For more than 40 years, Valley Light Gallery has been urging Phoenix-area residents to “come see the light.”
Growing up in Detroit, you’d think Chris Unthank, the second-generation owner of Valley Light Gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz., would have a fascination with cars. Instead, it’s a different type of machinery – the kind found in lighting and ceiling fans – that has won him over.
His late father, Don, was an electrician in Detroit until he went on vacation with friends to Arizona. “Maybe it was a midlife crisis, but he got the bug to relocate here,” the young Unthank recalls. The climate was a welcome change from Michigan’s harsh winters. The Phoenix metropolitan area is often referred to as “The Valley of the Sun” because it enjoys approximately 300 days of sunshine a year.
In 1976, his dad purchased a 2,000-sq.-ft. lighting showroom in nearby Scottsdale that had been in business since 1972 and opened Valley Light Gallery, coining the playful slogan “Come see the light.” A teenager when he moved, Unthank recalls the change as “the greatest thing that ever happened.” He spent his teen years learning the industry by observing and helping with mundane tasks like carrying out boxes for customers. “I learned what it took to stay in business,” he comments.
“I learned a lot from my father, such as the meaning of a handshake,” Unthank told the audience at the 2012 ARTS Awards while he was on stage accepting the award for best lighting showroom in the West. It was the first time that the store had been nominated, not to mention it was up against some stiff competition from showrooms that had already won the honor multiple times.
When his father opened the store, sales were modest “We were selling little houses of lights,” Unthank remarks. By the 1980s, business started to boom. Along the way, there would be some vacancies adjacent to Valley Light Gallery in the strip mall, and Don Unthank would continually expand his space. “My dad wanted to control his own destiny, so he eventually he bought the building,” Unthank remarks. There are tenants on either side of the showroom that pay rent to Valley. His father was also a big believer in inventory. To that end, the showroom has two large warehouses nearby.
While it is expensive to have an ample amount of stock on-hand, it’s also an attribute that differentiates this lighting store. “Our expectations as consumers have changed,” Unthank explains. Today’s customers want it now; they don’t want to wait.
This is especially important for people doing remodeling projects. “Instead of selling their homes, people are opting to remodel,” says Becky Goldwasser, a sales associate who has been with Valley for eight and a half years. “We have a lot of homeowners who come in regularly, which is what has helped us keep going during the downturn in construction. The remodel customers want to come in, find what they’re looking for, and walk out with it.”
The staff at Valley is especially sensitive to avoiding inventory shortages that occur at the factory level, an occurrence that has been happening more frequently now than it ever has before. “Our concern when ordering is, who has it and who can ship it,” Goldwasser says. “People don’t want to wait a month for something, and in some cases it can be a three-month wait or more.”
Instead, lighting showroom manager Shirley Regonini, who has also been with the store for more than eight years, says, “We try to be proactive on backorders. As soon as we find out that there’s a wait, we tell the customer and suggest alternative products.”
The key to any successful business is offering a unique benefit. For Valley Light Gallery, that means lamp repair and custom finishing. “It’s amazing how many lamp repairs we have,” Goldwasser says. A walk to the repair shop in the back of the store confirms a wide mix of antiques and prized possessions awaiting repair. In one case, a customer brought in a hand-painted, heirloom table lamp that had been shattered into several pieces at her home. Marc Covell, Valley’s lamp repair expert, painstakingly restored the vase, including adding handpainting that matched the original for a seamless presentation. Covell has been with the showroom for 30 years and his meticulous attention to detail has earned him a cult following – and plenty of restoration work – in the community.
There’s another secret weapon on staff behind the scenes. Hired to be Valley’s warehouse manager years ago, John Rebelle discovered he had a hidden talent for fine painting. Now he handles custom staining and painting for fixtures and lamps. “He can stain or paint a fixture to make it compliant with Dark Sky,” Goldwasser states. “And for some fixtures that weren’t selling, we’ll have him repaint them in a new finish,” Regonini adds.
“There are times we have clients with expectations that are hard to fill,” Unthank states. “For that reason, we offer customized finishes. This way, the customers get exactly what they wanted, not just a finish that’s merely close to it.”
Getting the Word Out
Valley Light Gallery advertises in Phoenix Home & Garden magazine every month. Typically the ad is a full page, however during the summer fan sale, the ad spans two pages and includes a coupon for 20 percent off. “The response rate has been incredible,” Regonini says.
“For the longest time, it seemed everyone who walked in the door had family who had shopped here previously. We’d hear, ‘My parents came here…’ or ‘My grandparents bought all their lighting here…’ or ‘My neighbor sent me,’” Goldwasser says. “Now that we’ve been doing so much advertising, we’re seeing younger customers and many who are coming in as a result of the ads.”
The architectural community knows this showroom well. Goldwasser is on the board of the local IFDA chapter and is active in ASID. The store also holds events regularly. “We’ll have lunch and learns for the architects, electricians, and designers,” Unthank comments.
Invitations for design-oriented events also go out to the design departments of the community colleges as well as Arizona State. “At our last one, we had 75 people attend,” Goldwasser remarks. In addition to email campaigns, the staff gets the word out by posting flyers and making phone calls. One upcoming event will feature Jeff Dross of Kichler, who will give a talk on “Light Layering” as well as one on LED. “People are asking about LED more and more. They are confused by the products out there and many are misinformed,” she says. Educational seminars on the topic have been very well-received.
Exploring the Possibilities
“Our staff is trained to show consumers some needs for lighting that perhaps they didn’t know they had,” Unthank comments. “The real winner is the customer. We all want to step up and demonstrate to our clients what’s possible with lighting. They’re not buying what their moms did. In many cases, I’m not sure if the customers even know what they’re looking for until they see it,” he states.
“We’re a resource for homeowners, builders, and designers to see the latest products. We’re low-key; there’s no heavy sales push. We’re here to educate our customer and provide the best service to whoever walks in the door,” Goldwasser affirms.
“We’re still seeing bronzes sell, but our customers are trending toward lighter looks with softer finishes. Champagne colors are trending now, as is Polished Nickel in bathrooms,” Goldwasser says. The styles that are popular today are much more relaxed than in years past. “The look is more of a sigh of relief and not as much whoop-di-do with details,” she adds. “We’re not a strong contemporary store. Our contemporary is softer since our customers’ tastes are more transitional.”
What’s apparent to all customers is that the staff is passionate about lighting. Goldwasser sums up the store’s overall message this way: “We understand who we are. We’ve learned to kiss the warts. We’re not trying to be anyone we’re not.”
Unthank adds, “We love the business. We are a bunch of lighting geeks who want to help people. [The individuals here] are like part of an orchestra that, when we all come together, play beautiful music.”