Beyond photo shopping

Features - Design/Build

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

May 1, 2013
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.

Anyone can 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.

“We put a lot of money and time into it, but it is really paying off now because it distinguishes us from the competition,” Bryant says.

“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.

Digging into DIY

Helping customers do the work on their own can lead to more sales.

When Southern Exposure first opened its location, visitors who perused the outdoor living displays wondered if there was a way they could replicate some of the features at home. Rather than turning away an interested prospect, owner Pete Bryant began to consider do-it-yourself options.

“We were starting to create our own kits,” Bryant says. He and his team designed some kits and were working on ways to produce and market them – kits for benches and fire pits. But then the kit market sort of exploded, and Bryant figured, Why replicate what already exists? So he switched gears and began talking to vendors who supply kits.

“We are new to the retail game,” Bryant says, adding that his design/build firm is not the cheapest bidder in the area. “We know that. So the kits that homeowners can build themselves if they are handy have gotten us into a different market. We can get in the door and sell them the product.”

Many times, homeowners call Southern Exposure and ask for help installing the kit. This is a lead-in for more work, Bryant says.

“We have a fairly large amount of knowledge we like to share with people who are interested,” Bryant says. And those who are interested generally come back for more.

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 21, 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 since everyone asks.

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 area 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 website 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 might 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.

“The property has become somewhat of a community landmark because of its unique layout, busy location and building with historical significance,” he says.

“We have entertained the idea of renting (the property) out for functions, as well….” Bryant says. “But we haven’t done that yet.”

Photos courtesy of Southern Exposure  Landscape Management