Rental centers have a limited time to make the most of lawn and garden equipment during the short summer season. RER asked both manufacturers and rental companies for tips on how to profit from outdoor power equipment. Their advice: Use maintenance, customer service and knowledgeable employees to make the most of the profits this equipment can add to a business.
Proper maintenance routines not only keep equipment running smoothly, but also help increase profits. Equipment needing repairs isn't being rented — and isn't making money.
Mike Smollock, vice president of sales and marketing for MacKissic, Parker Ford, Pa., has been involved in the rental industry since he was 16 years old. Smollock recommends implementing a regular maintenance program and making sure equipment is ready to go when the season hits. “You don't want to wait until it breaks down,” Smollock says. “You never want to miss those rentals mid-season.”
Dale Blackwell, owner of Aba Daba Rents in Sacramento, Calif., starts equipment during the off season to ensure it will be up and running when it is needed. He also has the shop foreman walk through the rental yard on Thursdays before the busy weekend to make sure equipment is ready for rental.
Keeping equipment maintained also keeps customers satisfied with the equipment's performance, so it is important to service equipment every time a customer returns it. Checking belts and fluids in engines helps ensure a long life for the equipment. Also clean the equipment, add gas, check air filters and grease the machine every time it is returned. Rob Faber, commercial sales specialist for Winn, Mich.-based Morbark, says that with proper maintenance, rental companies will get repeat rentals.
When buying equipment, look for manufacturing companies that have a history and that understand the rental industry.
“If people understand the rental business, they'll build equipment that'll stand up to it,” Smollock says.
Blackwell says price is not his main concern when purchasing equipment. “I don't buy equipment based on price,” he says. “We are looking for quality and we are looking for equipment that is relatively maintenance free.”
Manufacturers that specialize in the rental industry won't just build equipment for its intended applications, but will also take into consideration how a rental customer might use the machine. Smollock says manufacturers who know rental will make a durable machine that can take a beating.
It's also important for a rental center to know its customers when purchasing outdoor power equipment. “I think the big thing to know is what type of renter they're looking to rent to,” Faber says. Equipment purchased for homeowners and do-it-yourselfers will be different — smaller and easier to operate than if a rental center is catering to a mostly contractor clientele. It is important to know what customers need.
Tom Hughes, owner of Hometown Rentals in Pomona, Calif., keeps power equipment fresh, only keeping it a few years before replacing it with new equipment. “We don't give it away,” he says. “Our customers are paying for it, so they expect a good piece of equipment.” Hughes then sells the used equipment for additional revenue. Offering repairs on outdoor power equipment, as Hometown Rentals does, is an additional way to increase profits.
Blackwell is also careful about the age of his fleet. Most of his equipment is one to two years old, and the rest isn't more than three years old. He tries to replace equipment every year so new pieces are always in the fleet and older equipment can be used as a backup.
Working to meet customer needs and fitting into their schedules is an important piece of the rental puzzle.
Hughes caters to the needs of the customer when it comes to the length of the rental. His store offers a two-hour minimum rental on most equipment. He also offers four-hour rentals and daily rates as well. “It's based on what customers need,” he says. Hughes says Hometown Rentals is deep in inventory, so he has plenty of equipment to meet the demand of his customers.
Offering hourly rentals will get the equipment out and back in the store, making it available again for other customers. Blackwell says that because most equipment is rented for only a few hours, his rental center gives customers a free hour of rental on hourly equipment to get it home. Customers are concerned with getting their money's worth on hourly equipment. “People are more sensitive to maybe driving past another store to rent from us,” Blackwell says. “It gives a little incentive.”
Adjusting hours of operation may also help to meet customer needs. The standard 9-to-5 hours don't always work for potential customers who also work those hours. Smollock recommends adjusting the rental day to promote people coming in after work. “Stay open later maybe one night a week to take care of as many customers as you possibly can,” he says.
It is also important to ensure that customers accomplish their goals with the equipment they've rented. Offering package deals is one additional way to ensure customer satisfaction. Smollock says that packaging slower moving items with faster moving items will help increase return on investment. Offering a combination of items for a discount will not only help profits, but will help customers do a better job overall with their application.
When a customer returns a piece of equipment, rental personnel should ask how the equipment worked. This may solve a customer's problem if the equipment wasn't up to par, and may also solve a future customer's problem before it occurs.
“If you don't ask, there could be a problem you don't know about,” Smollock says.
The problem may be the machine or the customer's satisfaction, but asking that simple question can solve problems before they start. Not only will this help please the current customer, but it may also prevent further damage to a machine or more costly repairs in the future.
Knowledgeable employees who can successfully explain the equipment help the customer do their job safely and also help keep the equipment going.
“Make sure all of the employees haven't just been told how to use equipment, but have actually run it,” Smollock says. He recommends that rental companies have a program in place to make sure employees are familiar with the equipment and know how to use it.
Blackwell says that with competitors like Home Depot, he especially emphasizes instructions to customers. “We spend time making sure people feel comfortable with what they are going to do,” he says. Aba Daba Rents also sends customers home with instruction sheets for the equipment.
Hughes puts two knowledgeable employees in charge of communicating with customers about the equipment they're renting. “We have two guys generally give all instructions,” he says. “That's what they're good at. They are very proficient dealing with the customer. It saves us a lot of headaches and customer phone calls.”
At Blackwell's store, they have a regular training program for employees. One to two days a month, they bring in new product and a manufacturer's rep or sales person and go over it for half and hour. Also, make sure customers know how to properly transport equipment to prevent damage on the way home. Taking the time to properly secure equipment can prevent problems down the road.
Rental centers should get creative to get their name out to the community to reach potential customers. Advertising can work, but also use imaginative methods to attract customers.
Become an expert on a topic and write an article for a local newspaper. Writing a general how-to article in a lawn and garden section may entice customers who wouldn't normally come in. Product demonstrations at high-traffic stores can gain exposure for a rental center outside of the normal target audience. Smollock also suggests putting on how-to demonstrations at lawn and garden shows or at malls. At a lawn and garden show, people will already be interested in the products, but at a mall, there may be opportunities to appeal to someone who might not normally hear about rental centers.
It's also important to display items prominently. Smollock recommends having a seasonal display by the road or having a readerboard recommending what should be done during this time of the year. Often, people don't know what they should be doing to their lawn or what dethatchers or aerators do. “You have to educate them,” he says. “Get literature from the manufacturer. If you have videos, show them so people know what they should be doing.”