October 15, 2010
In his column in last month’s Horticulture Review, LO executive director Tony DiGiovanni touched on the lawn care sector survey conducted among members of the sector group.

It’s a sector group that has experienced some major hurdles placed in its path over the past two years. Some of the problems were created by politicians, others by Mother Nature.

Some of the best information on the state of Ontario’s lawn care industry is revealed, not so much in the multiple-choice answers, but in the comments by those who took the survey. After two years of working under the Ontario pesticide ban, many in the business are frustrated with the situation. But, some of the answers show a sense of optimism.

A total of 20 companies took part in the survey. The size of the companies ranged from one to five employees (60 per cent of those taking part), while 20 per cent were companies with 11 to 20 employees, 10 per cent with over 50 employees and 10 per cent with six to 10 employees. Half the respondents had sales volumes under $500,000, while the rest were over that total.

There are a number of contrasting answers from members on rating 2010, as far as business was concerned. Those taking part in the survey had five options to choose from. Surprisingly, half rated the year as moderately satisfactory and 15 per cent said it was a satisfactory year. Only 10 per cent rated it terrible, while a quarter of the respondents said the year was disappointing. No one described 2010 as “terrific.”

The following statement captures the respondents’ general feeling: “My cost is up, quality of weed control is down and my ability to control insects is a joke.”

Those three areas of concern — cost, quality of product and ability to control insects — were consistently expressed as the main problems facing the lawn care sector.

Expectations for 2011?

A total of 45 per cent chose “optimistic,” to answer the question, “What are your expectations for 2011?” The other options included, apprehensive, predicting a slow year and about the same as last year. A total of 25 per cent chose apprehensive, while the other two choices each received 15 per cent of the answers.

Comments on the question of expectations by lawn care professionals included:

“Having to add HST to our clients, rather than just GST, is causing a serious reaction from our new clients. Also, with the pesticide ban and having to use the organic (Fiesta), it has added a considerable cost to our materials. Therefore, with added cost and reduced control of weeds and insects, we have many unhappy clients. I also think that we are being gouged with the cost of Fiesta ($18 per litre is ridiculous).”

“Customers trying Fiesta may not do it another year.”

“People will check back into lawn care. With weed control and less recession, business should improve.”

“I think the free-fall will stop and we will start gaining customers as we can show that weed control is working.”

Comparing last year

On the question of how members compared last year’s sales volumes to this year, two comments reveal the real frustration felt by lawn care professionals:

“We are down from 700 customers to about 500, thanks to Dalton McStinky.”

“We are down 70 per cent in weed control sales, and still going down.

With the addition of Fiesta, that should change.”

One business owner wrote, “We’re just barely hanging on. In a year or two, we won’t exist.”

Level of service draws lots of response

Members had lots to say when it came to revealing the level of service their clients are expecting. This question drew the most responses.

The answers reveal a great deal of frustration that both lawn care operators and their clients are experiencing with the total ban on pesticides. Home owners are frustrated because they don’t see weed-free lawns, while costs go up. Operators are equally frustrated because they don’t have the tools to create that level of service, and the tools that are available are expensive.

Some of the responses follow:

“They (customers) expect weed-free lawns!”

“They want more results for less money.”

“The pesticide ban has affected business negatively. HST is now also affecting business.”

“Our long-time customers are generally happy with our level of service. Many changes (pesticide regulations, HST) have some customers concerned with the future of their properties and the cost associated with professional maintenance.”

“They all want the same thing — dead weeds at a reasonable price.”

“It is impressive, the number of people that want us to cheat.”

“I’m telling them that they cannot expect a weed-free lawn anymore. Most are accepting that, but the big problem is the large increase of cost for reduced weed control. This they do not accept.”

“The cost of products needs to come down, or my customers can’t stay with lawn care anymore.”

“Everyone is teed-off about not having the traditional weed products. These are the same people who did not go out to the pesticide meetings, because they were made to feel like criminals for wanting a weed free lawn. Many are still using banned products.”

“If we can’t kill weeds for them, they might as well do their own fertilizing and flag down cheap aeration.”

“Clients want to see more dead weeds. Pulling some of the weeds just isn’t good enough.”

The lone statement of optimism was, “We work long/hard hours, and so far our clients are very pleased with our work. No one has yet has mentioned next season. Our best hope is to keep all our clients from this year into next year.”

Increased competition

On the question of experiencing increased competition from others that members might not normally have received, it reveals many inexperienced people fresh from layoffs were in competition with the established professional firms. This despite what one member wrote, “No one would be that dumb to get into lawn care at this time.” Others wrote:

“A lot of people are doing it themselves.”

“With many layoffs in our area, lawn maintenance seems to be an increasing new business. Hard to compete with the small independents that don’t have the same overhead costs (insurance, WSIB, etc).”

“The door knockers are killing the aeration market with low prices.”

“Low-ballers are sodding for $8.75 per sq. ft. and interlock installers at $5-6 per sq. ft. That makes us look too expensive.”

“I found out that a retired couple had started to cut lawns for half the price we quote in the area that we normally service for potential customers. This explains why we never heard back from customers, after supplying them with a quote to cut their lawns. As a company, we can’t complete with their price.”

Financial concessions

On the issue of financial concessions to clients, those lawn care companies taking part in the survey were split on answering the question of keeping prices down.

“My clients were unwilling to accept price increases for organic products, because they feel results were not up to expectations.”

“Our costs have increased dramatically (new Fiesta herbicide), while we froze prices.”

“None of my clients are willing to pay $90 per application for a weed control on a small lawn. I have lost all my large properties, because they will not pay $600 to $1,000 for a weed spray.”

“We used the useless weed control (Fiesta) and had to do a free re-spray to keep the lawn care clients from cancelling.”

To view the completed survey results, go to the Lawn Care sector page on www.horttrades.com.