Barbara Lansing of Idlewood Electric Supply credits her talented staff – which includes two of her daughters – with helping to keep the showroom her father founded 60 years ago an enviable success. The company was recently named an ARTS Award Finalist.
While many things have changed since an 11-year-old Barbara Lansing (née Scheinman) would arrive at her father’s lighting store on weekend mornings to clean fixtures, make coffee, and change blue sheets for 25 cents — there are other aspects that have not changed, such as the company’s commitment to outstanding service. It is by providing stellar customer care and product assortment that the family business has been able to weather tough economic times – as well as increased competition –
for more than half a century.
Lansing’s father, Isadore (Izzy) Scheinman, grew up in Brooklyn, New York. His first job was changing out light bulbs for the New York Subway System, before later working as a salesman for an electrical supply house. In wartime, he served in the U.S. Army Air Force as a crew engineer on B-29s flying over Japan. After the War, Scheinman seized the opportunity to relocate his young family to the quiet suburbs of Chicago and open his own electrical supply shop in 1958.
Growing up, Lansing was used to spending her free time helping out. “It’s just what you did when your family owns a store,” she says of her indoctrination into the lighting industry. On weekends and summers while in high school and college (where she earned a Master’s degree in Social Work) she could be found at Idlewood Electric, absorbing knowledge about lighting and controls manufacturers while providing great customer service. By 1985, Lansing decided she wanted to make lighting her career and joined her father’s company full-time.
When raising her three daughters, however, she never made them feel as if joining the family business was expected. “My kids were never into it when they were growing up,” Lansing states. Instead, they took jobs elsewhere that aligned with their interests. For example, one daughter graduated college with a degree in Marketing and landed positions in network TV at Oprah and Rosie, both of which filmed in Chicago. Her youngest daughter is a skilled social media strategist who currently works for the renowned business networking site LinkedIn.
“They had to make the choice that [Idlewood] was what they wanted. I feel that if they chose to do it, then that would empower them to be successful,” Lansing remarks. Sure enough, two of her daughters are now on board full-time, making Idlewood Electric a third-generation, female-owned and -operated company. The business is (Women’s Business Enterprise) WBE-certified, a distinction Lansing is particularly proud of given that the electrical supply category has historically been predominantly male. “While the E.D. side can be more challenging as a woman, if you have talent, I think it’s easier to stand out,” she remarks. Earning electricians’ and contractors’ respect is just one of her accomplishments.
Over the past six decades, the business has flourished — leading to multiple expansions at its flagship in Highland Park as well as opening additional showrooms in Barrington and Chicago. As CEO, Lansing oversees all three locations and can ably differentiate the needs of each store’s clientele.
One of the keys to Idlewood’s success is Lansing’s open-mindedness. “We offer a little bit of everything,” she says. “I’m not afraid to step forward and try something.” Being willing to take small risks does not imply impulsiveness, however. “A lot of people depend on me, so I try to make good business moves,” she affirms.
It certainly helps to have a reliable and talented Showroom Manager, such as lighting showroom veteran Pat Bunting, to keep the Idlewood crew on track and on trend. “We have a solid, knowledgeable staff; they’re not order-takers,” Bunting points out. Indeed, longevity is another area Idlewood employees have in common. Not only has one saleswoman, Adrienne, been with the showroom for 40 years, but many others have decades-long tenure at Idlewood — including Bunting, whose years of lighting experience also includes time at another lighting store.
“Most people feel part of the fold,” Lansing comments. “We treat them like family and make them feel empowered. We hold regular showroom meetings where we ask what [product] they would like to see hanging or offered in a particular space.” Product training with manufacturers’ reps is part of the education process, but not the only source. “We invest in training,” Lansing states. “If someone asks to take the ALA (American Lighting Association) certification courses, I’ll pay for it.” Employees who earn ALA certification receive a bonus as a reward.
Each Store Is Unique
Rather than subscribing to the simplest of method of purchasing product in triplicate to cover all three showrooms, the buying process at Idlewood is more complicated. “We buy for each store differently,” Lansing notes. “For example, one is more traditional in clientele, even though it’s only 25 miles away from another of our locations.” In some cases, the product varies and in others, it might be the finish (i.e. a preference for warmer traditional tones versus cooler contemporary) that is the differentiating factor.
Idlewood Electric sends buyers to the Dallas lighting show twice a year, and since Lightfair was held in Chicago, Lansing made it a point to attend. Ensuring there is enough popular product in inventory is something Lansing believes makes a difference for customers. She is also a firm believer in keeping the showrooms’ displays fresh and maximizing her partnerships with vendors. “Real estate has a price tag. If you want the space, we have to work together. Let me help you. My dad always said the relationship is like a marriage; it has to work for both sides,” she comments.
Dealing With the Internet
Idlewood’s long history in the Chicago area. and the fact that it had been in the same location for 48 years before moving just a little further down the road 12 years ago, has provided the showroom with multiple generations of business. Lansing’s family has helped customers 20+ years ago who now have their grown children stopping in to buy lighting for their new homes. People in the Chicago area have learned to rely on Idlewood’s expertise because it has successfully made its name top of mind within the communities it serves.
“Even in the age of online shopping, there are certain things the internet can’t do,” Lansing says. For example, people have come in because they ordered the wrong size fixtures or need help wiring a dimmer. It’s the personal experience that they get at Idlewood and the communication of knowledge that can turn online shoppers into brick-and-mortar repeat customers, according to Lansing.
“We put ourselves out there on Houzz,” Bunting comments. Being visible on such home improvement websites has helped generate brand-awareness for both lighting manufacturers and Idlewood. “There aren’t many lighting brands known by consumers, unlike appliance brands. We make an effort to highlight the brands we carry, after years of disguising it,” she adds.
“We’re constantly thinking of what’s next,” Bunting says. For example, more customers are asking about LED retrofits for downlights as well as for vanity applications.
“They’re also asking about color temperature,” Lansing remarks.
“We expect the LED category to keep evolving,” Bunting notes. “As great as LED can be, it can also bring problems. We like that the employees at Home Depot and Ace Hardware send customers to us for answers to their questions; they tell people that we have everything,” she says.
In fact, it’s the growing technology that has both Lansing and Bunting intrigued. “I like learning; it keeps things interesting,” Bunting states. “There is so much innovation in the category that it’s an interesting place to be!”
There is one area that technology cannot make obsolete: customer service. Lansing keeps in mind the advice her late father has told her over the years: “Have integrity, have morals, and be humble.”