Offering landscape lighting was a natural progression for Nathan Cook’s company. The president of IDL Company in Pleasant Hill, Missouri, started out mowing and slowly added other services. However, as time went on he narrowed his firm’s services to the few he felt could be most successful. Today, IDL offers irrigation, drainage and lighting. Cook is passionate about lighting, which he enjoys doing.
“Landscape lighting can be a very natural complement to landscape contractors’ existing businesses,” says Tom Rowe, national sales manager for Kichler Lighting. “It can allow them to grow their existing client bases while also providing opportunities to attract new customers. Expanding their capabilities to include lighting can also enhance their reputation and ability to bid on a wider range of jobs.”
But it’s not something that can be added haphazardly.
“Like landscaping, lighting is an art,” Cook says. “The designer’s style and the client’s vision come together to create the final product. But I’ve seen some really bad ones done and it looks horrible. You have to have some creativity and a knack for doing this.”
Building upon skill
Skilled and experienced contractors offering the service typically feel that landscape lighting can be very profitable. Cook says there is no major investment in offering the service. A truck and some wire strippers are the two key tools to get it going. “It really doesn’t take much equipment. It’s more about the skill,” he says.
Although there isn’t a large investment in equipment, landscape lighting is not something you can (or should) do in a hurry. “There is a fair amount of prep work in learning about the products and design as well as installation best practices,” says Scott Pesta, product manager – landscape lighting for Kichler Lighting. “All of the information is available and relatively easy to learn, but it will take an investment of time to ensure you are delivering the best solution for your customers.”
While there’s a lot of product information out there, finding the right training may not be as simple. Many contractors learn through trial and error in the field. Marty DeNinno, president of Pinnacle Irrigation & Nightlighting, Haddonfield, New Jersey, says that the first low-voltage lighting system he ever installed was at his dad’s place, replacing the high-voltage system that was already in. But as far as seminars, DeNinno has attended two and felt they were more about pushing product. He trains technicians by bringing them out in the field.
“It’s a service of doing and in order to understand it and learn it, you have to get out there and do it,” DeNinno says. “A textbook isn’t going to help you as much as real hands-on experience will.”
There also has to be someone who has an eye for design when it comes to the creativity factor. Cook says the goal of landscape lighting should be to accent the client’s property, but it should not be its sole focus. Among other common mistakes, Cook has seen landscape lighting that was both too bright and too dim. Hot spots are also a common problem.
“It’s all about how light is distributed across the property,” Cook says.
That comes down to one main thing: creativity. “Listen to the property owners when walking a job and find out what they are looking to accomplish,” Rowe says. “Then let your creativity and product knowledge develop solutions.”
Implementing the service
While landscape lighting can be a beautiful enhancement, contractors admit it’s not the easiest sell. Cook says that in his region, it’s still an “untapped market.” There’s not a lot of competition, but many people – both on the contractor and the client side – still don’t see the value.
“It’s easy to do, it can have a high profit margin, and there is ongoing revenue through maintenance. And yet some still struggle with understanding the value,” adds Cook. Customers often have a difficult time equating the value of expertly installed lighting with its price.
DeNinno says overcoming sticker shock is one of the toughest challenges in selling lighting. “Clients will see the kits at big box stores that sell for $80 so they gawk at our prices,” DeNinno says. “We’re installing commercial-grade product that is going to be between $250 and $300 per fixture. If they want 10 lights, they’re looking at $2,500 to $3,000. But they don’t understand that it would take 10 inexpensive lights to do what one of ours can. And they’re paying for warranties and super low energy costs. I put in our first system 27 years ago and it’s still going strong. You have to consider how many kits you’d have gone through by now if you went the cheap route. But getting the customer to understand that isn’t always simple.”
One thing that can help is working with clients at night. “Be prepared to go that extra step, which often involves job pitches at night,” Rowe says. “Showing a homeowner the impact a well-positioned landscape light can make at nighttime is often a key selling point that helps acquire the job.”
Photography can also be helpful in selling a lighting job. Lighting is hard to visualize without photos. Contractors stand a better chance of selling lighting by developing and showing a portfolio of high-quality photography of their work.
