The popularity of the Internet can be particularly problematic for lighting retailers. Brick-and-mortar showrooms have always been the bread and butter of the industry, and many a successful lighting business is built on well-appointed merchandising and the expertise of a seasoned salesforce. But as more consumers turn to the Web for its convenience and ability to compare prices, e-commerce has become a way for traditional retailers to reestablish themselves as the savvy shoppers’ go-to source for lighting and to capture an even larger slice of market share.
“Online retailing is another way to interact with our customers and grow our presence,” says Ken Lebersfeld, CEO of Capitol Lighting and 1800lighting.com. “Customers want to do their research online, touch and demo the product in a showroom, shop around and, finally, purchase when and where it’s most convenient.”
A player in the e-commerce marketplace since the late ’90s — Capitol Lighting also has locations throughout New Jersey and Florida — Lebersfeld makes it sound simple, but he’ll be the first to admit that these are two very different ways of doing business.
“It’s important that our customers see things like finish, workmanship and scale in person in order to inform a decision that they’ll likely live with for years,” Lebersfeld says. “And a trained salesperson’s role is to educate the customer about the products that are available and to guide them by asking the right questions. A website can’t do that.”
Of course, there are unique advantages to the online marketplace, as well. Progressive Lighting recently re-launched its e-commerce store, LightsOnline.com, with a fresh look and new functionality to leverage the benefits of the Web.
“LightsOnline gives us a national presence beyond the Southeast, where our stores are,” says Jon Eggleton, Director of E-commerce. “And there’s no limit to the amount of product we can show. On the site, there are about 15,000 SKUs at your fingertips — 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And depending on the brand and the product, most of the time, items purchased online ship to the customer directly through the vendor.”
Though you could make a case for each on its own merits, combining the two business models lets lighting retailers experience the best of both worlds, and lets customers have their cake and eat it, too.
“Our e-commerce site is a terrific way to augment our showroom business,” says Capitol Lighting President Eric Lebersfeld. “It’s all connected. Our pricing is the same; our policies are the same. We have customers shopping online and then coming into the store to complete the sale, or vice versa.”
Greg Kay, owner of Lightology in Chicago, says the look and feel of your website should even be the same. When Lightology.com launched nearly a decade ago, he and his staff went to great lengths to make sure the site mimicked the unique personality of his contemporary brick-and-mortar store.
“I wanted online visitors to get the same story that they would if they physically walked through our store,” Kay says. “So, we arranged products by style just like in the store and made sure the site was easy to navigate.”
Eggleton agrees. “It’s important to know your customers, and make sure they know that whether or not they buy online, your website is an extension of your retail store,” he says.
Still, there are several things a retailer should know before opening the door to an online sales model. It’s important to have some sort of infrastructure in place. A core group of tech-savvy dedicated employees is key, as is detail-minded customer service and database personnel.
“There are so many websites out there, it seems like it’d be easy to just slap one up, but like anything worth its salt, it’s an investment,” Kay says. “There’s a lot of planning that goes into it, and you really have to stay on top of it if you want it to be successful.”