Selling Compost To The Landscape Industry

compost use in landscapes BioCycle September 2011, Vol. 52, No. 9, p. 57

This high-value market segment for compost is growing, due in large part to performance – including irrigation savings- and cost-competitiveness with products currently used.

Ron Alexander

THE landscape industry has proven to be one of the largest “high value” market segments for compost. Compost is popular among landscapers because of its versatility and efficacy in a variety of applications. Its primary use is as a soil amendment, but also as a manufactured topsoil component, a turf topdressing and mulch. Landscapers have the ability to purchase compost in both bulk and bagged form. It is also cost-competitive with other products they currently use, such as peat-based amendments. And compost use appears to reduce “plant loss” on landscaping projects, lowering overall project cost. Landscapers are not overly risk averse, which means they are more willing to try new products.

However, like most end users, landscapers demand specific product characteristics (based on the application), have delivery-related requirements that include having suppliers who deliver product when needed since the industry is so seasonal. Understanding the size and characteristics of the landscape market segment enables compost producers to improve their “sales pitch,” thus improving their “closure” rate, and focusing where to target marketing dollars.

The industry includes landscape and irrigation contractors, landscape designers and architects and related supply and equipment companies, among others. Despite recent market contraction caused by the recession, Irrigation & Green Industry magazine estimates the current market value is $40 billion to $60 billion annually. There are an estimated 35,000 to 38,000 landscape contractors in the U.S., even with an estimated loss of 12.5 percent of companies from three years ago. There are also 3,500 lawn care companies nationwide within the industry. Similar to landscapers, they are diversifying their services (e.g., mowing, tree care, irrigation). Some lawn care companies offer turf topdressing with compost as a new service.

To tap the landscape and lawn care market opportunities, compost manufacturers must be engaged and “well-read” enough in the market segment to be ready to expand into new areas of growth and modify their sales program to avoid a reduction in market share. Irrigation & Green Industry’s 2010 “Status Report on the Green Industry” has done an outstanding job illustrating landscape industry trends.

According to the 2010 Status Report, the 2004 to 2007 housing boom helped many landscaping firms, who focused their business model primarily around landscaping new residential homes. These landscapers were financially damaged more than other landscaping companies when the recession hit. The recession also caused the commercial construction sector to shrink. This information indicates that a larger number of landscaping companies (the ones that survived) will be vying for the same project work. Another impact of the recession resulted in families choosing to use vacation time at home, spending time and money on landscaping and gardening projects to provide personal enjoyment and to improve home value.

Another trend noted in the Status Report is that water shortages have become a major issue in many parts of the country, and water use restrictions are much more common today. Obviously, compost can be promoted as a means to reduce irrigation on landscapes. Ecofriendly landscaping is another trend highlighted, including establishment of green roofs, environmental lawn care companies, and development of LEED-certified homes and buildings and compost can be used in all of the applications. Even irrigation companies are being forced to learn about water conservation/sustainability.

When asked what products or services landscapers would like to add or upgrade, compost wasn’t mentioned, but fertilizers (47%) and chemicals (36%) were. What can composters learn from this data? Reduced chemical fertilizer and water consumption should (and will) continue to be promoted, and that landscapers may be more open-minded to use new products and offer new services. It is critical to show landscapers how compost can be innovatively used to lower project costs (e.g., topsoil manufacturing) and solve environmental problems.

SALES AND MARKETING TIPS
Specific uses for compost in landscapes and turf include: Flower/garden bed establishment; Component of planter mix (e.g., raised flower beds, rooftop mixes), tree/shrub backfill mix and manufactured topsoil; Decorative plant mulch (coarser products are more effective at suppressing weed establishment); Turf establishment/renovation and maintenance; Turf topdressing; and Organic fertilizer. The Practical Guide to Compost Marketing and Sales, 2nd Edition (The JG Press, Inc., 2010), which I authored, provides extensive details on selling to the landscape industry, among other market segments (see sidebar for sales points for landscapers). What follows is a summary of market characteristics specific to the landscaping industry:

Seasonality: Because landscaping is such a seasonal business, establishing a dependable delivery infrastructure is required. Further, the seasonality of the landscaping industry necessitates that composters time their own sales and marketing activities around the landscapers’ schedule. For instance, in most areas of the U.S., the spring season (mid/late March through June) will be the peak landscaping season, therefore promoting new programs and products should be done throughout the winter before (December through February) and at winter trade shows. Fall turf promotion (mid/late September though mid/late November) must be done throughout the summer. During peak season, landscapers will pay top dollar for compost, concerned about having product when and where they need it.

