A few years ago, when the housing market was booming and people were flocking to the country for their piece of the rural life, small sprayers were flying off the shelves at equipment dealerships.

The housing market bust put a severe damper on the burgeoning rural lifestyle market, forcing dealerships to work much harder to find new customers and unload their sprayer inventory.

But signs are pointing to a rebound in the OPE retail market this year, which would be good news for both manufacturers of small sprayers and the dealers who sell them.

The U.S. housing market may be stabilizing, although some leading indicators are providing mixed signals. The U.S. government reported that construction starts on privately owned homes in January, while far from their peak 2 years ago, were 21% higher than in January 2009. But U.S. pending homes sales fell 7.6% in January, far below projections, after growing 1% in December.

Regardless, equipment dealers are painting a brighter outlook this year for sales of small sprayers. Almost 85% of dealers responding to Rural Lifestyle Dealer’s 2010 Business Outlook & Trends survey predict unit sales will be as “good or better” in 2010 than in 2009, compared to 72% who believed unit sales in 2009 would be as good or better than 2008.

How To Sell

The sprayer market isn’t what it was a couple of years ago, “but it’s still pretty strong,” says Steve Foreman, major accounts manager for FIMCO, a major manufacturer of small sprayers. One reason is that people who were hiring spraying services are now buying the equipment and doing it themselves.

Technology for small sprayers has evolved, with improved 12-volt pumps and better boom systems. Foreman adds that customers want durability and reliability from the units. “They want to pull it out of the box, put it together and spray, and not have any issues with it.”

And there’s been a change in attitude about customer segmentation.

“We’ve always had sprayers that were male-oriented, where a guy’s on a garden tractor pulling a trailer or ATV sprayer. But we’ve never addressed people with smaller yards or a female or older couple,” Foreman says. That led to the development of an 8-gallon, 12-volt rechargeable hand sprayer, instead of one that relies on manual pump technology.

Small, trailered sprayers pulled by garden tractors are FIMCO’s biggest sellers in terms of volume, but sprayers pulled behind ATVs are the hottest sellers of late.

More and more rural lifestylers — especially hunters — are using their ATVs for spraying applications, Foreman says. “It’s a very versatile toy. People like to use them, and there are so many things you can do with them. It’s almost like they’ve become little tractors on their acreages.”

Dealer Takeaways

- Master the unique selling benefits of your sprayers so you can quickly identify what customers need

- Aggressively market your sprayer line to generate sales leads

- Use demonstrations as a way to boost sales of sprayers and other equipment

Two other major sprayer makers, TurfEx and Jacto Inc., are also feeling optimistic about 2010.

As more consumers start to go ‘green,’ they’re looking for electric-powered equipment instead of gas powered, says Bruce Carmichael, TurfEx’s national sales manager. “Large-property owners, ranchers and homeowners in general show the most opportunity for sprayer sales, especially as they come available with more options for attaching to utility vehicles, mowers and other machines.”

Jacto Inc. is expecting solid sales in 2010 because of its strength in the specialty sprayer market. The company says it has dealers in key counties in every state where there’s a solid base of specialty end users.

“Because of this specialization we anticipate solid sales in 2010 even though the landscape and nursery segment is projected lower because of the general economy,” says Steve White, eastern regional sales manager for Jacto. “We expect to make that up with sales to small fruits and vegetable customers, where there is a projected increase.”

Choose Your Line Wisely

Four equipment dealers interviewed by Rural Lifestyle Dealer say the path to increasing unit sales of small sprayers begins before customers walk through the door. The first step is choosing the right product line, as well as making sure the manufacturer has sales and service support.

East Allen Ag & Turf in Woodburn, Ind., sells small sprayers to many large-property owners, municipalities and professional landscapers.

David Bleke, sales manager for professional landscape equipment at East Allen, says small sprayer sales have been solid because of new uses emerging such as pre-wetting snow. “It’s boosted sales in a season that once had little sales traffic for the product,” he says.

Bleke says it’s important to choose a line that gives the best coverage for the application needs of customers, and that dealers should make sure the manufacturer provides the sales and service support for the equipment.

Dealers should talk to their peers about a manufacturer’s support capabilities before making a final choice. “Don’t just take their word for it. Make sure the story the manufacturer is telling matches dealers’ experiences.”

“Make sure the manufacturer you pick is going to support their equipment with outstanding parts availability,” adds John Chambers, store manager for Weingartz in Utica, Mich., one of 4 locations in the state that carry TurfEx sprayers.

“With the economy being so soft, we work very hard to cater to commercial customers, who can’t tolerate unnecessary downtime. Parts availability is mandatory to keep them up and running,” Chambers says.

“Rural lifestyle customers, as well as traditional homeowners and landscapers also benefit from a well-stocked parts department that can get parts from the distributor or manufacturer when time is critical.”

Dealerships wanting to get into a spraying line, or looking for a new supplier, must also consider the depth of the line offered by manufacturers, since customers will have varying needs.

While Weingartz has targeted municipalities for sprayer sales, the stores also have significant sales to rural lifestylers. Sprayers with capacities of 15-25 gallons are popular with that segment, with some jumping up to 50-100-gallon units and beyond.

“Many of our homeowners have a few acres or small orchards that require spraying,” Chambers says. “While we’re putting our emphasis on governments and school districts right now, it doesn’t mean we’re forgetting about the large-property owners and homeowners who need to spray weeds, bushes and trees with herbicides, fungicides and pesticides.”

Be the Expert

There’s no substitute for experience when it comes to small sprayer sales, says Mike Cooper, store manager at Race Brothers Farm Supply in Springfield, Mo., which carries FIMCO sprayers.

