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Retail Road Trip: Denver

Denver rebounded from the recession in a big way, and Urban Lights and Lulu’s Furniture and Design now have new types of customers to wow. Here’s how they’re keeping up and staying stylish.

Alison Martin
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Inside the Urban Lights lighting showroom in Denver. CO

Urban Lights

In 1976, David Nestor opened Foothills Lighting in Denver. In 2010, after being out of the lighting game for nine years and now in the middle of a recession, he opened Urban Lights. The lighting market had changed drastically since Nestor opened his first store, and the 2010 housing market around him seemed to offer little opportunities for business. Businesses around Denver embraced all things digital. Even the owners of Foothills Lighting, who bought the store from Nestor, had automated attendants.

The way Nestor saw it, he had two options. He could either go digital and offer the JCPenney’s “low-prices-everyday” route, or he could find a different revenue stream. After seeing the Penney’s Super Bowl commercial in 2011, Nestor decided to strike out on his own.

“It was sort of my own version of David and Goliath,” he jokes.

Nestor first needed to find new customers. While most of his competitors “chased the digital rabbit” and raced to the bottom with the lowest prices, he followed the money. Much of Denver’s housing market may have been depressed, but one category hadn’t slowed down: custom houses and commercial spaces. Wealthy people in Denver took advantage of the depressed housing market and the low cost of labor and started employing custom remodelers and custom builders. They still had the means to buy mid- and high-end fixtures, and they became Nestor’s focus. 

At the same time, Nestor noticed another open opportunity. With so many competitors online, no one was buying traditional media — print, radio and TV ads — and so even if some competitors bested him online where Urban Lights was still active, he automatically won the traditional game because he was the only one playing.

“I feel like if it’s second to digital in terms of where the markets are going,” he says, “I’ll take sloppy seconds any day.”

Just as important for this group of wealthy homeowners and custom builders and remodelers, the message in Urban Lights’ ads had to be just right. These customers didn’t care about everyday low prices, but if the store had a sale and offered up to 70 percent off, then they might drop by. That message also stuck with other buyers, ones who normally would have shopped Urban Lights’ selection of moderately priced lines in better economic times, and they too started coming to the store for weekend sales.

In the showroom, Nestor decided not to borrow Foothills’ automated attendants. He redesigned the showroom to better categorize it and make it easier for customers to find the styles they wanted. He made sure customers received a greeting and that they had someone to interact with throughout the showroom.

“People still like a human being that greets them when they come in, tells them a little about what they’re going to see, can page a salesman if they need one, someone they can wail on if they’ve had an unpleasant experience, but they’ve got somebody they can talk to at least,” he says.

As the economy improved, Nestor watched JCPenney lose showroom space and fade from the landscape. He felt proud, knowing that his business method had triumphed over everyday low prices, but as anyone in business knows, the fight never ends.

Inside of the Urban Lights showroom in Denver, CO
It isn’t always easy to categorize a lighting showroom, but Urban Lights makes it work. The main aisle of the showroom has descriptive signs — City Loft, Jazzy Classics, Metropolitan, among others —  to guide customers to products that fit their design styles or lighting needs. Partial walls and accent furniture help define each section without barring customers from moving easily between the different sections.

Now fast forward to today, Urban Lights continues to reinvent itself. The showroom covers 20,000 square feet and another 15,000 square feet in warehouse space, which is attached to the back. And, nowadays, a new type of customer is strolling through the showroom: the Millennial.

By far, Millennials have the best understanding of value in terms of both price and quality, Nestor says. They do their research before coming to the showroom, and they’re looking for products of a better quality than something they find in a builder’s center. Lines like Quoizel and Hinkley end up doing well with Millennials because the price works and the design matches their definition of cool. They do, however, have some bad habits.

“We know that with Millennials — though not just Millennials — we’re likely to get shopped on the floor off a cellphone while they’re there,” Nestor relates, “so we’re better off taking those customers to our computers or bringing it up on our own cell phones to make sure our pricing is right.”

Even so, Nestor thinks of Millennials as a work in progress. As their incomes grow and they buy houses, he hopes they’ll keep coming back for better lighting fixtures.

“They’re an investment for us,” he says, “and we’d like to get that investment back”

Urban Lights also targets design professionals in Denver. Last year, the company partnered with the local American Society of Interior Designers chapter to host a wine event for a charity and then roll out the Design Plus program, which offers extended discounts to designers and custom builders and remodelers. In exchange, Nestor promised that his ads would no longer promote prices in them, which designers didn’t like because their clients would go shop Urban Lights instead of going through them. Thus far, the program now includes more than 100 designers.

In the midst of this retail apocalypse — or renaissance for those optimists  — the way business is done may change on Nestor just as it did when Urban Lights opened in 2010. In his opinion though, one thing will never change and it’s what makes his showroom stand out.

