Prime exposure

Southern Exposure Landscape Management’s 1.5-acre outdoor showroom lures in clients and fastens the closing pace of sales.

July 16, 2012
Kristen Hampshire

The touch-and-feel factor is a huge time saver when closing sales on landscape installation projects. Pictures can only do so much. When clients can see the hardscape material, experience a water feature, listen to outdoor audio and take in an outdoor kitchen environment, they’re faster to sign on the dotted line. “It shortens the selling time dramatically,” says Pete Bryant, president of Southern Exposure Landscape Management in Summerfield, N.C.

Cutting down the sales cycle was the impetus for Southern Exposure’s expansive outdoor display, situated on its corner-lot retail property on a busy intersection. Anyone can drive in to the parking lot and take a stroll through the acre-and-a-half landscape. A winding path leads visitors through a dreamscape of possibilities: outdoor kitchens, water features, lighting displays, plantings, pergolas, fire pits, fire places, pizza ovens and, of course, patios. There are 5,000 square feet of hardscape pavers on the lot.

“There are some bigger companies in the area, but no one has a showroom like we do,” says Bryant. “We put a lot of money and time into it, but it is really paying off now because it distinguishes us from the competition.”

Specifically, Bryant estimates spending about $25,000 on outdoor construction of the displays – labor, base materials, bedding sand, mortar, fuel, etc. Vendors contributed a large amount of the materials. And the payback is a closing time that’s twice as fast as before the displays were created.

“Customers can come here and see everything there is to be offered in the way of hardscape,” Bryant says, adding that the materials on display also educate clients about what the company offers. “Our goal with the plants here was to create an arboretum where anyone can walk through and learn about plants.”

Attracting vendors. Bryant hatched the idea for Southern Exposure’s landscape displays while he was hunting for properties for his business more than five years ago. His business had outgrown the home-based operation. “From 7:30 a.m. until 5:30 at night, we took up the whole street, trying to back trailers out of the driveway,” he says.

When he found the sizeable city lot and historical building, he imagined how the business could evolve with greater visibility.

“The property is located at a four-way stoplight, so people have to stop and look at what we are doing,” he says of the prime downtown location. The traffic could possibly support a retail division, Bryant figured. And as Southern
Exposure began to build its displays and attract new and different vendors, some of them makers of DIY kits, the retail aspect of the business slowly evolved.

But what Bryant focused on first was building the ultimate outdoor landscape on site so visitors could see it, like it, buy it.

This required reaching out to vendors for materials donations. While Bryant’s staff, now numbering 17, could manage the labor involved in building the patios and kitchens and pergolas, the cost of creating the caliber of display Bryant had in mind would be prohibitive without vendor support. “We would not be where we are today without our vendors,” Bryant says.

But getting the first vendor on board wasn’t an easy task. Bryant presented his plan to major hardscape dealers, who were initially skeptical. So Bryant did more legwork. “I invested time in our designs and took it back to vendors,” he says. Vendors were sluggish to agree to give away materials. “They were like, ‘Everyone asks for material. We can’t supply material for everyone,’” Bryant says.

“But I said, ‘You don’t understand, we are not just everyone. This is not just your everyday display.’ A lot of them didn’t take me real seriously at first.”

But Bryant became a certified installer with the manufacturers whose products he carried, namely Versa-Lok, Belgard and Techo-Bloc. “They knew we were going to be serious about hardscape and it wasn’t just a side item for us,” he says. “We have a separate division dedicated to hardscape and there are very few companies in our are that do that.”

Bryant knew once he got one vendor on board that others would follow. “We didn’t want to pin vendors against one another, but we knew once [the project] was in the ground, they wouldn’t’ want to be the only ones not there,” he says.

“But getting that first person on board was critical – they had to trust us that we were going to turn around and give them business in return for materials,” he continues. “So it was really critical to set up a good relationship.”

Bryant attracted his first vendor by offering the supplier banner placement by Southern Exposure’s display. Bryant would link the supplier Web site to his own. “We tried to figure out cross-promotional strategies,” he says. “That’s how it all started out.”

And then the vendor participation snowballed. Today, Bryant has about six vendors represented on site. For clients,
this means rather than visiting various residences where Southern Exposure has completed projects to see examples of their work, they can literally shop at one stop: the company headquarters, right in town.

This convenience makes all the difference when closing sales, Bryant emphasizes. In the past, a $50,000 job that night have taken three to four meetings and up to three weeks to close is now taking one or two meetings. “We don’t have to send them to several different jobs to look at materials and ideas – they can get that in our 1.5 acre showroom,” Bryant says.

Romancing clients. Any time a landscaper must send a client back to the distributor showroom to view product, there’s always a risk of that customer finding another company to install the project, Bryant says. Before Southern Exposure had its vast landscape display – a playground of outdoor features where clients can experience designs before they agree to a project – he had to rely on distributors to show and tell about the product. That left him with an unsettling feeling. What if?

“If you turn clients away to look at pavers, you could potentially lose them if they get other contractors’ names from the dealer,” Bryant says. “Now, we don’t have to send customers to a dealer.”

Plus, Bryant says the scope and detail of his landscaped headquarters legitimizes the company as the go-to firm for hardscapes and other design/build projects. They aren’t the only game in town, but they are the only company with a site where potential clients can walk through 24/7.

There are not gates closing off the property – however, equipment and materials used on job sites is protected in a fenced-in area. “You can pull in to our showroom and park and walk around throughout the weekend,” he says.

Of course, Bryant says that he has noticed some other contractors guiding their own clients through the property to see finished work. “We have to keep a watchful eye out for that,” he says. But he knows he can’t stop it completely.

And he figures that customers will ultimately make the decision about who to hire, and attracting people to the property in any way is a good thing.

“The goal is for people to see the work,” he says.

And now, potential clients can peruse the outdoor environment and step in to the design studio, which is equipped with the design software to show them how landscape features will look on their own properties. The studio is equipped with audio, video and a big-screen television, plus it is loaded with catalogues and inspirational photographs. “Clients can take a walk outside and get ideas, then come inside,” Bryant says of the sales flow.

Southern Exposure’s showroom layout is a win-win for the business and for clients who choose the firm for installation projects. Plus, the property has become somewhat of a community landmark because of its unique layout, busy location and building with historical significance. “We have entertained the idea of renting [the property] out for functions, as well…” Bryant muses. “But we haven’t done that yet.”