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Meet the 2021 Showroom of the Year Finalists: $2-$5 Million

Meet the five lighting showroom finalists in the $2-$5 Million category.


Diane Falvey and Amy McIntosh
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Black Whale Home - Encitas, CA
Black Whale Home - Encitas, CA

To see the rest of the finalists:

Finalists in the Under $2 Million category

Finalists in the Over $5 Million category

Black Whale Home - Encinitas, CA

In a year that was anything but normal, Kirsten Reece, Founder and Owner of Black Whale Home (aka Black Whale Lighting) was already on a path of change in her Encitas showroom. That helped her store weather a retail landscape that suddenly delivered challenges upon challenges. 

One of Black Whale Home’s biggest changes came right before COVID, says Reece. “We made the decision to expand the categories to the channels of distribution we already sold. We added custom upholstery, area rugs and additional wall art to our current offering of lighting and home decor,” she notes. “Instead of looking for new customers, we decided to target the customers we already had, and get them to spend more with us.” The changes, she continues, have been a win-win as it gives customers a reason to shop
in her store more often.  

That’s not to say everything has been smooth sailing this year. Like so many retailers and industries, this pandemic has presented challenges. Reece and her staff rose to those.

“We had to draw down our staff while we waited out the process for the PPP loan and California guidelines. We had to tighten our belt, but we knew we had to be accessible to our customers,” she says. “We have had to adjust who we were buying from based on which manufacturers were pivoting and adjusting too.”

This year has pushed the retailer to deliver from a digital perspective as well. Customers needed access. “Our biggest changes were related to e-comm, social media and access,” Reece says. “I carried a cell phone 24/7 and posted this number on our store answering machine. We didn’t want anyone to think they couldn’t do business with us. We launched two websites in 2021. We learned so much from the first one that we blew it up and made another.”

Reece and her staff also took the time to educate themselves and get trained on all things COVID — via virtual webinars and Zoom calls — to learn how to do retail in the new “normal.” “We have focused on creating a clear brand and experience from shopping in-store to shopping online,” she says. That education has paid off, Reece adds, noting that the company has grown its online followers by 500 percent. 

“After 28 years in business and living through COVID in Southern California the past year, we are hitting it on all cylinders,” Reece says. “We are doing everything better than ever before.”

Dominion Lighting - Arlington, VA

Dominion Lighting
Dominion Lighting

Dominion Lighting’s flagship showroom reconfiguration started with a very specific design brief from the CEO, says Matthew Rowan, Vice President, Residential Lighting for the Arlington retailer. “Completely rethink the experience of shopping for and understanding lighting. Throw everything out and focus on the core experience of light.” 

So that’s exactly what Rowan did. At the time, he was with global design firm Gensler, and was integral to such experiential retail spots as Capital One Cafes. But lighting has always been his passion, and after the redesign of Dominion, he came on board to continue the consumer-centric trajectory the newly designed showroom started. As the showroom transitioned from a place “designers were embarrassed to bring clients to” to a space that grants them workspace to collaborate with those clients, decorative lighting became integral to the branding changes as well — from Dominion Electric to Dominion Lighting. “Most of all, the team wanted Dominion to be seen less as a place to buy things and more as a trusted advisor who could demystify, teach, engage and inspire,” he says. 

In addition to streamlining the merchandising, Rowan added an event space (ready for community use when events are allowed again), a state-of-the-art smart lighting lab to teach customers how lighting is supposed to work in their homes, and a designer work space complete with big screens, conference tables and more. 

The first phase of redesign took place just before the pandemic, and Rowan and the Dominion team were able to turbocharge that when the showroom was shuttered early on in the pandemic. 

   COVID has also created opportunities to enhance the customer experience that Dominion may not have even known it needed. Because of regulations, it was necessary to implement an appointment-only format. It’s been so successful in giving customers the needed time and expertise to get their lighting right, Rowan sees the appointment format continuing well past the pandemic. “COVID has made us more aware of how we are working,” Rowan says. “We’ve become even more customer-centric. What do they want and how do we accommodate that? Our goal is to anticipate their needs before they can articulate them.” 

From the reconfiguration of the showroom to the new customer policies the retailer has put in place, Dominion Lighting is positioned to thrive. “This has been a tough year on business, but I think we’ve come out of it stronger than we’ve ever been.”

Gross Electric - Toledo, OH

Gross Electric
Gross Electric

“As one of the oldest lighting showrooms in the country, it’s easy to stick with what you’ve always done, and become obsolete in the process. We are constantly looking for the new and different,” says Laurie Gross, President of 111-year-old retailer Gross Electric, in Toledo, OH, and Ann Arbor, MI. For example, the retailer took the time to revamp both locations when COVID closed the doors. While the Toledo store remained open to contractors, there was still the opportunity to refresh the store and delight customers when they came back in early June. “We separated our vignettes with walls, which allowed us to get more merchandise in a smaller space. It also gave the showroom a clean, fresh look it hadn’t had before.” 

Before the updates, Gross Electric had been a showroom shoppable by room; however, Gross found that customers were struggling to find product that worked within the same style. Gross Electric sells lighting, door and cabinet hardware, casual furniture and accessories. The new merchandising showcases vignettes that are style focused. This way, “if a customer likes a foyer fixture, the dining room  fixture and pendants are in the same place,” Gross says. “The goal was ‘How can we make shopping our showroom easier?’”

