Early order programs give you a head start on keeping your customers’ lawns looking good.
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When Luke Hawthorne started his company in 2006, he and his wife operated the company out of their spare bedroom. Today, Emerald Lawns in Austin, Texas, employs 130 people and earns roughly $3.3 million annually. With most of the business being predicated on fertilizing and weed control, Hawthorne says he stumbled into a blessing when he discovered early order programs.

At first, Hawthorne says he just pre-purchased weed control he’d use in the spring. But now, he’ll pre-order just about everything – even his holiday lighting materials.

“It’s a pretty lucrative little system we’ve got going on,” Hawthorne says, citing rebates that reach upwards of 11%. “I’m going to use (the materials) anyway, so why wouldn’t I get that 6-11% back?”

Hawthorne acknowledges it’s not always that easy of a choice. Every contractor must evaluate his or her businesses to see if they can afford paying for the materials up front, or if they can make the space for all the inventory. Plus, there are plenty of “what if” hypotheticals that run across contractors’ minds, like what happens if you order pre-emergent in October and a chilly, wet winter pushes the start of the season back several weeks?

Those degrees of uncertainty, coupled with the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, can lead to questions about whether early order programs are the right choice for contractors this fall.

Hawthorne will be doing much of the same as he always does – he’s trusted EOPs since his first or second year in business and won’t stop now over a decade later.

“One of the reasons I was scared when I started was because I don’t know what the next year is going to hold,” he says. “The longer I’ve stayed in business, the more I’ve realized that (hypothetical) stuff doesn’t happen or it rarely happens.”

Crunching the numbers.

Cory Elmendorf of Total Care Lawn & Landscaping in St. Louis says they implemented early order programs a few years ago because they wanted to get their clients into a solid monthly rotation.

Elmendorf says they do maintenance work for both residential and commercial clients, but the residential clients in particular clamored for improvement in their homes’ curb appeals. By planning around a monthly fee from clients and signing them up for an annual seven-round program, Elmendorf says he’s able to budget accordingly in the fall for the clients who will be back in the spring.

“We use a local supplier here in St. Peters (Missouri), and we get a lot of our seed from them,” Elmendorf says. “We can get chemical from them if need be as well. We also have other outlets, but if we’re getting bulk stuff, we go to our local supplier.”

Elmendorf says he rarely orders so much they have to keep it in stock for too long in the season, and he recommends finding EOPs that will hold on to materials and store them in advance. Some of those same programs also offer online calculating tools to help landscapers budget and estimate along the way.

Not only can the tools help with figuring out how much the material costs, but they could help you determine possible rebates through ordering so far in advance, an advantage that Hawthorne says cannot be overlooked once he starts planning the orders in August and early September.

“The rebates are an obvious pro, and the earlier you get your order program, the better,” he says. “It’s just better to get it off your plate. If you can do it, just do it.”

“(An EOP) makes it much easier when we know what’s coming.” Luke Hawthorne, owner of Emerald Lawns

Knowing your stuff.

Elmendorf says early order programs are easy to figure out, but he stresses that LCOs should make sure their employees are certified to use all the product they’re ordering for the next year. It could be frustrating to be stocked up on products but also needing to teach new employees how to use it on the fly in the spring season, particularly with the chemical products.

“Just get the knowledge first,” he says. “The testing, you’ve got to be certified. If your employees are going to spray, you’ve got to go through the protocols to get the right license.”

Hawthorne says the planning used to be difficult for early order programs, particularly because he didn’t know how much spring products and weed control he’d need. But on the flip side of the coin, it’s a lot easier in the spring to know you have a product than trying to order amidst a busy season.

Paying for the programs is where a company could get in trouble, Hawthorne says, so budgeting requires careful research. He pays for his programs in May or June after ordering during an annual trade show in September. Though the trade show is cancelled this year due to COVID-19 – which makes the early order program planning less fun, Hawthorne jokes – he’s still communicating clearly with his vendor. There’s not a face-to-face meeting like in years past, but Hawthorne says his relationship with the supplier needs to remain strong.

“Be careful how much you order because you’re still going to have to pay the bill,” he says. “Otherwise, you start paying late fees or you’re damaging your relationship with your vendor and you don’t want that.”

Hawthorne admits he’s not sure what’s ahead due to the pandemic. For his own company, the client cancellation rate didn’t decrease this year like he had hoped, but he also has no worries about investing in an early order program. Landscaping remained essential and strong during the quarantine in the spring, so Hawthorne says he doesn’t anticipate that to be different next year.

If an LCO is worried about the ramifications of COVID-19, he recommends a strategy he used when he was first starting early order programs: order half the product than you think you’ll need, and order the rest during the spring season as you go.

But Hawthorne says the peace of mind in an early order program is worth every penny.

“I don’t know how this year is going to play out,” he says. “But beyond the obvious perks, which are the rebates and the cash back, it makes it much easier when we know what’s coming.”