The Secret Is Service
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Retailing is tough. (Didn’t have to tell you that, right?) And it’s getting even tougher for hearth, patio and barbecue retailers as consumers increasingly turn to the Internet to buy outdoor furniture, grills, barbecue accessories, fire pits, patio heaters, and other goods.
Supplementing the products on your sales floor with additional services – the likes of which Amazon, eBay, and Wayfair.com can’t provide – may help your business adapt to changing consumer behaviors, and significantly increase revenue.
“A lot of hearth retailers used to consider the service side of the business as a necessary evil, and believed the retail side was where they made all their money,” says Mark Stoner, owner of Ashbusters Chimney Service in Nashville, and co-founder and director of Marketing for SirVent, a chimney-cleaning franchise company.
“Unfortunately, the retailer is becoming a middle man that can be eliminated as consumers buy more things online. But Internet companies can’t perform a service. You have to change your mindset from a retail business to a service business.”
Even if you are already installing and servicing the products you sell, you may not have considered a number of other related services you could offer that would dovetail nicely with your existing business segments. Expanding into grill-cleaning, patio furniture shrink-wrapping, or even mosquito-control services, for instance, could create a mutually beneficial synergy with your current products and services, and allow you to tap into your existing customer base to grow sales.
Beyond that, these new services may also help you reach a broader base of customers than simply those who walk into your store. Once in their homes, you might even uncover a need for other products and services that could result in further sales. According to Stoner, “The majority of our sales come from being in a home for, say, a chimney sweeping, and asking, ‘Would you like to look at more efficient models?’ We can show the customer new gas logs or wood stoves on an iPad right in their home. We sell hundreds and hundreds of units that way.”
Adding related services might help bridge gaps on your company calendar by filling in counter-seasonal periods or other down-times. You may even have underutilized facilities, personnel or other assets that can help defray the costs of getting these new areas off the ground.
While you may launch new service-business segments independently, buying into a franchise operation might be a smart, turnkey solution to getting it up-and-running quickly. Franchises offer built-in brand recognition, proven best-practice models, software systems, marketing assistance, training, and support from management and other franchisees that lessen the learning curve and, in theory, help turn a profit faster.
Stoner says the most sought-after services focus on tasks many homeowners don’t know how to do or don’t want to do themselves. “Dirty work is where it’s at,” he says.
Your insight into your current customers’ unmet needs can help determine which niche services might have the greatest potential demand in your marketplace. But, according to the International Franchise Association, it’s important to do your due diligence before signing on the dotted line with any franchise.
To measure the opportunity for success and profit, it’s critical to evaluate not just initial investment costs and ongoing royalty fees, but also five-year growth rates, rules on territory exclusivity, and other competitive brands in your area. It’s also important to investigate the company’s five-year continuity rates to get a peek into how often an individual franchise changes hands.
The International Franchise Association, www.franchise.org, is an excellent resource on all subjects related to franchising, and offers a free downloadable document, “Franchising 101, Everything You Need to Know About Owning a Franchise.”
There are a number of franchise opportunities that would make sense as a companion business for hearth, patio and barbecue retailers. Most of them require minimal specialized skills, and a relatively low upfront investment, compared to other types of franchise businesses. Some even offer discounts on start-up costs for military veterans.
Whether or not you decide to go with a franchise or go it alone, here’s a look at the types of added services that could help turn your store into a one-stop shop and grow your business.
Grill Cleaning – Beyond scraping the gunk off the grilling grid before each use, few people like to deal with thoroughly cleaning and degreasing their grill. As a result, the appliance can get pretty gross, so much so that if it were in an indoor kitchen, most would never even dream of cooking on it. A mobile, barbecue-cleaning service solves this problem by cleaning and sanitizing the grill, extending its life and protecting the homeowner’s investment in the process.
Bryan Weinstein founded grill-cleaning franchise company Bar-B-Clean (www.bar-b-clean.com) after unsuccessfully searching for a cleaning service for his own grill and finding an untapped market. Today, the company has 20 franchises in seven states, each offering inside-and-out deep-cleaning and sanitizing of grill heads, carts, cooking grates, heat diffusers, burners, and other components of freestanding and built-in grills and outdoor kitchens. After the 2-1/2- hour cleaning process, grills are polished to a showroom shine with the company’s proprietary stainless-steel polish.
Initial investment costs for the franchise run around $25,000, an outlay Weinstein says can potentially be recouped in the first year. One-time grill cleanings start at $250, but Bar-B-Clean franchisees also offer service contracts with three cleanings a year.
Replacement parts are an additional source of revenue, as technicians diagnose issues while onsite and offer to replace burners, cooking grids and other components. In cold climates, winterizing service for outdoor kitchens is another sales opportunity, as are contracts with apartment and condo complexes for quarterly cleanings of common-use grills. “Property managers don’t want to do this,” Weinstein says.
Bar-B-Clean’s services are especially sought after by homeowners with outdoor kitchens; 80% of the company’s cleaning jobs are for built-in grills. “When people are spending $20,000 to $200,000 on an outdoor kitchen, they want and need to take care of it,” Weinstein says. “After it’s cleaned, it not only looks better, it’s a healthier cooking environment too. Half the barbecues we service have rodent or other animal droppings in them. It’s bad.
