Change of season

The 2022 State of the Fall Cleanup Market shows you are raising prices and racing against the weather.

Photo courtesy of Greenworks

Results based off approximately 220 respondents. Not all answers will total 100% due to rounding.

As the busy summer season comes to an end, crews begin gearing up for fall cleanup services. Companies all over the nation are having to combat labor decreases and struggles, along with scheduling and competition concerns. Some are going out to service properties multiple times this fall and others are keeping the service exclusive to pre-existing clients. As inflation continues to be an issue, most are raising prices for fall cleanups as well. And, like most everything within the green industry, weather can play a major factor on the success of the season.

Photo courtesy of Alaska Premier Services

Venessa Anderson

co-owner, Alaska Premier Services, Anchorage, Alaska

Growth has shot up this year for the full-service landscape company, and Anderson hopes that’ll continue as fall approaches. The company achieved 53% growth year-to-date.

Anderson acknowledges this growth wasn’t always easy to obtain as inflation and other factors caused the company to increase prices for all services — including fall cleanups.

“Historically, we raise prices about 3% or so. We’ve never wanted to raise them significantly and have to shock our clients,” she says. “But everyone knew this year we had to. This year we raised our prices anywhere from 15%-35%. We lost a decent amount of clients to that, but we’ve also gained a decent amount of clients.”

For the clients who’ve stayed, fall cleanups have always been a popular service. They appreciate having the crew that’s taken care of their lawn all summer prepare it for winter. Anderson says she sells the service to clients as a money saver down the line.

“The way we communicate it to clients is if they get their fall cleanup done this year it saves them money come springtime,” she says. “We do have an upcharge where we increase the cost of a spring cleanup if a fall cleanup has not been done. And that’s just basically because it’ll take significantly more time to do the spring cleanup if there are a ton of leaves.”

According to Anderson, the bulk of Alaska Premier’s fall cleanup work comes from existing clients.

“I’d say about 85% are existing customers from our summer maintenance service, and maybe an extra 15% are new clients,” she says.

Going into the fall cleanup season, Anderson predicts the two things to have the biggest impact will be weather and labor. This is the same every year, she notes.

“In Alaska, it’s a race against the weather,” she says. “Last year we had our first snowfall very early, so that put a damper on our fall cleanups. We had to split them in half, which this year we’re really hoping doesn’t happen.

“Our biggest challenge is that short timeframe we have mixed with labor,” Anderson adds.

While the company had no problems finding employees early on in 2022, that isn’t the case anymore and they’re desperate to fill those roles and get new employees trained before fall.

“We have a pretty aggressive recruiting strategy. So, we’re hiring new employees and trying to train them while doing fall cleanups,” she says. “It’s kind of tough because we always tend to lose some employees toward the end of the year.”

Anderson says the best way to get the newbies trained fast is by sending them out with her husband, and co-owner, Mike.

“We’ve been sending them out with my husband, and he will personally train the new hires and spend time with them,” she says. “It’s hands-on direct training.”

Courtesy of J&R Property Services

Jeff DeLine

president, J&R Property Services, Cicero, New York

DeLine says his company does hundreds upon hundreds of fall clean-ups every year. They have 10 mowing crews and five landscaping crews.

“We’ll take our landscape crews and have them do our first round of clean-ups because there aren’t that many of them,” DeLine says. “Then when get to having hundreds of them, then each crew is doing seven to 10 a day.”

And DeLine says crews are working on cleanups right up until the first snowfall.

“There’s many years we’re doing fall cleanups right up until the first snowfall and we’ll switch all the equipment in the middle of the night and get on with snow,” he says. “That’s a headache when that happens.”

The most requested time for the service is between Nov. 10-20, as most of the leaves have fallen and customers are eager to get rid of them.

“The customers that want to wait until later in November, we tell them if we end up getting a snowfall that makes it more difficult to clean up there will be an additional charge,” DeLine says. “It depends on the weather and how bad it is.”

And communication is critical when it comes to keeping customers abreast of how the weather will impact fall cleanups.

“We always believe in transparency with our customers,” he says. “We can very easily send group emails to all of our fall clean-up customers and let them know the status. So, it eliminates questions, and we can give them better timeframes…this way the customer knows what to expect and we aren’t just showing up like most companies do.”

DeLine adds that the service is so popular the company is oftentimes turning down work.

“Once we fill up for X number of weeks, we stop taking them on,” he says, “because then it becomes difficult to promise to get them done, and then we have to go back and tell the customer we aren’t going to make it. We try not to do that.”

Before, DeLine recalls having crews go out during mid-winter thaws and finish up some last-minute cleanups.

“We’ve had some seasons a couple years ago where, if we got snow, literally the moment it’d melt, we’d be back out there doing fall cleanups. The latest we’ve ever done one is January. Sometimes you get those thaw outs, and sometimes it’s not possible because the snow comes, and it stays,” he says.

E&M Outdoor Services has increased its fall cleanup rate by 12% in 2022 due to high demand and rising costs.
Photo courtesy of E&M Outdoor Services
Photo courtesy of E&M Outdoor Services

Edward Arens

owner, E&M Outdoor Services, Monticello, Minnesota

With most of his clients being big HOAS, Arens says his crews perform their fall cleanups periodically as opposed to just once a year.

“Some of the properties, if we didn’t go out multiple times, there’d be a heavy amount of leaves for one time,” he says. “But HOAs like that nice, neat appearance, so we’ll always go twice sometimes three times in the fall.”

And while most clients appreciate this dedication, Arens notes he has noticed there isn’t the “wow factor” like there is when just one fall cleanup is performed.

