Barron’s Dictionary of Business Terms defines a niche as a “particular specialty in which a firm or person finds they prosper. Niche strategy in marketing is to market to a small but lucrative portion of the market. The small size of the niche generally ensures efficient marketing efforts and few if any direct competitors.”
A number of my clients catering to the ultra-high-end residential market have developed a niche strategy for building what many refer to as a “fine gardening” or “garden detail” service. It is a service that when clearly defined and properly presented to a potential client base can significantly supplement a company’s bottom line.
However, there are caveats that the entrepreneur is wise to heed when offering such a service.
What it is. Fine gardening is a specialized service that often entails custom hand pruning, fertilizations, specialized plantings, water feature and pond care, and pottery and garden art purchases. It can also include low-voltage lighting care, specialized plant care and estate outdoor master planning. In the automobile industry, there’s Toyota and there’s Lexus. Both fill a need. Fine gardening is Lexus and you need to keep that fact clearly in mind.
What it is not. Fine gardening is not maintenance and it is certainly not “mow-blow-n-go.” Garden detail is a specialty service set apart from the service provided by a typical maintenance crew. There’s a place for maintenance and there’s a place for fine gardening. However, you do not want to blur the distinctions between the two. You don’t market, sell and service a Ford the same way you do a Ferrari.
Who is it for? A specialized garden service is for the discriminating client who appreciates and desires an artful approach to the landscape needs of his estate. This service is not cheap, primarily due to the necessary qualifications of those providing the service. While just about everyone might desire to have such a service, not everyone is willing to pay the price for the high quality standards and attention to detail that fine gardening provides.
Who provides the service? The individual who runs this division for the company must have specific skills as well as certain personality traits. If any of these skills or traits is missing, it probably won’t work. This individual must: have excellent horticultural skills, be passionate about gardening and be able to communicate effectively and enthusiastically to the client regarding fine gardening. She must also be able to sell, be able to pay strict attention to detail, be very good at building and maintaining relationships, be organized, be excellent at following up and following through with details and, finally, must be very customer-service oriented.
In my experience, 90 percent of the people who excel at this position are women who love gardening. It isn’t that men can’t effectively manage this type of division. Many do. However, the fact is that the majority of the time, it is a woman who champions fine gardening.
Pricing. Due to the highly specialized skill set of fine gardening personnel and the high level of service required by clients, the hourly rate for fine gardening is not cheap. Throughout North America the price for such services ranges from $45 to $65 per man-hour. A gardener working an eight-hour day will usually generate between $400 and $500 per day just for labor. Materials are usually marked up to equal retail pricing, sometimes more.
How it works. I have dozens of clients throughout North America who provide a fine gardening service. One client in Southern California saw his residential installation sales decrease in excess of sixty percent the last four years. It’s his fine gardening division that is pulling him through the current tough economic times. Another client in the Northern California market decided to start such a division. He studied it, met with other contractors offering fine gardening services, updated his website appropriately and announced his new service for his high-end residential clients with a very formal introductory invitation – not unlike a wedding invitation.
Two clients in the Northeast provide their fine gardening clients with a base contract for specified services (cleanups, pruning, deadheading, fertilizations, etc.). These contracts average tens of thousands of dollars. Account managers normally add another 25-50 percent more than the base contract in enhancements.
Summary. Fine gardening or garden detail services can be a very lucrative niche for the landscape contractor who has the right personnel and is prepared to provide such a service.However, you need the kind of client base that appreciates such a service and is prepared to pay for it. Many clients are willing to pay a premium price if service is consistent. Contractors see dollar signs and attempt to enter the major leagues with little league personnel. If that’s the case, they’re better off sitting out a game or two until they get their act together.
JIM HUSTON runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm. See www.jrhuston.biz; mail firstname.lastname@example.org.