These retailers find that investment in bricks and mortar can turn showroomers into buyers.
By Susan Grisham
A funny thing happened during the Recession: consumers hunkered down and discovered new ways to shop. By merely lifting a finger, they became more mobile, shopping new venues, encountering new trends, and comparing prices. Whether via tablets at home or apps on smart phones, this is a habit that will not disappear any time soon.
Some lighting showrooms have been making discoveries of their own. Some are optimizing their Web sites for better online commerce. Others are becoming YouTube stars by creating videos for their Web sites. However, many are also investing in one of their biggest assets: the bricks-and-mortar experience.
“Today, merchandising a lighting showroom takes a multi-faceted approach to survive,” says Brent Smith of Southern Lighting Gallery in Augusta, Georgia. “On one hand, you have the traditionalists, customers who are not necessarily Internet-savvy and want to see and feel the product before buying. And then you have the techies, who may never visit a bricks and mortar store at all to make their purchases. But mostly, you have everyone in between,” he states. “The challenge today is merchandising to the broadest spectrum as possible.”
Nick Frisella of Metro Lighting in St. Louis agrees. “Even with so much online shopping, the one thing I don’t see ever changing is that consumers are touchy-feely. Your mother always said ‘Look with your eyes, not your hands,’ but we’ve never learned. Most consumers want to see it, touch it, and play with it. As a showroom, we have to constantly keep changing displays in order to show the newest trends in the market,” he remarks.
California-based showroom owner Kirsten Recce of The Black Whale believes today’s shoppers require even more from the bricks and mortar retailer. “I have found they want to work with the independent lighting showroom more than ever, but their expectations have changed in what they need us to deliver. Our customers want us to be as competitive as any major chain or online seller – and this doesn’t just translate into dollars or discounts,” she contends. “It encompasses everything from technical knowledge to branding. It is not okay for us to fall short of any service or knowledge that they could receive somewhere else.”
“Today’s customer is very visual and not usually satisfied with the two-dimensional experience they get online,” Recce notes. “I don’t find that our customer wants to sit and look at an iPad or computer screen when they come to our store; they can do that at home. They want to touch and see the product as well as [assess] how it performs.”
Enhancing the Experience
“We are believers in lighting applications as a form of merchandising,” Smith explains. “As an example, when selecting kitchen cabinet lighting, we have cabinetry with fully functional fluorescent, xenon, linear low-voltage, and LED systems side-by-side to demonstrate what each type of lighting system looks like.
“It makes a big difference between telling customers about light layering in an article and surrounding them in the actual setting so they can see how lighting can be subtle and not harsh to the eye,” Smith says. “In our lab, they can see how cabinets can be illuminated, artwork can be highlighted, and the crystal goblets on a dining room table can sparkle. The dining room scene in our lab also has high-performance recessed lighting with a multi-scene dimming system that allows the customer to ‘feel’ various combinations of layered light.” Southern Lighting Gallery also has an outdoor vignette to show similar effects of landscape lighting.
“There are many showrooms that have embraced the light lab over the years,” observes Recce. “Every great showroom cannot be without one anymore. Gone are the days when we merely peddled decorative fixtures. Customers want to know the lumen output and color temperatures and the latest details of the light bulbs they will be able to access for these fixtures. Our salespeople must be up on all the latest legislation and product offerings – even if it is something we don’t offer. Consumers want to compare and know that they are getting the most technically advanced product that their dollars can buy. They want to see how they can control their lighting from their smart devices or the comfort of their chair,” she adds.
Reece explains that in California, lighting must meet the ever-changing demands of energy savings and code regulations. “LEED is the big buzzword in new construction projects. This opens the door to not just energy-efficient lighting, but to dimming controls, controlling natural light, and fixtures made from recycled materials. We must show all this, understand how it works, and convey the need for customers and clients to care if they don’t already. Most customers have used the Internet to research something before they ever step through our door. This usually starts the conversation in at least one of these areas, if not all of them.”
Metro Lighting is also banking on the in-store experience to help consumers make purchasing decisions. “With all of the new lighting technology out there today, it leaves consumers overwhelmed and confused,” Frisella points out. “We are constantly educating our employees on the newest products hitting the market, good and bad, so in turn they can educate their customers on the best products to meet their needs. We work with our vendors to create custom displays that are very hands-on for the consumer. This helps them easily understand how the different types of lighting perform and understand things like color temperature, CRI, and lumen output. This way, consumers can see what a product will do before purchasing and decide what is best.”
Embrace the Opportunities
The changes in light bulb designs and labeling have given bricks and mortar stores an opportunity to educate customers in the store as well as online.
