If you’re in the lighting business, you know what the ALA is, but you probably don’t know half of what they do
When the American Lighting Association (ALA) first came into being nearly 20 years ago, the industry was a lot simpler. The incandescent was the primary residential light source and spiral compact fluorescents were trying to gain ground. Energy savings was more of an altruistic endeavor rather than an Act of Congress and the fact that the ALA had two Capitol Hill veterans on staff – Dick Upton and Eric Jacobson – was more of a bonus than necessity.
Similarly, two decades ago there were a lot of lighting showrooms around the country and plenty of business to go around. These days, everything has changed. The residential lighting industry has found itself battling government restrictions on the types of bulbs that can or cannot be sold, having to learn about new light sources such as CFLs and LEDs that continue to evolve, and facing more competition from other retail avenues selling lighting than ever before – all while trying to do business during a financial crisis that could become a double dip recession. If there ever was a time for leadership, it is now.
A Lighting Showroom’s BFF
In this economic climate, retailers have found that the old ways of advertising and marketing aren’t working anymore. “We’ll hear from [nonmembers] who are opening up a lighting showroom and want to know what the best practices are regarding education, marketing, merchandising, and technical knowledge,” explains Larry Lauck, vp/Communications for ALA. In addition to helping out newcomers to the industry, he says, “We’ll hear from existing members who ask us for ways to rework their business model. Sometimes it’s a matter of making them aware of everything available,” he explains. “We have a lot of outstanding tools and we encourage members to use them. Many showrooms have had to pull back on some of the things they used to do (i.e. marketing and education) and we’re here to help.”
As technology keeps changing – not only in light sources, but also Internet marketing and selling – the ALA’s on-demand Webinars have been particularly useful (not to mention that many are free). In addition to educational seminars offered during the annual conference, there are online Webinars that showroom personnel can watch either live or at their leisure.
“If a retailer can’t afford to attend our conference or Dallas market, they can call and tell us the issues they are facing in their business and we will try to help them,” Lauck notes. “We offer a relaxed environment for learning; that’s our niche.”
Content providing is another valuable service. The ALA’s monthly Bright Ideas e-newsletter offers lighting tips, interior design ideas, and other timely information that consumers find interesting and relevant. Showrooms are encouraged to customize the e-newsletter with their contact information and distribute it to their own customer e-mail lists as well. “We’ve had 80,000 consumers log onto our Web site and subscribe to the Bright Ideas newsletter,” Lauck says. “This is an easy-to-use, free tool for showrooms looking to connect with their customers,” he remarks. “The ALA BiNational Program has done the work to put these files together, so showrooms don’t have to hire a Webmaster or programmer to use them.”
ALA-member retailers can also submit how-to articles (provided by the ALA) to their local newspapers, which will list the showroom as the source of the information.
Furthermore, a few years ago the ALA partnered with Better Homes & Gardens to produce a consumer magazine devoted entirely to lighting to heighten awareness. Showrooms are able to distribute copies of the magazine for free to their customers. “The Better Homes & Gardens partnership is very valuable to our members. There are one million unique visitors a month to the magazine’s site and every month they do an eblast sponsored by the ALA,” Lauck explains. In all, he estimates the ALA gives out 200,000 copies of the magazine a year.
In 2013, the ALA has launched a blog to expand consumer awareness of lighting, controls, ceiling fans, and the showroom channel of distribution. “The blog’s posts focus on topics relevant to consumers such as LED lighting, light bulbs, energy efficiency, lighting design and lighting news. It also features a ‘Find a Lighting Showroom’ link to promote ALA member showrooms to consumers,” explains Brittany Glenn, manager/Communications & Marketing.
The ALA has also partnered with other trade organizations such as NEMA, the Alliance to Save Energy, Natural Resources Canada, Luminale.org, and the NKBA to name a few. “We’re not a large organization, or even a large industry, and sometimes we have to act bigger than we are,” Lauck says. Aligning with these larger groups helps the ALA keep the residential lighting community in the loop when it comes to interior design, home construction, or remodeling topics.
A Voice in Government
One of the most important benefits that the ALA provides is representation in Washington. “What the ALA does today is play a significant role in the industry,” explains Dick Upton, CCE, president and CEO of the ALA.
Upton estimates that the ALA first got involved in government affairs back in 2006 or ’07 when crystal imports were being affected by what was called “Banana Wars” at that time. “We were able to wind our way through the halls of Congress” and get the lighting community’s voice heard, Upton recounts.
Since then, ceiling fan issues and light bulbs have become the target of some sort of legislation over the ensuing years and the ALA has had to step in not only as a watchdog, but as an active representative of the industry.
“Originally, there was California legislation to ban the incandescent bulb entirely,” he comments. The ALA was instrumental in getting that proposal modified. Upton and members of the Political Action Committee (PAC) were able to sit down with the author of the bill and get the industry’s viewpoint heard. “You don’t want to oppose someone [in Washington]. We approach it as helping them achieve the goal that they want,” he says. In most cases, that means making them aware of how their proposal would affect the livelihood of an entire industry and pointing out some very key issues facing small businesses. “You have to realize that by Federal standards, even a company as large as Kichler is considered to be ‘small business,’” Upton notes. Currently, the ALA is working to remediate some of the regulation that will be affecting interior designers and, by default, lighting designers.
“We have a highly skilled group of people,” explains Upton about the ALA staff. Upton is a Certified Chamber Executive (CCE) and has been involved in spearheading Chamber groups for the past 30 years. Eric Jacobson, the vice president/Membership, and Wendy Rollins, director/Finance, have both undergone intensive certification through the Institute of Organization Management (IOM) through the Chamber of Commerce. Jacobson is no stranger to Capitol Hill either, having worked under Elizabeth Dole when she was Secretary of the Department of Labor in the office of Congressional Affairs. He also worked on the Presidential campaign for George Bush, Sr.
“What I’ve learned from working with Dick Upton is how to open up conversation without alienating people when tough issues occur,” Jacobson states. He credits the continual growth of the ALA to its loyal membership. “Peer involvement is what makes the growth happen,” he says. “Plus manufacturers have realized all that we do in government affairs and have increased their investment. That in turn has helped grow our membership.”
With approximately 10 people on staff at ALA, there is a lot of shared duties. “I’m amazed that an association can accomplish so much with so few staff members,” Glenn says. “We all wear a lot of hats, and everyone has unique talents and gifts to contribute. I am also impressed by the caliber of our Board of Governors, which is comprised of an extremely talented and influential group of industry leaders who volunteer their time.”
“I love our members,” adds Jacobson. “Many of our members are family-owned businesses that go back for generations. We’re trying to grow an industry and the amount of support that they’ve given to ALA is very special.”