“Anyone that provides you with a little enthusiasm and caring outweighs knowledge and experience any day in my view,” he says, “and that’s what people are really buying into here. That’s what they really appreciate.”

Lulu's Furniture and Design

Dining table and bookcase in Lulu's Furniture and Design showroom in Denver, CO
Lulu’s new location sits in a newly developed area with plenty of upscale stores and restaurants around it — plus plenty of parking. Two of the walls have massive windows that reach almost all the way up to the ceiling, providing plenty of natural light. The high ceilings also allow for large hanging fixtures that won’t make the space feel crowded.

If they wanted, Christy Brant and Caitlin Brant Marsh could close their shop, Lulu’s Furniture and Design in Englewood, CO, and become movers. In March of this year, Brand and Marsh closed their location on the north side of Denver, packed it up and moved it back across town to Englewood — where their store originally opened in 2007. Not only was the mother-daughter team older and wiser now for this move, but they were about to add a new team member: Caitlin was eight months pregnant.

It might seem like too much for the average retailer, but for this tough-as-nails duo, nothing phases them anymore.

Take Lulu’s previous location: a mortuary with a roll-up garage and plenty of space. When they moved in, Brant and Marsh noticed a lack of parking around them, but they still expected other retailers to move in. That didn’t quite happen.

“It was going to be this whole marketplace, but it never evolved into that,” Brant says. “It was just restaurants and bars, so it wasn’t conducive to retail.”

Now in their new location back in Englewood where they both reside, Brant and Marsh can focus on another big challenge they’ve been facing for years: the internet. They’ve seen plenty of customers showrooming in their stores — checking out what they like and then buying it online from a different vendor at a cheaper price

Then there’s also the nature of Coloradans in general. In an area where no one wants to be inside, it’s tough convincing people to care about the quality of their furniture when they would rather be spending their money on their “bikes and Subarus,” Marsh says. 

There’s also the matter of resetting HGTV-induced expectations. “They think you can furnish your whole house for $5,000 and you can’t,” Marsh explains. “Well, you can, but it’s not going to be quality.”

To combat the internet and reset expectations, Brant and Marsh go out of their way to offer the best customer service — something the internet just can’t match (not yet anyway). They stock their 2,600-square-foot showroom with furniture from companies like Norwalk, Four Hands and Noir Furniture, and Brant says they try to support companies that make their products in the U.S., though that can be a challenge she says. Nearly everything in the showroom can be customized, and Lulu’s offers a ton of fabric options. If a customer wants to see a fabric not in the showroom, both Brant and Marsh have been known to invite customers to their own homes to try out the fabric for themselves.

Sectional sofa and tables in Lulu's Furniture and Design showroom in Denver, CO
When possible, Lulu’s stocks products using unique materials designed by local artists. “We always try to to do things that everyone else doesn’t have,” Brant says. “You’re not going to find a water meter at Restoration Hardware or West Elm.”

As if a gorgeous showroom weren’t enough, Marsh also heads up the design side of the business. Whether clients want a whole room designed, a few paint colors chosen or advice on how to arrange furniture they already have, Marsh delivers, but it’s her low-key attitude that seems to resonate with clients more than anything.

“I don’t think we suggest things that are outrageous,” Marsh says. “We’re just normal people, and we try to talk to people like ‘This is what we would do in our house.’ Make it friendly is our biggest thing.”

“I describe her as Rain Man,” Brant says of Marsh, who never attended design school, “because she can walk into a room, and her brain just works. It knows where everything should go and what should happen to make it look better. She just has an innate talent.”

While they continue to focus on their consumer business, Brant and Marsh have their sights set on attracting a new type of client: interior designers. Lulu’s has contracts with upholstery manufacturers that most designers couldn’t normally buy from. In the future, they’d like to become a hub for designers who want to order fabrics directly from them. This year, they’re planning to hold a brunch for local interior designers and show off all the showroom’s capabilities.

“In this way, they’d help us, and we’d help them,” Brant explains.

Despite the challenges from the internet, Brant and Marsh stand out from their competitors because they’re not afraid to admit when something isn’t working and do something about it. When their location in Denver didn’t develop into the retail landscape they wanted, they got up and moved. When the internet siphoned off business, they looked for ways to make coming into their store worth more than the convenience of ordering furniture online. When consumers started spending more time outdoors, they turned their attention to those who appreciated quality furniture and figured out a way to bring them to the store.

Even Marsh’s pregnancy didn’t slow her down. Just three weeks before her due date, she helped unpack boxes and set up the new store. At the end of March, Marsh gave birth to a baby boy. The grand opening party of the new showroom in May — a celebration of their new store and new baby — happened just in time for Mother’s Day. 

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