A finalist in the ARTS Awards to be announced this month, Hinsdale Lighting adds sparkle to a Chicago suburb.
After teaching high school English for eight years in the Chicago area, Karen Lang was at a crossroads in her life. She took a leave of absence from her teaching position, traveled through Europe, and even stayed in Fiji for two months. She returned to the U.S. refreshed and ready to explore her options.
Working at a local home goods store owned by a former student’s mother, she found herself enjoying the industry immensely. After a year or two of learning the business, Lang decided to start up her own shop, with the blessing of her mentor. Drawing upon her college degrees in Art History and Italian, she wanted to bring that sensibility to retail. “I knew I didn’t want to be located in downtown Chicago because that’s where the place I had been working was. Instead, I chose a courtyard shopping center in the suburban town of Hinsdale,” she explains.
In 2001, Lang opened a 900-sq.-ft. ladies’ luxury goods store she named Trousseau. Often thought of as the accoutrements that encompass a bride’s wedding day, Lang points out that the French word also means “little bits” and appealed to her passion for collecting antiques and “goods from my past lives,” she jokes. Lang brought in a lot of antiques as well as wedding-related finery such as Baccarat toasting glasses and sterling silver accessories ideal for weddings and other formal celebrations.
Lang began taking buying trips overseas, combing antique shops in France and other European countries for finds that would be exquisite additions to Trousseau. “I was very right-brained; I’d buy what I liked,” she comments. However, she wasn’t as disciplined when it came to doing the math on her purchases. Trousseau was enjoying steady business, thanks to the exposure it received from the steady stream of locals visiting the very popular breakfast place next door. Still, Lang felt it was time for some expert advice to take her store to the next level.
Making an Investment
She hired an inventory consultant she had heard about from one of her jewelry reps and together Lang, her store manager, and the buyer sat down with the consultant. “I did it as a six-month trial,” Lang relates. “What the inventory consultant found was that we were holding too many dollars in antiques that could take six to eight months to find buyers for. What we needed were items that we could turn six times.”
As for those special pieces – a gorgeously ornate oversized mirror from France and some distinctive antique chandeliers, for example – that seemed to hang around forever, it was decided that they’d be treated as permanent “fixtures” in the store.
What the inventory consultant discovered was selling briskly at Trousseau was the lighting. “We sold so many Currey & Company lamps, it was crazy,” Lang says. “It turned out that 27 percent of the products that sold the most often were lamps.” Add to that the fact that there were no lighting stores in the area and it’s easy to see where the idea for Hinsdale Lighting came from.
Opening Hinsdale Lighting
When a 1,000-sq.-ft. retail space opened up in the same shopping center in 2005, Lang decided to go for it. “When coming up with a name for the company, I simply thought, ‘What do we sell? Where are we located?’ and took it from there,” she states. “We thought we were going to be a lamp shop at first, and used [manufacturer] John-Richard Lighting’s trade showroom as inspiration.”
Soon, however, Lang had to expand the store’s focus beyond lamps. “One of our clients who bought a lot of antiques from us at Trousseau was building a beautiful French home and wanted us to do the lighting,” she says. When that home was featured in a regional magazine, referrals for lighting jobs started pouring in. “Then we started getting requests for exterior fixtures and we had to send them away to a competing business.” That led to an expansion from lamps to a broader assortment of lighting fixtures.
“We became more appointment and designer-driven and soon ran out of space to lay out catalogs and blueprints for clients,” Lang comments. When a 2,300-sq.-ft. space opened up in the same shopping center, next to a Chinese restaurant, it was a no-brainer to move. “The Chinese restaurant had a night crowd, so we did window displays that would attract the attention of customers,” she recalls. “We built a living room scene and a kitchen scene in our front windows. It looked like a little apartment! To make it easy to change out the displays, we put interior ‘walls’ on rollers. I hate seeing slotted walls; I wanted everything to be hardwired. We borrowed that idea from Visual Comfort in Dallas,” she admits. “The name of the game is flexibility.”
Hinsdale Lighting also began partnering with other local businesses that cater to the same clientele, such as a cabinet shop and a kitchen and bath showroom. “There is no financial obligation. All we did was some horse trading,” Lang says.
Establishing a successful lighting showroom was just the first step. A much harder endeavor is to remain top-of-mind when designers and homeowners are looking for lighting.
Besides holding lunch-and-learn designer forums, a member of the Hinsdale Lighting staff – which includes an architect and three degreed designers – also teaches a lighting seminar each semester at a local community college and supports the program with materials, specification answers, and experience. This effort supports the community and earns business as students enter the marketplace as design professionals.
The store has created a Designers First tiered loyalty program and educational series for designers. Trade accounts can log in to the store’s Web site, create customer quotes, and email photos and pricing directly to clients. This program does not charge a restocking fee for qualified designers, who in turn have access to returned open-box product at net pricing. Most importantly, Designers First gives trade professionals a preview of custom products and antiques before they are displayed in the showroom.
Realizing that technology is a handy tool for both trade professionals and homeowners, Hinsdale Lighting is fully controlled by wall-integrated iPads that demonstrate lighting scenes, control color temperature, and operate window shades through Lutron’s RadioRA2 system. In the bath section, customers can add and subtract layers of light to find a perfect match. The built-in kitchen allows customers to observe various undercabinet lighting options, such as Diode LED tape, Juno Pro xenon undercabinet, and Legrand’s new Adorne line. The large kitchen island is used during design meetings and is close to the large-screen TV that allows Hinsdale Lighting consultants to display architectural plans and photos for clients.
Throughout the showroom, pricing is displayed in acrylic frames featuring the price and picture of the item, dimensions, and a QR code that can be read by any smart phone. The QR code launches the corresponding product page on Hinsdale Lighting’s Web site with additional product details which can be saved to a Wish List, emailed, or placed on order immediately.
Lang has also made a point of becoming involved in the American Lighting Association (ALA) in order to further her lighting education plus network with her lighting showroom peers. Learning an entirely new industry has been a process for this former teacher, and also has been rewarding.
“I always seem to go to the most expensive school to learn life lessons – it’s never the community school,” she jokes. Lang’s hard work has paid off this year with a nomination, and then earning Finalist status for this year’s prestigious ARTS Awards which will be announced during the January International Lighting Market in Dallas.
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