Tips for Selling Outdoor Lighting
March 30, 2012 - 4:00pm

Landscape lighting can be a tricky nut for retailers to crack—after all, you’re trying to sell something that, done well, should be invisible. Despite the category’s obvious challenges, the use of expertly orchestrated path lights, post mounts and floods continues to be a growing trend in today’s marketplace.

“Landscape lighting is probably the fastest-growing portion of residential lighting,” says Norm Brown, Regional Manager of Burnaby, British Columbia’s Norburn Lighting and Bath Centre and chairman of the American Lighting Association’s (ALA) Certified Lighting Consultant Committee. “Fifteen years ago, it wasn’t in showrooms. Today, it’s because of a desire to maximize the use of the outdoors after the sun goes down, expand the living space and show off the fancy houses we’re building today. In some cases, it’s just a recognition of safety—we’re getting bigger lots, sidewalks, curbs and water features.”

Mitch Beiser, President of Night Light Inc., a landscape illumination design firm in Lombard, IL, agrees that outdoor lighting is becoming more important. His clients, who live in the Midwest, where it gets dark by 5 p.m. at certain times of the year, want to be able to enjoy their back yards for longer.

“Over the last 20 years, the general population has really started to get more into their homes,” Beiser says. “[They’re] doing more landscaping and developing their properties, but it seems silly to think that you can only see it during the day. By illuminating the property, it opens up the home for another five hours at night. Interior-wise, everybody spends a lot of money on windows, window treatments and the view out the window during the day. There’s no reason why at night those windows have to turn into black mirrors.”

Landscape lighting has gained momentum in recent years because more showrooms are carrying actual product, as opposed to primarily using catalogs. As a result, the product is much more accessible to customers.

“About 25 years ago, Kichler got into [landscape lighting] big time and taught showrooms how to sell it,” Brown says. “They opened up a category we had never sourced or even thought about selling.”

Since then, a handful of established decorative lighting companies, including Progress Lighting, Sea Gull Lighting and Hinkley, have followed suit, cultivating successful landscape collections of their own, while smaller outfits that specialize in exterior architectural products have also bolstered their offerings to feed the escalating demand.

"It’s really becoming increasingly important,” says Jeffrey Heath, General Manager of Lighting Operations at Klaff’s in South Norwalk, CT. “I would say there was less than 5 percent of the customer base that would consider landscape lighting 10 years ago, and now it’s probably more like 15 percent. Awareness is out there both because of what they see in their neighborhood and what they see commercially.”

Identifying the Best Type of Outdoor Lighting

As the category becomes more complex, so does the product. While huge, glaring spotlights and high-voltage lighting fixtures once dominated the outdoor lighting scene, now there are more flexible low voltage lighting systems, as well as light fixtures in every shape and size for all sorts of low-profile and specialty applications. Of course, there are differing opinions on what makes a good product, but most retailers and landscape lighting designers agree that a good product is one that virtually disappears once it’s installed.

“The number-one difference in outdoor lighting [from interior illumination] is you don’t want to see the light,” Brown says. “If you see the light source, it’s not called light, it’s called glare. You see these beautiful $2 million or $3 million homes, and they put these wall sconces out front with 100W bulbs in them, and you turn on the light and don’t see anything but the light bulb.”

Another trademark of a good product is its ability to withstand weather. Those who live near the ocean have an especially daunting task ahead of them when it comes to finding a good solution, says Joe Rey-Barreau, Associate Professor at the College of Design at the University of Kentucky and Director of Education for the American Lighting Association.

“Needless to say, the ability of that product to withstand extreme weather environments is something that’s critical,” Rey-Barreau says. “You really need to be aware of what works best in your environment.”

How to Sell Outdoor Lighting

For those lighting retailers who understand the importance and advantages of stocking good landscape lighting, the next step is presenting it to customers in a way that shows the products in the best possible light. Randy Leivas, owner of Leivas Lighting in Riverside, CA, has put about $80,000 and eight months of hard work into his landscape lighting showroom.

“Outdoor lighting is all we do, so it’s very important to us,” Leivas says. “I was an electrician for about 15 years, and I found that many clients would purchase lights from a catalog. There wasn’t really anything available for a homeowner to actually touch—to feel and see the quality. I wanted to have it in a store where I could have everything available in the showroom.”

Special hands-on displays prove an invaluable selling tool for retailers who take on the landscape lighting category. According to Klaff’s Heath, educating the client is an important part of the sale.

“We actually have a lighting lab,“ Heath says. “It’s a large room, and we have house facades built in there and a lot of stonework. We can actually show the client what the product does, which is instrumental in educating the customer and closing the sale. I think if you want to do it right, you spend a lot of time with your clients, assessing their needs, defining their objectives and helping them express their ideas.”

Klaff’s continues its hands-on sales approach by offering its customers landscape lighting seminars. The showroom also reaches out to landscape contractors and builders about how their products can increase the curb appeal of new homes.

Aside from education, one of the most useful tools for making a landscape lighting sale is a lighting kit that retailers can either lend to clients or take out to a client’s home after dark. Typically, the lighting manufacturer supplies the kit, which includes a range of fixtures, as well as a 12V battery. Homeowners can arrange the lights around their property to get an idea of what they might look like when installed.

How to Break in to the Outdoor Lighting Business

Though landscape lighting is certainly a growing field, lighting retailers looking to get into the business should consider the decision carefully.

“It is not something that sells itself,” Brown says. “It’s relatively technical compared to selling a crystal chandelier. You need somebody to teach you; you can’t learn this on your own.”

According to Rey-Barreau, the correct training is key. The salesforce should have hands-on experience in order to gain an intuitive sense of how best to serve clients’ outdoor lighting needs.

“You have to have a more developed sense of what’s good and what’s bad,” Rey-Barreau says.

Developing a good relationship with a lighting supplier is an absolute must when it comes to a successful outdoor lighting business. The manufacturer can provide training and advice on the amount and type of product best-suited for a given area. Once that connection is made, the manufacturer may even be able to offer advice and ideas about how best to display their products. After all, designing an attractive, user-friendly showroom is invaluable.

“If you can put in a little room that’s pitch black with some mocked-up gardens, that’s wonderful,” Brown says. “You also have to have the product where people can pick it up and touch it.”

Another great way to drum up business is to take on some outdoor lighting projects and document them when they’re finished, Rey-Barreau says. He suggests snapping photographs of the completed project at dusk, just before it gets really dark. The photographs will help illustrate your ideas to customers and give them an idea of what your products and services can do for their property.

“A lot of people have seen what we’ve done in what we call a ‘portrait of lighting’ at someone’s home, and they may want that same effect [for themselves],” Leivas says.

However you plan to sell it, the most important aspect of outdoor lighting is just understanding what you’re selling and being able to communicate that to customers.

“Placement and design are so important,” Beiser says. “You can put in a $1,000 gold-plated fixture, but if you put it right next to the driveway and the snowplow comes by and wipes it out, what good have you done? If you place fixtures in harm’s way, you’re just asking for problems. A good product is a simple, well-designed system that very much embraces the nighttime."

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