“With the ever-changing technology in bulbs, we simply show the various lamp types; halogen, CFLs, LEDs, all illuminated side by side,” Smith says. “We plan to add an energy savings calculator to our Web site, where the customers can justify paying more for an LED lamp by figuring the energy saved in just a couple of years.”
When it comes to their Web sites, lighting showrooms have not forgotten their most far-reaching tool and are beefing up online features. Smith has partnered with LightsAmerica to create a full-featured Web site. “Along with the typical online catalog, our customers are drawn to the ‘Sale’ tab where we offer merchandise at tremendous value,” he points out. “We have the usual ‘Lighting Tips,’ but augment that by featuring our own lighting lab to try to entice the online shopper to visit our store to ‘feel’ the light. We also have ALA videos that our customers find useful. Our online blog has a video section featuring the installation of a ceiling fan, a ceiling fan light kit, and a ceiling fan remote. It’s a great tool for the customer who buys a ceiling fan to go to our Web site to see how to install it!”
Metro Lighting focuses on customer education through social media. “It is important to educate our customers on products, trends, and technology to empower them so they feel confident that the dollars they are spending with us are dollars well-spent,” advises Sarah King, Metro Lighting’s marketing executive. “We and other retailers need to offer services, products, and pricing that reinforce this confidence. The ability to speak directly to our customers through social media is an intimate way to communicate with them. We have begun relying more heavily on this method of communication and recently started a big push to grow our social media and Internet presence including a Facebook promotion, which has been very well-received. This has allowed Metro to reduce spending on traditional media,” she reports.
Metro Lighting has also partnered with another major brand that consumers trust. “Our partnership with ENERGY STAR has been great,” Frisella declares. “ENERGY STAR adds value to our company’s image and helps our customers feel confident that the ENERGY STAR products they purchase are quality items. For the third year in a row, Metro Lighting has won the Energy Star Excellence in Retailing award given out by the EPA and the DOE. We participate in an Earth Day event every year to further get the word out about ENERGY STAR and all energy-saving products.”
Metro Lighting also offers videos on its Web site featuring general manager Matt Gagnepain, CLC, who provides lighting tips, and director of merchandising Patty Birkhead, who explains how to accessorize with lighting. The site is enriched with sections devoted to energy-efficient solutions, a portfolio of vignettes, and learning segments on every lighting category.
If You Have It, Flaunt It
Retailers are also using their physical real estate to hold special events. “We host quite a few educational events for our customers, designers, and staff,” explains Birkhead. “Our ‘Show Me LED’ is a perfect example of how educational events can bring designers and customers into our showroom. It offers ASID designer classes that fulfill required continuing education credits. Our latest is being taught by executives from Adorne and will run concurrently with our LED educational event that is open to electrical contractors and the general public. Last year, we had over 250 people attend. I cannot tell you how many said they enjoyed it and that they had learned so much.”
When investing in showroom space, making the in-store experience as stylish as online fashion sites is important, according to Recce. “We just moved our showroom in the past few months to a larger location in a highly visible shopping center with primarily national retailers. The response has been very positive because today’s shopper is all about convenience and likes to do all their shopping in one area. We also took the opportunity to give our store a major facelift. As customers are moving to cleaner and simpler designs, the overall feel of our showroom has taken that direction as well. We created smaller and less-cluttered vignettes and color stories with paint to be relevant with the trends everyone is seeing on Houzz and Pinterest online. We are installing panels of continuous images of room and lighting applications showing customers great light placement, light layering, and high styled fixtures in actual installations,” she explains.
Smith is also using new in-store tools, adding, “In the future, we plan to furnish our staff with iPads to work with customers in the store as well as at job sites and in customers’ homes. It would be like carrying the entire showroom and all the necessary tools on an electronic tablet.”
All of these measures are designed to combat showrooming. “It’s become a retailer’s fact of life. Therefore, it’s even more important to sharpen in-store and online merchandising to turn showroomers into customers,” Smith says.
“We have had the battle with the ‘lookers’ who come to see in person and then go and purchase online,” Frisella says. “We have instituted a price guarantee so our customers know they can buy locally at the best price and we offer a one-year, in-home warranty on all lighting fixtures purchased from our stores. Our Web site is set up so shoppers can make out a wish list and either print it out and bring it in with them or email it directly to one of our ALA-certified lighting specialists who then contact them with the information they requested.”
“I am not sure if bricks and mortar stores will go away,” says Smith, “but I am sure that if you do not branch out and merchandise to as many segments of the market as possible, you will not survive.”