The very thing that unnerves most lighting retailers spurs on David Director of Connecticut Lighting Centers.
“Every day brings a new challenge. That is what’s cool about the lighting business; it’s always changing,” says the second-generation owner of Connecticut Lighting Centers, which has a main showroom celebrating its 40th anniversary in Hartford, another store in Southington, and the vintage lighting, restoration, repair, and shade boutique Restoration Lighting Gallery founded six years ago across from the Hartford store.
This astute business owner who welcomes change grew up with a passion for sports and a desire to become a gym teacher or coach. That life-long interest has served him well. Retail is a highly competitive business – owners need to quickly adapt to a variety of conditions, create winning promotions for the store’s playbook, anticipate the unexpected from competitors, choose employees for your team that have complementary and individual strengths, and motivate them to perform at their best every day.
Although his creative promotions and ad campaigns most likely resulted from skills learned while earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing, Director’s business acumen and work ethic comes from his own personal coach, his father Arthur (Art) Director, who entered the lighting business in 1972 when he acquired the showroom that became Connecticut Lighting Center. David grew up working at the store, alongside his father and his late mother, Edythe. He enjoyed the experience so much that by the time he reached adulthood, he had decided to make it his career. Art Director guided his son on all aspects of business such as streamlining operations, purchasing strategies, and the importance of customer service.
Last year David’s son, Todd, after receiving a marketing degree like his dad, joined Connecticut Lighting’s executive team full-time, becoming the third generation to be involved in the business after working part-time at the showroom for years. David has been mentoring his son in much the same way his dad has done for him.
What is the number one advantage that Connecticut Lighting has over its competitors? “My people are my biggest asset,” Director explains. “When times are tough, they need you even more [as a leader] to stand behind them.”
It’s no surprise then that this lighting store has almost no turnover in staff. Director estimates the average tenure for employees is between 14-18 years, however, there are exceptions such as the warehouse staffer who has been there for 33 years.
“I have a terrific group of people,” Director states. “They have embraced our philosophy of doing whatever it takes to make the customer happy. For example, we’d rather sell you a $100 fixture instead of a $1,000 one if it’s the right fit for that customer’s needs,” he says. The point is to build a relationship with customers so they keep coming back because of the product selection, the expertise of the staff, and the incredible service. “The salespeople here are all about customer satisfaction to the nth degree,” Director affirms.
With a total of 90 employees (counting all three locations and including part- and full-time status) and a Recession wreaking havoc on the economy, Director was adamant that he would not lay off anyone or reduce their hours. Instead, he reduced expenses by postponing the new demonstration room that had already been underway and slowing down on other future plans for the time being.
Another thing Director refuses to cut back on is stock. At a time when many retailers are practicing just-in-time methods to avoid tying up money in inventory, he is doing the opposite. The warehouse is deliberately packed to the rafters, which is a good thing since there is always a steady stream of orders. In fact, one could suppose that the architectural community regularly orders from Connecticut Lighting precisely because items are always in stock. Whether you are a retailer, a contractor, a builder, or a designer, your goal is to give your customers what they want as fast as possible.
The 12,000-sq.-ft. Hartford showroom not only looks spacious, it’s carefully merchandised and thought-out. One of the investments Director has made is to have a full-time merchandiser – and it shows. Each area of the showroom boasts vignettes homeowners can easily relate to and are accented with unique accessories plus an assortment of gift items.
Decorative accessories are not an after-thought at Connecticut Lighting. “We find the accessory business to be a different animal than lighting,” Director comments. Therefore it requires special attention, with buying trips to venues such as the New York International Gift Fair® and partnerships with local artists and craftsmen. There are also frequent newspaper and local magazine ads that emphasize the showroom as a destination for unique gifts.
Advertising is a vital part of Connecticut Lighting Centers’ success. It’s not enough to have a great reputation among repeat clients, Director knows that staying profitable means bringing new customers in the door. “It’s expensive to advertise, but it’s better than not being here,” he quips. “In fact, we’ll spend more on advertising this year than last.”
A newly revamped Web site is another investment Director made recently. The advertising efforts – including those in social media such as Facebook – all point back to the Web site. “By driving people to the Web site, we can be more creative with our messages,” he says. Connecticut Lighting Centers has created 60-second infomercials that have run on the local TV station as well as on the Web site. “We try new things all the time through the Web site because it’s easier to do [versus a series of static ads],” he notes.
One of the biggest challenges the lighting industry faces, according to Director, is generating consumer awareness. “All too often, manufacturers and retailers put too much emphasis on price,” he explains. “Instead, show the difference between good, better, best. The dialogue should be about the product. If it’s good product, don’t worry about the price,” he cautions. “Why focus on price? Why isn’t the conversation centered on what makes that product better than another and what the benefits are?”
What does Director want Connecticut Lighting Centers to stand for? Great customer service. “People can go anywhere to buy a lighting fixture, but they can’t go just anywhere to feel important. I want customers to know, ‘They’re going to take care of me at Connecticut Lighting. They always make me feel valued.’ And that’s the secret – making people happy and feeling like they’re special.”