Photo courtesy of Landscape Lighting Pro of Utah

Lighting can enhance any landscape by extending the amount of time people spend in outdoor spaces, highlighting unique features, adding ambiance after dark and safely illuminating tripping hazards.

With so many outdoor lighting options to consider and so many types of fixtures to choose from, consumers rely on experts to steer them toward the right system for their space. This requires contractors to stay up on the latest lighting design trends and technologies, so they can recommend the best solutions.

Here are some of the biggest trends in outdoor lighting right now, with a look at the sales tools contractors use to upsell landscape lighting.

Smart controls.

The most obvious lighting trend of 2018 is the advanced technology that allows property owners to control lights from a smart device.

“One of the biggest trends in residential lighting projects is smart app automation,” says Ty Rosser, lighting designer at Landscape Lighting Pro of Utah. “People can just log into their accounts on their phones to program their lights, rather than having to depend on a timer or control system inside their transformer.”

“Smart technology is becoming extremely popular,” says Faulkner Bell, founder and president of Bell Outdoor LLC, a landscape design/build firm on St. Simons Island, Georgia. “The convenience of a mobile app allows people to (access) more customized settings than a typical transformer.”

Using smart technology, property owners can set a weekly lighting schedule – whether it’s consistent throughout the week or different each day – instead of using default dusk-to-dawn timers. They can even set different start times for distinct areas of the property, giving them more personalized lighting control than ever before.

“The enticement of controllability is creating different layers or themes in the landscape,” Rosser says. “That’s where the smart app technology is incredible because it can actually break up a landscape into different zones. So, if they just want the patio area to be lit for their family, they don’t want the entire system on – whereas if they have people coming over for a party, they can turn on everything.”

Depending on the size of the lighting system and the number of zones involved, this technology might add $750 to $3,000 to a project, says Joel Mayor, owner and lighting designer at Texas Outdoor Lighting. Yet the added convenience and control that comes with lighting systems is an easy upsell. “Once we explain to our customers how they can easily schedule the lighting system, dim or brighten each lighting zone independently, and all the other cool features that are available, it’s a no-brainer,” he says.

Contractors say customers want to see the light, not the fixtures.
Photo courtesy of Texas Outdoor Lighting
Touch of color.

Although a warm white LED glow is still the norm, color-changing lights are appearing in more landscapes, casting a full spectrum of hues.

“We don’t see people use color-changing lights for their whole system,” Rosser says. “They may just want it for a few key features like a sculpture or a fountain.”

“I haven’t seen that become a really popular item yet,” Bell says. “I see it more as a holiday (accent), not something for everyday use.”

But colored lights aren’t just for Christmas anymore. Rosser has designed Halloween landscape themes using blue and purple lights, and Bell sees a growing demand for patriotic colors around the Fourth of July.

Discreet fixtures.

While aged brass remains a popular finish for lighting fixtures because of its durability, contractors are noticing a new trend: People don’t want to see the fixtures at all.

“Very few customers are concerned with the color or finish of the lighting fixtures,” Mayor says. “Most of the time, fixtures are hidden in the landscape, and people really appreciate that.”

For example, Bell frequently installs area lights or path lights to illuminate walkways. But decorative, ornate hoods and stems are not popular with his customers. Instead, he’s been using ground lights, which are almost entirely hidden underground, except for the shield that directs the beam.

“We’ve been installing some with 180-degree light output,” Bell says. “We put them along the perimeter of walkways, so it spreads light across that surface and you don’t even see it. It’s flush with the hardscape, and you can even install it within the hardscape, so everything’s concealed. It draws out the focal point more than the fixture.”

Likewise, Bell has been doing a lot of discreet underwater lighting to accent disappearing fountains and recirculating urns. He also installs strips of step lights or ledge lights underneath the lip of a pool’s edge, highlighting the wall or tile without revealing an obvious fixture. The same subtle concept works under the coping of a seat wall around a firepit, too.

“People want to see the effect, not the source,” Rosser says. “They don’t want to notice the light fixture. They just want to see that the area is lit beautifully. This discreet attitude is how people want to experience their lighting.”

Bell Outdoor LLC has seen a big increase in lighting projects this year, according to founder and president Faulkner Bell. About 10-15 percent of the landscape design/build firm’s revenue comes from lighting projects.
Photo courtesy of Bell Outdoor LLC
Selling the effects.

Generally speaking, “landscape lighting is not cheap,” Bell says. “Customers don’t know what fixtures and bulbs cost, so they can be a little sticker-shocked.”

Highlighting the energy savings and reduced maintenance requirements of LED over halogen is helpful, but really getting prospects comfortable with the cost of outdoor lighting requires education and demonstration of the latest trends. After Rosser puts a design together, he walks through the property with the customer to explain how it will look, using photos and sample light fixtures to help them visualize the results.

“I’ve found that’s often the best way for them to understand the design, if they can see the features we’re going to be capturing and (visualize) the kind of effect the light’s going to have,” he says. “I’ll explain all this to them as we’re walking the property. I’ll show them the fixtures and bring our portfolio with plenty of examples to show.”

Bell uses demo kits from his suppliers, which feature several fixture styles that he can set up for one night. But as his product knowledge and sales abilities expand, he’s offering the demo kit less frequently and providing other ways for prospective customers to see lights in action.

“(People) don’t want to notice the light fixture. They just want to see that the area is lit beautifully.” Ty Rosser, lighting designer, Landscape Lighting Pro of Utah

“Product catalogs can only do so much,” he says. “We have a showroom in our office with every fixture powered up on display because people like to see before they buy."

To see lighting examples outside of a showroom setting, Bell also recommends nighttime “drive-bys” – inviting prospective customers to check out previous jobs he’s completed nearby.

Mayor used to set up lighting demos for every potential client when he started the business in 2007, but he quickly realized how much time this ate up.

“We rarely ever show potential customers the fixtures we install,” he says, “because we don’t want to look like lighting fixture salesmen. We stress that we’re after the lighting effect, not pretty light fixtures.”

To illustrate the effects, Mayor invests heavily in professional photography, so his portfolio can speak for his work. Every potential customer receives his company brochure, which shows several examples of different lighting techniques. He also carries an iPad to show prospects more photos on-the-fly, and he’ll point them toward previous jobs.

Seeing lights at night is key to closing sales in this niche. By learning how to sell the effects of the light, rather than just peddling the newest fixtures, lighting contractors can confidently close more lighting design prospects.

“No matter what product you’re selling, being confident enough to stand behind that product and having a good understanding of how it works is the most important key,” Rosser says. “Lighting trends fall in and out of fashion, so the No. 1 thing to focus on with outdoor lighting is creating a timeless beauty.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.