Cook says he’s using his website to show off some of that work. “We’re doing a lot of Web marketing right now and really trying to push the service harder,” he says. “Our market is not like a market in California where everyone has it and they understand the value. It’s a high-end product and it takes a special customer who is willing to invest several thousand dollars. But once you do find that niche there’s a lot of opportunity to grow from there. That’s why we also get a lot of jobs from referrals.”
While there are challenges to making sales, DeNinno says the service continues to be a revenue booster for his company and brings in 30 percent and sometimes even more of the company’s annual revenue. Some years lighting has been half of the business.
And Cook points to the recurring revenue as a huge benefit. Everything from changing bulbs to cleaning fixtures and making adjustments adds some revenue from the same clients even down the road.
“The low-voltage lighting products are long lasting, but the client’s landscape is always evolving,” Cook says. “That gives us the opportunity to make changes. As the landscape changes, we will add, move or take away lights to make sure it’s doing its job of accenting the property. There’s also service work that comes from those unexpected incidents like a broken fixture or a squirrel chewing through a wire.”
DeNinno agrees. Even though installing today’s long-lasting products would appear to be cutting off one’s nose despite their face, DeNinno says that’s not the case. “Sure, you won’t be doing as many service calls as you would with a lousy system, but there’s always going to be reasons to make tweaks as the landscaping matures. Plus, we often get called for repair work because fixtures accidentally get broken by landscapers, kids or animals.”
Dean MacMorris, vice president of Night Light Inc., based out of Lombard, Illinois, says that 30 to 35 percent of the company’s revenue is generated from residual maintenance of landscape lighting.
“We always follow through after an install,” MacMorris says. “The goal is to turn as many install clients into maintenance clients as we can. Some may say that putting in a high-end system isn’t going to give you a lot of need for maintenance, but we disagree. Things happen. Fixtures get run over by the UPS truck or damaged by a storm. We don’t go out looking for a bunch of service work, but we let our clients know we offer it and most of them end up using us for some sort of maintenance work.”
In terms of manpower for installation work or larger scale maintenance, Cook says he usually has a dedicated crew of two employees to handle lighting. DeNinno says he usually has three service trucks on the road full time for lighting – two for service and one installation vehicle. His employees are cross-trained for efficiency.
“Operating lean is important to us,” DeNinno says. “So we’ll typically make sure all of our technicians get trained in low-voltage lighting installation and replacements. We actually spent a whole week over the winter cross-training our staff and doing some refresher work. I can now take anyone off of one job and put them on something different and they know how to do it. That allows us to do more with less.”
LED: the hot technology
There’s no question that LED technology is the biggest trend in low-voltage lighting these days. Cook says the benefits of LED are manifold. “LED has less maintenance, is much easier to install and is more efficient. It’s where things are headed,” he points out.
MacMorris agrees. It’s headed that way, and it’s not going back. “I would guess that in the next two to three years, incandescent will be almost entirely phased out,” he says. “The advantages of LED are just so substantial that there’s no reason to go back. LED uses 80 percent less energy so you’re able to take a $100 energy bill and make it $20. Plus, the lamps last so much longer. Even though it’s such a big investment, you have to think about the longevity. You do not have to replace it regularly, so in the long run you’re saving money.”
DeNinno says setting up zones, brightness and color is also a trend in landscape lighting. “You can have each light working independently or you can set up zones,” DeNinno says. “Plus, LED can now give you almost every color of the spectrum so you can do some really interesting schemes. For instance, you could put extra blue on a blue spruce and some extra green on an emerald shrub. You have the ability to get very creative. That’s where we get really passionate about it.”
In fact, DeNinno says he and his crew enjoy driving back to a job site at night and seeing their work. It’s also an ongoing advertisement for future work.
“Other people see landscape lighting and if it’s really impressive they want to know who did it,” DeNinno says. “We also do a lot of irrigation work and the goal of that is to make sure your work isn’t seen. That’s why people don’t usually ask, ‘Who does your irrigation?’ But we love the fact that lighting is all about the display. It’s so much fun. We all really enjoy it and because of that have made it an integral part of our business.”