Four years ago, when he was just getting started in the Christmas light-hanging game, Dennis Broughton decked out the Juneau County home of a building contractor.
He strung thumb-size bulbs along the roofline of the steep, two-story house, and it looked so good, so professional, that before long a neighbor was talking to Broughton about doing his home, too.
Then another neighbor asked. And another. And another - until after a few years, Broughton was decorating six other nearby houses, including the home of a car dealer who called with a mild complaint and a confession that his do-it-yourself approach wasn't cutting it anymore.
"He said, 'You're embarrassing me,' " Broughton recalled Tuesday, taking a break from a holiday decorating business that this year, propelled largely by commercial work in Wisconsin Dells, will rack up more than $500,000 in sales.
"This is exactly what he said: 'You're embarrassing me in my neighborhood. . . . My display just doesn't fit into the neighborhood. Could you come and do ours?' "
So it goes in the growing market for professionally hung Christmas lights. People - well-to-do people, for the most part - see the glittering gables and sparkling evergreens in their neighbors' yards and decide it's worth it to spend $1,000, $1,500 or more to bring in a contractor and make their house look just as good.
"Generally, if they do one home in an upscale neighborhood, they'll get four or five referrals," said Laurie Reinders, co-owner of an Elm Grove distribution company that started selling lights to contractors four years ago and has nearly doubled sales every year since.
"We don't do any cold calling whatsoever," said Kevin Stephens, manager of the lawn care department and holiday decorating at Milaeger's Inc., a Racine garden center that also has seen strong increases in its light-hanging business. "People just come to us."
Such services have been offered for years, but the market took off around 2001 or 2002, said Matthew Larson, director of operations for The Source Inc., a Pleasanton, Calif., company that sells lights to distributors nationwide.
"The demand is huge, and I think that's because of the aging baby boomer population and just people that are busy and don't have time," Larson said. "And it's dangerous to get on your roof anyway."
Customers of professional firms don't want the mishmash of decorations - inflatable Santas; lollipop forests; crazily flashing, multicolor bulbs - that you see in the yard of the homegrown neighborhood Christmas eccentric.
They want a statement, but with style. So firms such as David J. Frank Landscape Contracting in Germantown have a designer who can talk with clients about ideas for their particular house.
Roger Maurice of Maurice's Lawn, Landscape & Lighting in Menomonee Falls said he tries to tailor colors and lights to each home's architecture.
"People just like the look," he said of professionally decorated homes. "It gives them a little more recognition."
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And for a REAL Christmas light show, check out my post with video, "A Little Christmas Cheer