Inventory: In many parts of the U.S., mature composting programs can sell half or more of their compost during the spring season – if they have enough inventory on hand. Composters should be properly stockpiling compost throughout the late fall and winter for the spring rush. For example, if a producer’s historical sales in the spring are 50 percent of an annual 50,000 cubic yard (cy) production volume, then 25,000 cy should be stockpiled (or maturing) for the spring market. When the spring season starts and ends depends on the weather (which is getting less predictable). One of the biggest problems composting facilities have is underestimating finished product storage requirements. It is very difficult to maximize product value without having enough storage capacity. And in storage, compost still has to breathe, so piles can’t be too high (under 15 to 20-feet); water must be kept away from the edges. Obviously, for composters making blends (e.g., topsoil, rooftop garden media), ingredients need to be stockpiled before the rush. It is always a challenge getting enough trucks to deliver the volume of product that has to be moved in the spring, so be prepared.

Pricing: Landscapers can be very cost conscious, but some of that comes from the fact that many of their projects have been bid out. These contracts are won on cost and creativity (compost producers can help them illustrate long-term landscape success to their clients). They also are likely to be more cost conscious during the off season than the peak season. Landscapers also expect a discount on the product (probably 10 to 25%) if they require it in larger volumes.

Sales Calls: Let the landscapers talk! Understand their requirements (company and project) before beginning the sales pitch. Don’t forget sales tools, such as pertinent end use information and/or articles, a product sample and a list of customers/references (as necessary), etc. It also helps to show “before and after” pictures of pertinent/related projects. Landscapers are “visual” buyers.

Also, remember that certain market segments are interrelated with other ones. For instance, landscape architects must be educated about compost because they can specify its usage on landscape projects. Further establishing or expanding a compost resale network can allow for smaller landscapers to conveniently purchase the product. Working with landscape architects and resellers increases sales within the landscape industry.

Expanding sales into specific market segments (e.g., landscapers) requires understanding the specifics of their operation and slowing down enough to create a detailed plan of action based on regional trends and customer requirements….as well as the compost producer’s abilities and product characteristics. Finally, stick with sales “basics” that work for that particular market segment (e.g., face-to-face sales, trade conference booths, etc.) and commit to them on an ongoing basis.

Ron Alexander is president of R. Alexander Associates, Inc. (Apex, North Carolina, 919-367-8350, www.alexassoc.net), a company specializing in market development and research for organic recycled products. Mr. Alexander is a horticulturalist with over 27 years of experience working with compost, and is author of “The Practical Guide to Compost Marketing and Sales,” 2nd Edition (The JG Press, Inc., 2010). To order a copy, visit www.biocycle.net.

p. 57 Selling To Landscapers
The Practical Guide To Compost Marketing and Sales reviews each compost market segment and highlights basic information pertinent to that segment.

Basic benefits/sales points for landscapers is excerpted from the Guide:
• Product versatility (many related uses)
• Weed-free source of organic matter
• Lack of good quality topsoil
• Less expensive than most peat, peat-humus and mulch products
• Possesses a stable pH; typically reduces lime addition
• Rich in plant nutrients (micro and macro); will allow for either the elimination or a significant reduction in first year fertilization
• Helps soils retain nutrients – possesses a high cation exchange capacity
• Reduces compaction in heavy (fine textured) soils, reducing soil bulk density
• Increases moisture infiltration and oxygen exchange in heavy soils
• Improves moisture retention in light (sandy) soils
• Promotes deep rooting/better establishment; plants can better cope with environmental and cultural stresses
• Can be used as “one step” turf and flower bed installation and renovation product; can “fix” poor soils nutritionally, physically and biologically, and reduce/eliminate preplant fertilization
• Less plant loss where compost is used in tree/shrub establishment projects

p. 58
Landscape Architect “Snap Shot”
LANDSCAPE architects and designers are not typically end users, in that they actually specify use of particular products, but don’t actually use them (although they may be employed by companies that do). While not overly risk averse, these professionals will only specify products with which they are comfortable. They specify not only the type of products used on landscaping projects, but often its characteristics and application rates. Landscape architects are also often involved in the design of sports complexes and reclamation sites, and can influence the use of compost in topsoil manufacturing and erosion control applications. Landscape architects and designers will appreciate the versatility of compost, but may require special attention during the sales/educational process, e.g., specific details on past projects, scientific proof that the product works as promoted. Landscape architects will commonly specify the use of compost in planting bed establishment and maintenance, a variety of turf related establishment projects, and can provide the ability to specify compost on large topsoil manufacturing projects. They are usually “environmentally minded” individuals, which can be helpful in convincing them that they should use compost – instead of specifying peat-based products or importing “native” topsoil.

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