“This is a good, complementary business for hearth, patio and barbecue retailers, and a good counter-seasonal business for chimney sweeps, that can grow sales” he continues.
According to The BBQ Cleaner (www.thebbqcleaner.com), another grill-cleaning company with 150 franchise locations, cleaning just two grills per day could add an extra $77,000 in sales annually. Additional grill-cleaning franchises include Sparkle Grill Cleaning (www.sparklegrill.com), and Superclean BBQ (www.supercleanbbq.com).
Patio and Deck Cleaning – Whether it’s a wooden deck, or a stone, brick, paver or concrete patio, all outdoor surfaces need periodic cleaning and sealing. Pressure-washing and treating surfaces with special solutions and sealants, gets rid of unsightly dirt, grime, mold and mildew, prevents UV fading, and protects an Outdoor Room investment. It’s a service many customers with upgraded outdoor living spaces need and want.
You could offer annual and biannual service contracts, and maybe even discount the first-year contract for customers who spend a certain amount on Outdoor Room products. Franchises in this arena include Renew Crew (www.renewcrewclean.com) and Sparkle Wash (www.sparklewash.com).
Shrink Wrapping – While intrepid grillers are known to cook out year-round no matter the weather, patio furniture, dining sets, fire pit tables, and other outdoor amenities ideally should be protected from the elements in winter. When lack of space, physical ability, or desire prevents people from moving these items into a garage, shed or basement, another option is to shrink-wrap them right on the patio.
Best known for winterizing boats, shrink-wrapping can be used on patio furniture, fountains, tiki bars, pool equipment, jet skis, outdoor kitchen islands, beverage centers, hot tubs, air conditioners, RVs, and a host of other outdoor elements. The relatively simple process involves wrapping recyclable, white, low-density, polyethylene plastic film around the items, and then applying a propane heat gun to the film so it shrinks and snuggly conforms to the irregular shapes. Unlike protective covers for furniture or grills, shrink wrap stays securely in place and provides an air- and water-tight seal. Profit margins for the service are extremely high, according to an article in Forbes magazine.
Learn more about shrink-wrap franchises from Fast Wrap (www.fastwrapusa.com). Or to do-it-yourself, you can find materials and installation products on Dr. Shrink (www.dr-shrink.com).
Mosquito Control – Depending on your area, mosquitos could be preventing your customers from investing in outdoor living spaces. In fact, one study indicates 36% of Americans planned to spend less time outdoors due to mosquito concerns. Besides annoying itchy welts, mosquitos and ticks transmit illnesses such as Lyme disease, West Nile Virus, and Zika, and worry over these issues is escalating.
As a result, consumers are increasingly seeking out mosquito- and tick-control companies to help them “take back their yards,” turning these businesses into some of the fastest growing in the country. Trained technicians visit a homeowner’s property every 21 days and use a backpack sprayer to apply barrier sprays to the perimeter of the yard, landscaping, trees, and brush, as well as around porches, decks, patios, and other damp, shady spots in the yard where mosquitos and ticks live and breed. They also use larvicides to treat areas with standing water.
If mosquitoes and ticks are an issue in your area, there are several franchise companies that could help you add this service to your business. Check out Skeeter Shield (www.skeetershield.com), Mosquito Squad (www.mosquitosquadfranchise.com), and Mosquito Authority (www.mosquito-authority.com).
Stamped Concrete – Concrete Craft (www.concretecraft.com) is a decorative concrete franchise company that offers a variety of stamped, stained and decorative concrete services for residential properties, including interior fireplaces, patio and pool-deck resurfacing, outdoor seat walls, fire pits, and more. Its proprietary system creates these custom-designed elements in a range of colors, finishes and configurations. All work is done on-site at the customer’s home, and requires less time, labor, and mess than traditional masonry projects.
According to the company, the techniques are easily mastered; most of its franchisees do not have prior concrete or construction experience. This could be a good add-on service for hearth, patio and barbecue dealers offering Outdoor Room and fireplace design-build services.
Chimney Cleaning – For more than half of his 30 years in the chimney business, Stoner of SirVent, like the vast majority of chimney-sweeps, was a one-man operation. “I owned a job. I only got income if I worked,” he says. He eventually scaled it up into a business with 36 employees, 18 service trucks, and an 18,000 sq. ft. warehouse facility.
Stoner has since turned his concept into a chimney- and venting-service franchise business for individuals interested in building a new business from the ground up, or for current hearth retailers who want to beef up the service side of their business.
SirVent (www.sirventfranchising.com) provides the necessary technical, business, and operations training so business owners can offer chimney and venting inspections, cleaning and repairs, including flash sealing, caps, dampers, liners, masonry repairs, smoke chamber repairs, and other services. The company also offers ongoing handholding, tech support, and assistance with budgeting, forecasting, pricing and other tasks to help franchisees be successful, according to Stoner.
“Most hearth businesses don’t sweep or repair chimneys,” he says. “But there is a synergistic relationship here with multiple potential new revenue sources. Retailers don’t have to sub out some of this work. Customers want a one-stop shop.”