It may be just a small portion of your business, but this niche category often heightens clients’ satisfaction with the overall design. Unfortunately, all too often it is money left on the table. By Mary Jo Martin
Accent lighting has to be shown and the story of it needs to be told to our clients,” affirms industry veteran Melvyn Kahn, co-founder of Lightstyles, which has three stores in Southern California. “If we do our jobs correctly, there is no reason why accent lighting shouldn’t account for 20 to 25 percent of the projects we sell. However, people need to see the difference it can make in their homes. Accent lighting is an emotional buy — they decide they have to have it and are less [concerned about] how much it costs. When they see it, they will buy it.”
Kahn considers accent lighting as a layer of light that defines a space. “If you take a typical room and use one general layer of light, it gives the room no character,” he explains, adding that accent lighting allows you to change the function and ambience of a room. Another strategic way Kahn employs accent lighting is to eliminate glare and highlight something special that a homeowner wants to showcase.
“The magic is created with the right beam spread,” Kahn states. “If a client has a 24-inch square painting, the correct beam spread of light will define whatever that art is trying to tell you. We’ll also use pin lights that will draw attention to a particular piece of art without homeowners really noticing the source of the light. We use this to accent a piece of art and make it ‘pop’ in that space and become a centerpiece of that room.”
Accent lighting can also be utilized to define certain elements of furnishings and décor — for example, the texture of a stone fireplace. “Every bit of space we have today is something that needs multiple layers of light to define and use that space correctly. Accent lighting provides one of those layers,” he remarks.
“By using grazing light sources that are very close to whatever is being illuminated, you can create light and shade, giving the feature a great deal of depth. That’s a very important part of accent lighting,” Kahn says. “People miss out on that all the time because they just aren’t familiar with it. Our showrooms have walls of lighting that demonstrate many textures and ways to light a wall. We can use the same wall and texture to accent in different ways. It’s almost the equivalent of going to an eye doctor who asks you which version looks better to you, ‘A’ or ‘B.’ By offering this opportunity for equal comparison, people can determine which type of accent is most appealing to them.”
“You cannot design lighting for anyone’s home unless you know their lifestyle and how they’ll be using their space.” — Melvyn Kahn
There is no one-size-fits-all solution in accent lighting either. “During our first meeting with a client, we don’t begin by talking about lighting. Instead we want to understand each client’s unique and specific story. We ask a lot of questions about them, their lifestyle, and habits like TV/movie watching or reading, their design style, whether they have children and what their ages are, where they spend the most time, do they like to entertain, and more. It’s by learning their stories that our staff have the ability to select the right type of lighting for each client,” he notes.
How does a lighting showroom acquire such expertise? The answer is simple: you train for it.
Knowledge Is Power
Every Lightstyles sales consultant is fully trained and certified as a Lighting Specialist (LS), as accredited by the American Lighting Association (ALA), and is encouraged to continue their lighting education as a Certified Lighting Consultant (CLC) through the organization.
Besides the ALA educational courses, Lightstyles staff stay abreast of new products, features, benefits, and technologies by relying on their manufacturers’ rep force. “We have monthly breakfast meetings for the reps to come in and talk about products,” Kahn explains. “To ensure we always have team members on the sales floor and available to clients, we ask reps to take just two of our staff at a time for a 30-minute educational meeting, and then rotate to two more. We’re very strict on the quality of education provided by our reps. I myself will often go through the process with reps beforehand, and if I think it’s useful, we’ll move forward. If not, then we don’t want to take up our busy staff’s time.”
Taking It One Step Further
In a move to increasingly differentiate their showrooms from the limitations of big box stores and online shopping, Lightstyles also offers a specialized design service that requires a significant financial commitment.
“What we provide is not inexpensive,” Kahn remarks. “It requires full-time experienced lighting designers, plus purchasing very expensive software and specialized hardware. Most importantly, is our dedication to educate the public. While that type of investment can be considered a risk, I never think of it like that. Rather, I looked at it as an opportunity.”
