Linda Longo, Editorial Director of EnLIGHTenment Magazine, sat down with David Weisinger, founder of Uplight Group, to learn more about the exclusive European designs he brings to the American market.
Linda Longo: How did you enter the lighting industry?
David Weisinger: I started by becoming the exclusive distributor for the Italian brand Studio Italia Design in 2004. We founded Studio Italia Design USA, quickly set up a small office and warehouse in Miami, and began building the business for this little-known brand in the USA.
Some of the challenges we had to overcome were getting the product UL-listed and building a sales force to reach architects and designers nationwide. We also had to introduce the line to the top lighting retail stores that were not familiar with the product. This is how I began building strong relationships in the lighting industry and learning about the many challenges that European lighting products have to overcome to penetrate the U.S. market.
I continued to lead and grow Studio Italia Design and remained active in sales, marketing and operations for 13 years, until a few months back when we ended our relationship and I founded Uplight Group, which has the exclusive distribution for several up-and-coming lighting brands.
LL: How has the market changed from when you were introducing Studio Italia Designs to the U.S. market?
DW: There are two main changes in my opinion: The adoption of LED technology and the growth of e-commerce.
When we started, over 90 percent of our line was using halogen lamps, mainly G9 and GU10. These are not energy-efficient and created heat issues. We had some fluorescent options, but they had issues with dimmability which is an important factor in decorative lighting. Over the years, we saw the evolution of LEDs and how this phenomenon went from hype to reality in front of our eyes. Most lighting specifiers today will not even consider any product with halogen or fluorescent lamping. LED technology continues to change and is re-defining how new lighting is designed as light sources require less space and no need for remote drivers.
The growth of e-commerce has dramatically changed the lighting industry and has gravely affected the brick-and-mortar retailers. In the early days, most respectable lighting lines avoided Internet retailers and protected the traditional retailers. As larger players started signing up and being successful online, the rest of the companies followed and today virtually every manufacturer can be purchased online.
Successful lighting retailers were able to adapt and either moved online or improved their offering of value-added services to clients such as lighting design and customer service. However, it continues to be a very challenging space. Online lighting retailers have also become an information source for designers and architects as they can easily find product information and design ideas 24/7, so manufacturers need to be online if they want to be noticed by the design community.
In terms of acceptance for European lighting,
I believe customers in the USA still see European lighting as a premium product. However, clients are aware of the potential problems of sourcing European products that are not adapted to the electrical standards of the USA and not UL-listed. That is why it’s so important for European companies to have a local presence in the USA and offer only products that are suitable for the USA market.
LL: How do you evaluate which companies would be a good fit for distribution here?
DW: I look for unique designs and for companies that have a clear definition of who they are and what they are about. There are many players in the lighting industry that simply collect different designs, but they have no clear identity. I look for companies that are passionate about what they do and with management teams that are directly involved in the design and operation of the company.
I don’t claim to know the “taste” of the American consumer as this is a country of many tastes and preferences. I believe that architects and designers appreciate – and notice – innovative designs and that is what we are looking to offer: Different and unique lighting collections under one roof, adapted to U.S. electrical standards, and that are easy to specify and source.
We only work under exclusive agreements. It is impossible to handle the market properly and protect the hard work of our sales network otherwise.
LL: Is it easier to deal with some countries over others?
DW: I don’t believe some countries are easier than others. I believe people are individuals and that honesty, integrity, and professionalism transcend borders.
However, it is funny to see the differences between the cultures and how we communicate differently. My experience with northern European countries has been very positive. They are very professional and organized. Italians are more laid back and we have learned how to work in these different environments.
LL: How do you handle the rewiring issue?
DW: Our philosophy is that manufacturers should have the UL listing and wiring done at the factory level. This enables them to become familiar with the UL requirements and in turn be able to design new products with this market in mind. This is essential for future growth.
LL: When starting your own import firm, I would imagine there might be challenges in gaining the confidence of overseas companies. Did you have to take on a large amount of risk in getting your business going?
DW: It is hard to establish a relationship with any company, foreign or domestic. There are many alternatives for entering a market like the USA. I believe my track record of developing a solid lighting distribution business for Studio Italia Design definitely helped in gaining the confidence of new manufacturers. However, I’m sure that my knowledge of the market and my understanding of the needs and challenges of foreign manufacturers were critical in gaining their trust and getting them to sign up with Uplight Group. I was also fortunate to find some great companies that were ready to take their business to the next level in the USA. It is not easy to sign up good lighting brands; I don’t take it for granted.
I’m taking a significant risk as I’m stocking the product here in Miami. That means we have to bet on the success of certain designs before we even know if they will sell well. Having inventory is an important value-added that a good distributor brings to the equation. We are also investing heavily in marketing, sales, and promotion.
LL: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned IN bringing global designs to the American market?
DW: I have learned to offer products that are completely ready to sell in the USA — even if it means you have to leave out some good designs because they can’t be used in this market. One bad apple spoils the rest.
I have also learned to work around different time zones and working schedules, including long summer and winter holidays.
LL: Do you have a central distribution center?
DW: We have a warehouse/showroom in Miami, and we ship all orders from there. There are many available freight options. Having our office in Miami has also been good marketing when talking to new brands and clients. Miami is famous worldwide for being a cool and trendy city.
LL: Who is your primary customer?
DW: The driver of our business is the lighting specifier, which encompasses architects, interior designers, plus lighting designers. They are responsible for selecting the lighting for most projects in the USA. We are in constant contact with all types of specifiers through our sales representatives in all major territories who present our products and provide specification assistance to the design community. We reach specifiers via social media, blogs, and direct mailings as well as by participating in trade shows such as ICFF New York and ICFF Miami. Additionally, we work closely with lighting retailers because most retailers work with lighting specifiers as well as with homeowners and other end users.
LL: How do you plan to grow over the next five years?
DW: Our plan is to become a one-stop-shop for unique lighting designs. We don’t intend to have more than a handful of lighting brands. We want to create solid and long-term relationships with our partners and we intend to grow together with them.
We expect our partners to continue innovating and creating new designs made with the American market in mind. We will continue to provide feedback to our partners in regard to the trends and needs for this market. We also expect to grow as we build better relationships with specifiers and gain their trust by delivering great products and great service and by making it easy to specify and source our products.