Carol’s Lighting has grown a lot since its 1980 opening in Humble, Texas – not only with the addition of another profitable store, but also earning two ARTS Awards for excellence.
Practically since they first locked eyes as students in grammar school, Don and Carol Gressett have made a great team – even their parents were good friends. These Texas sweethearts literally grew up together and have been married for 46 years. After college, they began their respective careers in different fields. Carol’s degree in elementary education led to her happily teaching fourth and fifth grade for nine years. Later, she pursued a real estate license, attracted by the ability to set up a schedule that would allow her to stay home with their young children. Don, meanwhile, was putting his marketing management degree to work for 14 years as the number two salesman at Sears’ largest A store in Texas.
“We always thought it would be nice to have our own business,” Carol admits. In the 1980s, ceiling fans were all the rage and the couple had relatives who were in the ceiling fan and antiques business near Dallas who helped show them the ropes in starting up a similar business in their Houston area.
Back then, there were four local stores that sold ceiling fans, “and those included a tennis shop and a liquor store,” Don quips. Carol opened the store, aptly named Carol’s Fan Shop, and Don didn’t quit his day job for approximately six months while the fledgling business was finding its footing.
“As luck would have it, we opened during the hottest summer on record in Houston,” Don comments. “When we opened our doors that morning, we had 20 to 30 people immediately come into the shop.”
The Gressetts had carefully chosen their location in Humble. Nothing that there was a lot of new home construction going on in Kingwood, the couple found a spot for their store nearby in Humble and established good relationships with the area’s electricians and builders. That first store measured just 600 square feet and had 24 ceiling fans on display. “We started small and learned as we went along; in no time, I was threading pipe,” Carol comments.
Soon the little lady in the fan shop was receiving respect from construction crews all over Houston. “Men were receptive when they realized I knew what I was talking about,” Carol says with a laugh.
“Carol was our only outside salesperson back then, and she called on all the builders,” Don affirms, adding, “We basically had on the job training and everything just progressed from there.”
A pivotal business moment came when the Gressetts accompanied their Dallas-area relatives on a buying trip to Taiwan. “We ended up splitting a container load with them,” Don says. Slowly, the company continued growing – and moving! In fact, the store moved six times in Humble before the couple purchased the property along a prime driving route where their store (built from scratch) stands today.
Carol’s Fan Shop also began adding other categories to its product mix, necessitating a change to the company name: Carol’s Lighting & Fans. “We had established such good business relationships with builders and electricians that we started thinking of other areas we can add that would be a good fit,” Carol explains.
When The Woodlands area on the outskirts of Houston began experiencing a similar building boom 12 years ago, it seemed logical for Carol’s to tap that territory with a second location.
Secrets to Success
It’s no secret that Texas did not experience the real estate bubble as dramatically as other parts of the country. However, builder business everywhere experienced a drop. “Up until a few years ago, our business was 80 percent builders,” Don states.
To bolster sales among homeowners, the Gressetts launched several campaigns. “We’ve done TV and radio ads as well as email blasts,” Carol says. “We have a great database, and we [got that] by offering incentives to fill out information.” For example, the store has run sweepstakes for consumers to win a butterfly Tiffany-style accent lamp among other promotions.
“We think of driving people to the store for reasons other than buying lighting,” interjects Joann Ontiveros, Merchandising Manager. “We highlight the artwork we have for sale, plus decorative accessories, unique mood lighting, as well as gift ideas, and holiday promotions.”
And, of course, it all comes down to great customer service. “We’ve always been the friendly family showroom with great Texas hospitality,” Carol states.
“Customers really appreciate that if we don’t carry something they’re looking for, we can tell them where to get it,” Ontiveros states. “People tend to come to us first and say, ‘I don’t know if you carry this, but you’re always so helpful, I figured I’d start here,’” she recounts.
Carol doesn’t profess to know it all. “I’m honest. If I don’t know something, I’ll tell the customer that I don’t know the answer, but that I will find someone who does,” she comments.
Don adds that the company has been lucky to have great employees and a very supportive community. “We put in many, many hours into our business,” he says. “Many people want to jump on the bandwagon, but not do the work. You can’t be an absentee owner in this type of business,” he states.
Ontiveros confirms that the company has a good reputation. “When I’m wearing one of our T-shirts when I’m out somewhere else, people stop me like I’m an old friend,” she recounts. “They tell me that they love the store and the great service they received there.”
“We try to make the atmosphere personal,” Carol adds. “We’ve had people come in, bring their lunch and blueprints, and stay all day.” This former school teacher has even had some of her former fourth and fifth grade students – now all grown up and moving into/remodeling their own homes – as customers.
How to Find Good Employees
After leaving the Air Force, where she was trained as a mechanic, Ontiveros joined the ranks of Carol’s Lighting for six years before an opportunity at Sea Gull Lighting came her way. Ontiveros relocated to New Jersey and learned the lighting business from the manufacturer side of the industry for the next six years. She returned to Carol’s three years ago.
“This is home,” she affirms. And Ontiveros isn’t the only one who feels that way. One employee has been with the company for 28 years.
“This is not just a sales job,” Carol states. “You’re not a sales clerk and it’s not like working at Macy’s [or another large store].” Selling lighting requires a different skill set than working in other areas of retail. There’s the technological know-how that can be too challenging for some, plus you need a basic knowledge of design. “We’ve found that newspaper classifieds don’t work for us,” Carol notes.
“We’ve had success with an e-blast we sent to our customers that read something like, ‘If you love shopping here, think about joining us,’” Ontiveros says.
Other times, Carol’s Lighting will contact the local chapter of the ASID and approach students who are going through their certification process. “It’s an opportunity for them to start using their talents,” Carol remarks.
“We had a long-time customer at The Woodlands store who was an interior designer,” Ontiveros explains. “She came to us looking for a job that was more stable in income. We hired her and she has been a great asset to us.”
Provide Value to Customers
“I think a company’s success – whether you’re a big box retailer or a small store – comes down to the people,” Don observes. “You need a friendly, compassionate, and knowledgeable staff.”
A lighting store also needs to be up to date on the technological advances going on in the industry. “There is a huge interest in LED products from consumers at both of our stores,” Don adds. “We have to be prepared to help them.”
To that end, Carol’s Lighting runs five to six designer events and DIY training for homeowners at both stores. In addition, there is a 10,000-sq.-ft. Carol’s Lighting Outlet Center that is opened to the public only once or twice a year. According to the Gressetts, even in the hottest summer heat, people will line up to attend this special sale. The building is also used as warehouse space.
The company’s commitment to its customers and its exceptional business practices have earned the prestigious ARTS Award in the Lighting Showroom category twice in recent years.
“We’ve been very fortunate,” Don comments. For certain, the Gressetts’ tremendous teamwork during challenging times as well as boom years is another crucial key to their success and has brought them to where they are today.