While the pandemic came with challenges, Gross continues, she feels as if it has given local retail something of a reboot. “I was starting to feel like people didn’t care about their local retailers.” Now she is seeing shoppers of all ages coming to the store who just want to shop locally. “This might be one of the best things that could have happened for retail.” 

The updates to Gross Electric didn’t stop at the showroom, however, as Gross understands that consumers continue to flock online to shop. The retailer has modernized its website with a regional flair, and has focused on social media to entice customers to the site and the showroom. 

As with other retailers, safety protocols have been put in place to keep customers and staff safe, and the showrooms have instituted such conveniences as curbside pickup and online chat, which she sees continuing post-pandemic. 

Gross points to the positivity and energy of her team as the reason the company continues to thrive. “So much is due to our employee’s dedication to our mission,” she says. “We believe the best customer service comes from the best employees, so we strive to support them through training and benefits that make them want to stay.” The result? This year, Gross Electric has been named a Top Workplace in its market.

Inline Lighting - Pelham, AL

Inline Lighting
Inline Lighting

COVID created more challenges than how to maintain profitability when customers weren’t coming into lighting showrooms. There have also been supply chain issues that have impacted order delivery dates, sometimes affecting a build or design schedule. 

Inline Lighting, an employee-owned retail showroom, found that its policy of exceptional customer communication has helped to thwart some of the challenges the pandemic has introduced. 

“COVID changed a lot of things for our business, but the number one tool we utilized and relied on was constant communication with our customers,” says Lauren Collins, Marketing Director. “There were so many challenges created outside of our control but we found that as long as we were communicating all of this to our customer, we could find solutions.”

Collins continues that the employee-owners at Inline understand that communication doesn’t end with the sale. “We are always calling, texting or emailing to let customers know the status of their orders and following up after to make sure everything is up to our standard of excellence,” she says.

As the pandemic has challenged in-store traffic and deliveries, Inline
has gone the extra mile and now offers drop-shipping to its customers, to add convenience and timeliness. 

Inline’s staff has also made a concerted effort to enhance communication on the front end, upping its social media presence — particularly on Instagram — with virtual showroom tours, products and styles, inspirational lifestyle images and a place to showcase customer projects. These efforts connect to Inline’s ecommerce platform where the company has seen an “astounding 92 percent year-over-year online sales increase,” says Collins, on par with the showroom’s overall growth in the third and fourth quarters. 

And while foot traffic in the showroom has been less than usual because of COVID, the staff continues to update selection and merchandising every month or two to keep things feeling fresh. “Our showroom is laid out to be aesthetically pleasing and easy to navigate,” says Collins, even online. 

All of these efforts have required everyone to pitch in. “Working through the pandemic truly has made our team closer and stronger than ever before,” Collins adds. “We really had to all come together and face these challenges head on.” That led to virtual daily and weekly team discussions, something Collins says will carry through post-pandemic. “Our culture of teamwork is what drives our success.”

Passion Lighting - Grapevine, TX

Passion Lighting
Passion Lighting

If Bruce Paul, President of Passion Lighting, in Grapevine, TX, could create his own specialty award for his retail lighting showroom, it would be a “Best Experience” award because “visiting this showroom is everything you would want in a lighting showroom experience.” 

Over this past year, Paul and his team have used the COVID pandemic to create an even better experience for its customers, however they choose to visit the retailer. For example, the company invested significant resources into expanding and recreating the showroom to showcase its wide variety of product styles, with a growing emphasis on modern and transitional. “We started to see styles go transitional about five to six years ago, and we realized it wasn’t going to be temporary,” Paul says. “Over the last two years, we’ve gotten into deeper partnerships with new vendors and we’ve brought in new finishes.” The Passion Lighting showroom updates have reflected the more modern and transitional style of the lighting it now carries. “We changed up walls, opened up the space and made it much more transitional and clean,” Paul said. 

Some of the changes included brightening up the space, decluttering walls and raising the ceilings for a “cavernous” effect. The changes have been so significant that some customers were asking if the company was going out of business. Quite the contrary, Paul says. “Customers are used to our store from 10 years ago when it was dark. We actually have more product on the ceiling than we’ve ever had before.” While the changes incurred considerable funding, Paul says, “it was a good investment.” 

Another change at Passion Lighting has been a shift from stocking product to a more on-demand purchasing pattern. Other than ceiling fans, Paul says, the company no longer carries large amounts of stock, helping to streamline its expenses.

While COVID opened an opportunity to finish up showroom alterations, particularly during a month-long shutdown at the start, it has also created some bumps with delayed deliveries as supply chains have been impacted. Paul says this hasn’t been much of a problem for the retailer. “We set the expectations with the customers at the front end,” he says. He also expanded the company’s service capabilities to compete with online competition. “We added more service technicians and we offer install, and it’s all guaranteed. We expanded our ‘walk the home’ program, and we offer advice. It creates good relationships, and there are thousands of dollars in those relationships.” 

Passion Lighting opened its doors 15 years ago with no customers or revenue in a competitive market. Paul is proud that his lighting showroom has continued its profitable trajectory even with a pandemic.

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