The name of the company says it all, but selection isn’t the only reason customers travel from nearly one hour away to shop at Lights Unlimited.
Make no mistake about it; competition is keen in the Raleigh-Durham part of North Carolina — and that doesn’t even count the encroachment from Internet-based stores. “Our area is saturated with lighting showrooms,” notes Brian Howard, who has been with Lights Unlimited for 20+ years and is the showroom manager. He estimates there are eight stores within one hour’s drive.
With so many choices, obviously there is something compelling about shopping at Lights Unlimited, which has stores in Garner, Wake Forest, and Fuquay-Varina — plus there are plans to open a fourth showroom in the near future. Each location draws its own clientele and tailors its offerings to reflect each demographic. “People come over from Chapel Hill to shop here,” Howard notes.
One of the reasons consumers, home builders, and interior designers flock to Lights Unlimited is the reputation for expertise. For decades the business was run by the highly knowledgeable husband-and-wife team of David and Dixie King, who in 2015, decided it was time to retire. They didn’t want to shut down their legacy when they moved to Florida, and yet didn’t want it to suffer the worse fate of falling into incompetent hands. Fortunately, their long-time accountant David Ball and his wife, Michele, an accomplished chef, stepped up and asked to continue the business under the Balls’ ownership.
Since David had been with Lights Unlimited for approximately 20 years as the firm’s CPA, he already had a solid idea of how the business was run financially as well as from a vendor and customer service standpoint. He also has prior experience in developing land and commercial real estate in the area and remains active in that sector.
After earning her culinary degree, Michele Ball was enjoying her career as a chef, but she was game to take on the new endeavor. She immediately began studying the American Lighting Association (ALA) educational programs and received her Lighting Specialist (LS) designation within six months of coming onboard at Lights Unlimited.
“I’m very people-oriented; it keeps me grounded,” Michele says of working in the showroom business. “I’ve learned that lighting is an art.” Her love of cooking – which is also a form of creative expression – has found its way into the job as well. One of the showrooms features a beautifully appointed working kitchen that not only demonstrates lighting techniques, but comes into service when hosting hospitality events for the community (i.e. interior designers, home builders, consumers).
Helping bolster the company’s design credibility is renowned interior designer Louise Davis, who handles the Wake Forest location. Before joining Lights Unlimited, Davis’ interior design work had been published in Coastal Living and Builder+ Architect magazines and she has appeared on NBC’s George to the Rescue as well as served as a contributing designer on HGTV’s Love It or List It series, which filmed in North Carolina in 2015. Playing to Davis’ strengths and following, the Wake Forest store holds many design-oriented events and draws a clientele seeking edgier looks.
Around the Garner showroom, which is Lights Unlimited’s flagship, the new construction market is booming. “The amount of permits being issued is up and the work is steady. We have lot of homes in the pipeline,” Ball comments, adding that the area attracts both tract and custom builders. Fortunately the staff at Lights Unlimited is easily able to anticipate the needs of builders targeting a variety of homebuyers, from first-timers to empty nesters.
“The trick is getting to the architects beforehand,” Ball says regarding how comprehensive and thorough of a lighting plan can be developed for clients. “LEDs have made a big impact on builders, especially when it comes to energy rebates,” she states. Interest in connected wi-fi systems (i.e. smart lighting, heating/cooling, security) is also an increasing interest among customers.
Another thing that is “growing” is the company itself. The Garner showroom was recently awarded the Summit Award for Steady Growth & Achievement by the Chamber of Commerce.
Helping to manage all of that growth and assisting in organizing the lighting packages for 40+ parade of homes that Lights Unlimited is involved in each year is just one part of Howard’s duties. Juggling builder requirements along with helping individual clients with their lighting needs is intense work, but Howard is up to the task — he has spent the majority of his life in the industry and is an expert in finding zen amid any chaos. “Without Brian, I don’t know where the business would be,” Ball quips.
Growing up on a tobacco farm, Howard decided early on that he didn’t want to make agriculture his career; however, his mother’s work at a lighting center inside a home center had greater appeal. By age 15 his mom helped him score a job at a lighting showroom close to home, and the rest is history.
“Lighting lets me be creative, plus I get to meet different people. I like the service aspect behind it,” Howard explains. “Most customers have had relationships with us going back 15 years or more. I’ve been here for 20 years and my customers count on me being here. They’re very loyal.”
Howard also takes to heart advice that his mother gave early on: “Be yourself, use your manners, and be patient when working with the public. Always provide the best service you can because that is what builds your reputation.”
Howard has also taken it upon himself to generate social media accounts for the business and maintain them with posts about new products that have come in, photos of gorgeous installations in new homes featuring lighting and accessories purchased at the store, handy lighting tips, plus photography of well-designed rooms to further inspire customers. With sheer persistence, a sense of humor, and a good dose of talent, Howard has been able to generate just under 10,000 followers for the store on social media all on his own. Thanks to his efforts, visitors come in feeling comfortable and as if they “know” the vibe and people at the store already, further engendering customer loyalty.
Cementing that relationship is the one-on-one attention that each sales associate gives to their clients. The company does not charge for a lighting plan or for visiting the customers’ homes to assess their lighting needs (i.e. takeoffs). “If one of our customers can only come in when we’re normally closed, one of us will meet them here,” Howard says.
Finding employees willing to give it their all can be a challenge, but the company tries to make it worthwhile. “We have profit sharing for our employees and we give back to the community,” notes Ball, who also happens to have been the first female football commissioner in Garner and held that post for 20 years.
Confidence and trust in Lights Unlimited’s experts is what has made the multi-showroom business thrive in the face of unprecedented competition. “If any of my current or past customers are having a problem, challenge, or question with lighting, they know, ‘Oh, Brian will help me!’ — and I do,” he states. “We’re always here for our customers.”