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Landscapers Upbeat

It's been a rough two years in the landscaping business, but the prospect of a growing economic recovery has Tennessee landscape contractors heaving a sign of relief.
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“People have finally been willing to go ahead and schedule the landscaping that they’ve been thinking about for two or three years,” said Janet Phillips, owner of Landscape Arts Inc. “They’re ready to go, so they quit worrying about the economy.”

She lost 40 percent of her business in 2009 to customer penny-pinching, though she said she’s picking most of it back up this year.

A declining economy usually leads to consumers’ cutting back on luxury goods such as jewelry, expensive clothing, and contracted lawn care, said John Garrett, an economics professor at UTC. But the good news is that demand for such services could return as the economy improves over the next three years, he added.

“If people are economizing, lawn care is one of the first things they can economize on,” Garrett said. “Luxury goods and services should come back relatively steadily in line with the economy, but then again it’s a slow process.”

Scavenging Customers
That’s not reassuring enough for lawn care professionals like James Swafford, owner of James Swafford Landscaping.

He said business has fallen off “40 to 50 percent” since the recession hit, though he’s “starting to see some signs of it coming back better than it was a year ago.”

With the combination of July heat and consumer thrift, “it’s probably been one of the worst summers for landscaping,” he said.

Competitors that Swafford calls “fly-by-night operators” have gone out of business, leaving established companies to pick up their customers.

Unfortunately, the overall drop in customer numbers was so severe that the remaining lawn service companies have had to cut profit margins to compete for each grassy greenback, he said.

“I think it’s harder to make a profit now because the volume of jobs is not out there,” he said. Furthermore, with the jobs that do exist, “people don’t want to pay any kind of money, they’re trying to get out as cheap as possible.”

Even Wealthy Affected
Signal Mountain Nursery’s owner, Mark Bonastia, said he first noticed a drop in business in early 2008.

“Business dropped by a third, and big jobs did slow down. ” he said.

While a drop off in middle-class customers was to be expected, it seemed unusual to him in that he lost his wealthy customers in equal proportion. Those with money usually are slower to edge down their spending, he said, but this time “it seemed like all demographics were affected.”

At CAD Landscape Design & Installation, owner Grant Parker said that “it’s pretty well flatlined with the upper-class clients that we work with,” while he has also seen a “major decline” in middle-class customers, adding up to a 30 percent drop in business.

But with what he sees as a stable local economy, he’s optimistic now with the onset of fall, a season that usually gets homeowners into the mood to beautify their yard for spring. It could mean a revenue uptick both for Parker and for his lawn care colleagues, he said.

“We should be turning around here soon,” Parker said.

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December 14, 2019, 8:39 am PDT

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