Brian Walker

Parking the farmer's market tents in the lot of Anderson Lumber Co. on Wednesday nights might have begun as an act of charity by the Alcoa, Tenn., dealer, but that was before one of the market's customers bought a $6,000 door.

Across the country, opportunity-savvy dealers are turning what used to be a depressing sight–surplus parking space–into ways to make money. Whether renting space to a garden center, food cart vendor, or airport parking agency, building a patio showroom on the asphalt, or simply grilling hot dogs to lure leads, these enterprising dealers are making the most of less traffic to drum up ways to get it back.

"I know we bring traffic in," Dan Parcel confides. As the retail director for Kaw Valley Greenhouses, Parcel scouts new locations for the 44-strong pop-up garden center company that rents space in front of variety stores, next to Wal-Marts and, in Lincoln, Neb., on the lot of Earl Carter Lumber Co. Pop-up stores, the trendy term for seasonal vendors, are mushrooming because the partnership reaps great benefits, pop-up retail expert Christina Norsig explains. The temporary vendor draws from an established customer base and the permanent retailer gets the rent. "Now all kinds of different industries are tapping into the action of it," she says.

Norsig's company, PopUpInsider, pairs high fashion with vacant real estate in the New York City shopping district during peak selling season. And while she has yet to place a vendor in a lumberyard, she believes the pop-up concept is equally applicable–as Kaw Valley already has shown.

"It's about bringing a potential customer into your space," she says. "While they're not specifically there for you, they get an idea. That's how you capture a customer."

Lure With Your Lot Foxworth-Galbraith Lumber Co. has never felt the need to charge Patrick Gregory a dime in the nine years he's sold hot dogs, chips, and sodas from a food cart parked in front of its Prescott, Ariz. yard. Gregory's cart brings in too many contractors. "We just have an agreement–he helps us and we help him," explains Brian Hartshorn, store operations manager.

Hot dogs, however, are only one way to attract customers. A dealer in Harrisonburg, Va., found another.

"When homeowners shop around, they may tell the contractor, 'I've seen this at Valley Building Supply. I'd like to get my material there,'" finds company president Tom Dawson.

So he devised a way to profit from his parking lot by creating a product showcase.

In a 20-by-50-foot space in front of the store, Dawson's staff built a winding stone retaining wall, capped it with stone coping, flanked it with columns, and installed two grills and a mailbox. A local mason laid a stone fireplace complete with a chimney, and paved the asphalt with patterns and colors to show off the dealer's stone.

"When we first built this thing, I was amazed because there were always people on it," Dawson says; homeowners, contractors, even competitors.

Once a month on a weather-permitting weekday, the staff fire up the built-in grills and the barbecued meat draws crowds of contractors. The first ones were so successful, vendors set up tables on the patio and handed out hats and T-shirts on barbecue days.

"It's fairly inexpensive because we're fixing hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, chips, and cookies, and the vendors will co-op it with us," Dawson explains. The cost of building the patio wasn't cheap, but Dawson says the expense has been repaid in leads, new customers, and sales.

"There is so much interest in [outdoor products]," he says. "If I'm not selling enough materials to people building houses right now, I have these products that are a good complement to everything else we sell, so it's been a real plus for us."

Seize the Pay M. Scott Whiddon, president of Causeway Lumber Co., can tell how the airline industry is doing by looking at his parking lot. Located five blocks from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and two blocks from a major seaport, his Florida lumberyard is prime space for parking agencies seeking a place to valet park travelers' cars.

LOTS OF CUSTOMERS: The outdoor patio display at Valley Building Supply drew so much traffic, the dealer built another one at its Staunton, Va., lot 20 miles away. Below: Anderson Lumber of Alcoa, Tenn., sold all but four Christmas trees at its holiday sale. The key to success, dealers say, is a highly visible location.
LOTS OF CUSTOMERS: The outdoor patio display at Valley Building Supply drew so much traffic, the dealer built another one at its Staunton, Va., lot 20 miles away. Below: Anderson Lumber of Alcoa, Tenn., sold all but four Christmas trees at its holiday sale. The key to success, dealers say, is a highly visible location.

"We just started renting it on weekends; now they use it all through the week. We still have plenty of parking left over," Whiddon says. The lumberyard makes $1,500 per month from the deal, almost enough to cover its utility bill.

Two states away in Alcoa, Tenn., another unusual opportunity knocked on the door of Anderson Lumber. A farmer's market co-op needed a place to set up from 4 to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays from April to October. The dealer not only agreed to lend his lot, he decided to keep the yard open a few hours later. And on those days, that decision paid off.

"At its peak, we had about 30 vendors out there," recalls Joe Allen, who manages sales, marketing, and resources for Anderson Lumber. "There were people who were doing honeys and one that had a specialty butcher shop. He would take your order one week then bring it the next week."

The co-op did the marketing. It set up signs and brought in customers from all over town, many of whom stopped in for building supplies after picking through produce.

"There was a couple who bought a door that was extremely valuable, but the only reason they were able to was because we stayed open late," Allen says of the $6,000 sale.

And ways to make yet another dime are rife for the business-minded. On hot days, Allen filled an insulated cart with bottled water and peddled it around the market for a profit.

That was the lot's summer gig. During the holidays, Anderson Lumber brings in dozens of Christmas trees and turns one highly visible corner into a tree stand. Last year, it sold all but four.

Selling Room Only Such ideas don't work everywhere. "Very rarely is there a surplus of parking, at least in our yards," says Ryan Mulkeen, director of marketing for Kuiken Brothers Co. in New Jersey. "And the town variances have certain requirements for parking." But there are other potential profit pullers for dealers with lots at full capacity. Mulkeen suggests posting signage in front of each parking spot. "Guys are always pulling their truck right up to the end. You could display a message so everyone who rolls up sees: 'Don't miss this new product or new event!'"

Dealers without space to spare from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. could host an event on the weekend. Spencer Home Center got 25 leads that way. The dealer ran an ad on the local radio station calling all owners of an old door to come to the Ugly Door Contest to try and win $1,000 off a new one.

"We used e-mail, fax, Facebook, and Twitter to get people to send us pictures of their ugly door," sales manager Mark Woody says. "They send a picture of an ugly door and there's no doubt they need a new one."

The event brought roughly 180 people–homeowners and pros–to the Lexington, Va., parking lot that Saturday for food, Cornhole games, and the possibility of a new door. Parked vehicles lined the road, stretching almost the length of three football fields, Woody estimates. "Cars couldn't pull in that day," he recalls.

After all, the parking spaces were employed elsewhere, generating business.