In a down economy, a spike in replacement lamp shade sales would make all the sense in the world. The reality? Top lamp and shade stores say their business is always good, no matter which way the economic winds blow — no big boom when others are going bust, and no deadly lulls, either.
Want in on this business Shangri-La? It’s a specialty niche that can takes years to develop. The way successful lamp and shade retailers do business proves that superior service and expertise trump selection, location and pricing, too.
“It only looks easy,” says James Pennington of Ghent Lamp and Shades, Norfolk, VA.
Fast, reliable lamp repair and the ability to provide hand-sewn custom shades using the customer’s own material are hallmarks of today’s most successful replacement shade retailers.
In Chicago, AA Lamp and Fixture sells elaborate Victorian shades that cost hundreds of dollars alongside basic stock shades and everything in between. The company has been doing business on the city’s north side since 1973, serving interior designers with custom shades sewn locally and regionally, plus an extensive selection of stock items.
Hardbacks, silks and three qualities of handmade shades line the store’s walls. The store’s shade assortment covers the gamut from traditional to contemporary, affordable and high-end. Antique lamps and new product from House of Troy and other portable lamp vendors are also available. Wall sconces are a small but perky part of the business. In addition to selling to the trade, AA welcomes consumer business, too. In fact, generations of Chicago families consider AA the only place to go for a new shade or lamp. Being able to match fabrics to a shade is a huge draw.
Sandy Borowski, a 20-year veteran, is a relative newcomer to the AA sales staff; a colleague has been there more than 25 years and owner Paul Simmons has put in even more time than that. The team’s extensive knowledge about all things portable, and their years of experience are strengths competitors could not counter.
“We used to compete with the department stores, but they got out of the lamp and shade business,” Borowski said. “Lots of the small lamp stores have closed here. There’s no doubt about it; this is a specialty niche.”
“There is definitely a barrier to entry in this business, and that would be knowledge,” says Ghent’s Pennington. His store has few significant direct competitors, and he says Target and other big-box stores really do not cut into his sales. His inventory of imported stock shades in all the basic shapes and colors gives him a sharp price point for the “cheap chic” customer.
Although his store is in an upscale shopping district, Pennington’s mark-up on shades is not exorbitant. “My advice to other retailers is don’t be greedy,” he says. Ghent’s stock shades range from $8 for a small chandelier shade to about $80 for the top of the line. On average, customers will typically spend between $45 and $50 on a new shade.
Although his overall style of doing business is rare in today’s world, it works well for Ghent. “My accountant just told me October 2009 was the best October this business has ever had,“ Pennington says.
Shades pictured here from Morlee Lampshade.