to their displays, “so we’ll make some additions to the greenery, like putting in pine cones, berries or Christmas ornaments. Or we’ll weave coloured lights into the greenery. Or add some figurines, like a toy soldier or a nutcracker, to the display.”

Another way to achieve a unique look is to accent trees, the front walk or some aspect of the home’s architecture with a green or red uplight. Christmas Decor offers this in a landscape lighting kit called Colour Splash.

Stephens says the franchise is also exploring RGB lights that create dramatic animated patterns. RGB stands for red, green, blue. The technology essentially transforms combinations of these colours into any colour you want with the right controller. “You can put the lights up in October for example, and using your controller, have orange lights for Halloween, a fall pattern between Halloween and Thanksgiving — and a Christmas pattern in December,” he explains.
Susan Hirshorn is a Montreal-based writer, editor and communications consultant.