“They like the periodic, but although I do think customers find a better satisfaction in that one-time event because they see all those leaves in their lawn and then we come and are there for a few hours and then when we’re gone, their lawn looks amazing,” he says.

Arens says he sells most of his fall cleanup services in the springtime when crews are performing spring cleanups and customers wish their lawns looked better after a long winter.

“It’s a great upsell in the spring,” he says, “especially when we’re doing spring cleanups. When we go do a spring cleanup for a new customer and there are wet, heavy leaves to pick up, that’s when I sell a fall cleanup. Then not only did we do a spring cleanup for them but they want us back in the fall so we can do other services for them next spring.”

This fall though, customers can expect to pay more for their cleanups.

“I try to have at least a 3-5% increase, but this year we’ve decided to increase them 12%,” he says. “Gas is so much higher now. We expect gas prices to remain high going into fall and throughout December and January. Then we’ll re-evaluate for the 2023 season.”

Arens notes customers are usually understanding of the increases, as it’s impacting their lives in other avenues as well.

But, Arens says his market is making things more difficult, as other companies offer prices he sometimes can’t compete with.

“A lot of people just do fall cleanups cheap to keep their guys busy in the fall. I have no problems with that… but in our area there is such fluctuation,” he says. “There is some wide variations, and I’m sure it’s probably worse in other areas, but it can be a challenge.”

Photo courtesy of Greenworks
Photo courtesy of Chase Lawn Care

Rick Chase

president, Chase Lawn Care, Fenton, Michigan

At the height of the landscaping season, Rick Chase has help from employees as they handle mowing and fertilizing in Fenton, Michigan.

But in the fall, when he’s clearing leaves out of yards and flower beds, Chase is flying solo. By the time he reaches the first week of November, it’s all on him. He’ll keep doing fall cleanup until he stops getting phone calls or once the weather stops cooperating. Each property he services takes him roughly 2.5 hours.

“Sometimes (fall cleanup) is into December, sometimes it’s into January,” Chase says. “It really depends on what Mother Nature is doing to us.”

Ever since he left the golf course management industry 15 years ago, Chase has operated his lawn care company. For the last eight years, he’s done fall cleanup — but not once has he advertised the work. Existing customers will ask about the services that he tacks on as an add-on, or people will call around this time of year hoping to get Chase to come out.

“They usually call me. I’ve already had a couple new clients,” Chase says. “I have had one new client just last week ask me about fall cleanup.”

Chase admits he’s unsure if he’s charging enough for his fall cleanup services, joking that nobody’s given him pushback for raising prices this year. It’s either they all understand that’s the cost of doing business these days — inflation is rampant beyond the green industry — or that he’s simply one of the cheaper options around.

But he’s still seeing a bit of a bump in total customers. During the height of COVID-19, Michigan was one of the more restrictive states nationwide, so he didn’t see the dramatic uptick in clients that others saw across the country. However, he has still seen a steady incline, including 15 new customers this year alone. He assumes many of them will add on fall cleanup services even though he hadn’t thought much about it by mid-September. He has roughly 20 clients who request fall cleanup as it is.

One of the things Chase also faces is scheduling problems. As a one-man show in the fall, it’s difficult to manage fall cleanup services as it is, let alone the fact the weather can be wildly unpredictable. In past years, he’s even done some fall cleanup services in early spring because the delays have been so dramatic.

“If it’s crappy out we just don’t go out, and I try to wait until it dries up a little bit, so we don’t tear up the lawn picking up all the leaves,” Chase says. “It’s very hit and miss in the fall.”

Photo courtesy of Timberline Landscaping

Josh Pool

chief operations officer, Timberline Landscaping, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Josh Pool previously worked in the Kansas City area, so he knows how difficult fall cleanup can be in the Midwest. There, larger trees deposit mounds of wet leaves that can kill spots of lawns over the winter season.

“Here it’s a lot of evergreens,” says Pool, now the chief operations officer at Timberline Landscaping in Colorado. “You still have deciduous trees, but it’s nothing like back east. We don’t have big, mature forests.”

With 75 employees servicing roughly 180 maintenance accounts (some residential, some commercial), Pool says Timberline has built fall cleanup services into their full-service accounts. In other words, if you want Timberline to come out and do the final mowing before the winter, you’re going to sign on to a year-long contract.

The team transitions into fall work on Oct. 15, which includes one final cut before winter comes, ensuring the lawn isn’t too long or shaggy before getting buried in snow. They start shutting down irrigation systems and blowing them out to clean them, too.

“We get calls all the time wanting us to come and do their fall and spring cleanups, but manpower-wise, there’s not enough time for us to take away from our full year contracts,” Pool says. “It’s just not worth it, dollar-wise or customer relations-wise.”

That strategy has still worked to their advantage; Pool says they’ve received plenty of new clients who agree to full contracts because they want someone to help out in the fall right away. At Timberline, they’ve trained account managers to explain that fall cleanup as a standalone service is out of their contract, but that they can add them in to the fold now if they agree to sign on for next season.

That’s led to lots of peace of mind, Pool says, adding it helps them plan out for the following season knowing who’ve they’ve already got booked for the spring.

“It’s a good lead in to get you next summer’s work already booked and sold,” Pool says of fall cleanup services.

Pool says another reason they’ve moved away from offering fall cleanup as a standalone service is because they don’t have the labor to keep up with the demand. He says the company is heavily dependent on H-2B, and when they were denied that in 2020, they essentially cycled through 400 employees just to stay staffed. Though things have stabilized from that hiring nightmare, Pool says it’s better to not bite off more than they can chew.

“There’s definitely more demand,” Pool says, “and it’s all a matter of labor.”

Miller is associate editor and Lux is assistant editor at Lawn & Landscape magazine.

October 2022
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