“We’re in rural lifestyle customer country if there ever was one,” says Cooper, who estimates 90% of Race Brothers’ small sprayer sales are going to that segment.

“While that’s a good thing for us, it also means there’s plenty of competition for small-sprayer dollars. There are a dozen places around here where a customer can pick up a sprayer to slap on the back of an ATV. But if they want to know how to maintain and use it properly, we tell customers there’s no better place to come than here.”

The most popular item sold at Race Brothers is the FIMCO spot sprayer mounted on an ATV. Cooper estimates 75% of rural lifestylers purchase pump-up backpack sprayers or 12-volt sprayer units, which are mostly used for weed control. Race Brothers sells about 200 12-volt units annually.

Cooper specializes in equipment modifications, having designed, built and installed numerous racks for ATVs to carry small sprayers. That’s another asset to market to customers.

“Anybody can sell a sprayer,” Cooper contends. “What separates us from the pack is that we know how to calibrate and use them. We can modify vehicles and mounts to the customer’s specific needs so they’ll get maximum flexibility out of what they buy here.”

J&L Orchard Supply of South Haven, Mich., sells Jacto sprayers and also offers equipment customization for customers, many of them fruit and vegetable growers.

Pump-up backpack units are the predominant small-sprayer product sold for spot spraying weed control. Lorren says 80% of backpack units sold have a 3-gallon capacity, while the remaining units sold range from 4-500 gallons.

The customization services are crucial to specialty customers, says James Lorren, a partner in J&L. “Many of them have blueberry bushes. We will customize rear-mounted sprayer systems, using a $500 kit that allows a boom to be mounted at the front of a tractor,” he says. “That allows the operator to better see how to go between blueberry bushes without tearing up the bushes or the equipment.”

Get the Training

Dealers tell Rural Lifestyle Dealer that reputable manufacturers should be offering training that’s necessary to properly service customers. That’s critical, because dealerships may carry a wide variety of sprayers.

"The customer has to
recognize you as an

“You have to have real application knowledge to be of use to the customer,” says Jacto’s White. “Ideal sales people are able to calibrate and teach customers how to calibrate, too. It’s also a great advantage if employees have an understanding of the materials being used in their particular marketing territories.

“With Jacto, you’re essentially asked to be familiar with 3-6 products that will cover the needs of most rural lifestyle customers, including backpack sprayers or air blast and cannon sprayers.”

“Dealers who want to expand or enter the small sprayer business need to show confidence and have the knowledge base necessary to build that confidence,” with customers, Lorren says.

“Customers today are very savvy and do their Internet research. You have to have more knowledge than they do. The customer has to recognize you as an expert. Otherwise, of what use will you be to them other than to take an order? And that’s only if they don’t go down the road and choose to do business with someone with knowledge superior to their own and yours.”

Market Aggressively

Successful small sprayer dealers say they take their marketing seriously, rather than waiting for the market to come to them. Race Brothers’ dealerships do 5 direct mailings per year to customers, with the spring 2010 mailing featuring 8 FIMCO sprayers targeted to rural lifestyle customers.

“We will target 120,000 prospects with direct mail,” Cooper explains. “We’ve increased small sprayer sales every year for the past 10 years that I’ve been here. I’m confident we’ll do it again in 2010 because of our knowledge and the way we treat our customers.”

Bleke says East Allen Ag & Turf is also aggressive with marketing. “You have to target your customers in your marketing,” Bleke advises. “If you’re after the large-property owner, targeted mailings make a lot of sense. If you’re after the homeowner, then broadcast and newspaper advertising probably has its place. We’re not very far from Ft. Wayne, Ind., so we use inserts in local newspapers as a way to reach specific customers in a geographic area.

“We don’t just sit back and wait for customers to come through the door. We believe in being proactive. We spend ‘road time’ getting out to meet with maintenance department personnel of municipal customers and school customers, both of which use equipment common to rural lifestyle customers. With these customers, it’s essential that you go to them because they seldom come to you.”

Ask Customers Question

If there’s one thing dealers agree on, it’s the need to ask customers the right questions about their sprayer needs. That includes questions about their property, their application and their time constraints.

Jacto has formalized the process with 6 basic questions about the acres involved, application rate, width of spray, crop height, desired speed and the horsepower available. Once that information is entered into a spreadsheet, sales people choose the sprayer that meets the criteria.

“The first question you need to ask is this: ‘What do you want to do with the sprayer?’ ” says Bleke. “Everything else revolves around the product application. Does the customer need a sprayer that must cover a large area completely — which will usually require a boom — or will they be using the sprayer exclusively for spot spraying?

“Also, is speed and efficiency high on the customer’s list of requirements, like with a professional landscaper, or is the customer not under so much time pressure as the professional — which you might see with a retired landowner?”

Don’t forget to ask what type of vehicle the customer is using. “Are they using a tow-behind unit or will they mount it on something?” Cambers says.

Seal the Deal

Product demonstrations are a popular tool to sell many different types of equipment, whether it’s tractors, mowers or tillers. The strategy can work for small sprayers, too, dealers say.

“Many times a tractor-mounted specialty sprayer can also generate a sale for a new tractor,” White says. “During a demonstration, a customer will see that what they want to do requires a different vehicle than what they have.”

“It’s also a great time to sell options, when the customer wants to do specific things that need additional flexibility,” Lorren says.

Lorren supports White’s emphasis on product demonstrations. “One of the keys is getting a demonstration on the premises. I’ll say to a customer, ‘Let me bring it out. Use it a day or two with water in the tank.’ This gets them over being scared of using it,” he says.

“When we do this, 90% or more of the time we’ll make a sale.”