One cardinal rule Lightstyles maintains is the aforementioned “You can’t design lighting for anyone’s home unless you know their lifestyle and how they’ll be using their space.” Kahn says he has observed architects making that mistake often. “So when we get their CAD plans for a client’s project, we basically delete all the lighting specs and start from scratch. We have to build in things like reflection factors, high ceilings, dark corners, and the color and type of flooring,” he explains. “Glare is the biggest enemy of good lighting and takes away from the essence of the furnishings and centerpieces of a room. For example, we use different lighting to enhance a wood floor to bring out the natural color and grain than we would for a bathroom with a tile floor. The lighting that we recommend to clients is our antidote to other forces we can’t control and sets us apart. It’s something that online retailers can never replicate.”
Part of the educational experience that clients receive at Lightstyles is through its innovative LED Experience Centers located in a special section of the showroom. “With the advent of LED lighting in recent years, we pride ourselves on being able to show our clients virtually every kind of LED lighting for decorative, architectural, accent or utility applications,” Kahn says. “These LED centers are somewhat of a light lab but aren’t intimidating. Clients walk in and can immediately see the inspiration behind our showroom team’s recommendations and how different types of lighting will enhance or detract from their applications.”
It is within these LED Experience Centers – which is segmented into room settings and realistic home environments (including staircases and inside closets) that customers witness the difference that accent lighting makes.
“These Experience Centers do not have to be [large]. If properly planned, they can be done in just a 750-sq.-ft. space,” Kahn advises. What they do is help clients understand why they should do one thing or another [with their lighting]. Lighting needs to be felt, touched, and experienced. You cannot do that with just an image from the Internet. Seeing a picture on a website doesn’t convey what it will really look like in a person’s home. Things like the true finish tone and scale of size cannot be judged with a picture. Having employees who understand, sleep, walk, and talk lighting can [demonstrate] why they should choose a specific type of lighting for their space.”
LED technology and accent lighting have a symbiotic relationship. “LED technology has helped us tremendously because they are so easy to control.” Kahn states. “One of the ways we use LEDs as accent lighting is in cove applications. Where we used to have accent sources of varying colors [before LED], now it’s all integrated into one source.”
According to Kahn, LED has made a lot of the accent lighting techniques much easier to accomplish than in the past with incandescent/halogen and fluorescent. “We recommend LED backlighting for translucent materials like onyx or marble,” he explains. “Using LED panels is relatively inexpensive. They can be custom-made and provide the even distribution of light in layers for multiple accent applications.”
LEDs’ small size has proved invaluable in creating more unobtrusive lighting effects. “One of the other ways we use LEDs as accent lighting is to create wall art, using the drywall as a blank canvas. We can recess LEDs into the wall from floor to ceiling – and even across the ceiling – to create art with light instead of with a typical piece of artwork.”
Accent Lighting as an Advantage
“Every day our buyers work to ensure we are in tune with pricing being offered by online as well as brick-and-mortar competitors,” he says. “We sell products at the lowest possible prices and will meet any legitimate advertised price that a customer can show us. We have signs throughout our showrooms that state our products are marked at IMAP pricing, which is comparable to any pricing they will find online.”
Being able to show clients accent lighting applications in person is helpful for another purpose. “We educate clients on the difference between the lines we offer and some of the products they will find online of much less quality [that might look the same as ours]. If they gain knowledge and understanding, then they will be able to make educated decisions based on quality and the difference that the right lighting can make in their environment. Our clients realize that we know what we’re talking about and trust that we’ll get their project right the first time and avoid costly mistakes.”
At Lightstyles, “We identify ourselves more as a design center than a lighting showroom,” Kahn notes. “With the onset of more fierce competition both online and in large retailers, showrooms have been closing across the country. It’s comparable to the demise of Sears. You’ve got to be aware of the changes that are happening, adapt, and stay relevant.”
Emphasizing your showroom’s expertise can make a significant difference. “Our approach is very simple. You can’t keep doing the same thing and be able to beat Amazon, Wayfair etc. — and you can’t be upset with manufacturers for selling their product to any retailers who will buy it. If manufacturers aren’t selling enough product through their normal channels to keep themselves profitable, what are they to do but look to other sales opportunities,” Kahn explains. “You can’t change that, but you can stand back and study the situation – which is what we have chosen to do – and find a different sales approach and make it your own so they can’t compete with you. We’ve developed our own strategy that has allowed us to achieve continued strong growth. I encourage other lighting showrooms to step up and find their own path. We can’t lay down and let these large competitors run over us. We have so much more to offer.”