This aptly named lighting showroom chain had to rethink its business when the housing bubble burst. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, it has emerged stronger, more diversified, and was just named an ARTS Award Finalist for best lighting showroom in the East.
Look up the word “progressive” in the dictionary and you’ll find the word defined as “favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are.”
While Progressive Lighting (and its subsidiary Lee Lighting) has been serving the Southeastern market for the past 50 years with stores in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas, its name has never been more appropriate than its recent evolution.
“Atlanta got hit hard in the Recession,” notes Leslie Killingsworth, CLC, and the Director of Purchasing at Progressive. During that time, all building – and there was a tremendous amount of new construction going on – came to a screeching halt. There was one project, however, that did not stand still and that was Progressive Lighting’s commitment to build its newest 25,000-sq.-ft. store on 14th Street in the “design district” of Atlanta. It had already broken ground and started the construction process in 2007 and one year later, opened its doors to a nearly dead market.
“It is a testament to the Lee family for keeping the company going in the Recession,” notes Jennifer Holle, Director of Training. “They [dug down into their personal pockets] to keep people working. They believe that people are our most valuable asset. Everyone who works here feels valued.”
Indeed there are staff members who have been with Progressive for decades; one employee has been with the company 42 years, another has been there 27 years, and still others (including Killingsworth) have called Progressive home for 25 years.
“We’re like family,” adds Michelle Plumsley, who started out as a part-time receptionist and is now the 14th Street store manager.
Time for Change
With many of its builder customers out of business, Progressive’s management had to brainstorm a way to grow new business — and that meant diversifying into other categories. First, the team determined which price-points weren’t being served in the area as well as they could be. “For example, we made an investment in vanities,” Killingsworth explains. “There weren’t a lot of places that offered enough of a selection at the mid-level price points, so that’s the retail customer we began to focus on.”
Although Progressive always had mirrors and a few other typical categories, they have been successful in introducing completely new departments such as outdoor furniture. “This is our fourth season selling outdoor furniture – which has a dedicated furniture buyer – and it has taken us to the next level,” Killingsworth notes.
While the other Progressive stores are more traditional and transitional in their selections, the 14th Street store is reflective of its design district location. “This store is very eclectic; we have Bohemian groups as well as contemporary, transitional, and some traditional,” Plumsley says.
“I respect her opinion,” affirms Killingsworth, who heads up Purchasing. “When she gives feedback [on selection], it comes from what she’s hearing. Her customers are very confident in stating what they want and don’t want. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to buying for 10 stores.”
Selling other goods besides lighting has also meant a different approach to merchandising than in the past. Progressive now has a full-time visual merchandiser – who previously had done merchandising for Steinmart – visiting all of the stores twice a month. “It became necessary to pay attention to what we have under the lights,” Killingsworth remarks. There are also subtle changes, such as each Progressive showroom entrance starting with a foyer presentation that forks off into two rooms by the front windows; one room is contemporary and the other is more formal. The ambient lighting in the showroom becomes darker and warmer as customers go further back into the store.
“We don’t show families of fixtures like we used to,” Killingsworth explains. “We’ve found that customers want to have more varied looks to choose from and we are able to show more styles.”
Training Is Key
Before the downturn in the builder market, Progressive’s salespeople exceled at selling lighting. When it was necessary to add new categories, a different approach was needed: teaching staff how “to sell” in general as opposed to how to just sell lights.
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“We don’t show families of fixtures like we used to. We’ve found that customers want to have more varied looks to choose from and we are able to show more styles.”—Leslie Killingsworth
Before Holle was hired as Director of Training for all of the stores a little over two years ago, Killingsworth was handling the training in addition to her other duties. Early in her sales career, she completed the manager’s training program at the Atlanta-based department store chain Rich’s and was later head-hunted out of that company by Georgia Lighting, where she worked for some time before joining Progressive. With Holle as the designated training director, Killingsworth has been freed up to handle other duties besides purchasing.
After an employee is hired at Progressive, he or she embarks on an eight-day New Hire Orientation program that covers how to gather information from customers, tips on relationship selling, how to operate the POS system and computer training, how to look up and key in an order, how to check inventory, and the basics of the company’s culture.
“In addition to the general sales training, we focus on the technical aspects of lighting. Our ownership is very committed to the American Lighting Association (ALA) and we go over product knowledge sessions. We want our customers to feel that we’re the experts, Holle says. The company also hired architect and renowned lighting instructor Joe Rey-Barreau to develop a proprietary technical training program specifically for Progressive Lighting. “I love both the technical and the decorative aspects of lighting and I am passionate about training. I have a design degree, but really had to learn about lighting,” she adds.
Finding good employees has not been difficult. “We have a couple of design schools in the area that we recruit from,” Holle points out. “We also have had designers who had worked with builders in the past come to us, looking for more stability.”
One of the biggest ingredients Progressive looks for in an employee is passion. “We also look for people who have skills that we don’t have; otherwise, we promote from within,” Killingsworth comments.
In order to stay in touch with customers when they are not in the store, Progressive Lighting has invested in a designated social media specialist. “When we have something special going on – like a visit from the stars of Property Brothers in two of our stores – we let them know,” Killingsworth says. To bolster its email program, there are signs throughout the store reminding customers that if they add their email address and birth month to Progressive’s list, they will receive a $25 certificate on their birthday — every year! Further incentives include “exclusive email discounts, promotions, and valuable coupons.”
Progressive also has a Pinterest page, Houzz page, Facebook, and Twitter account. “For example, on Pinterest, we post customers’ photos of their projects,” Killingsworth states, adding, “We are on Houzz because very often our customers will come in with a page that they have printed from Houzz.com.”
The team at Progressive Lighting has plenty of passion for their store, their customers, and their merchandise — and it’s not just consumers who have noticed. Last month the company was named by their vendors and peers as a Finalist in the prestigious ARTS Awards for the category of best Lighting Showroom in the East. Regardless of whether they achieve the top award in January or not, this team is thankful the tough years are behind them as they continue on their path to another successful year ahead.