A hobby making nautical lamps was the start of a successful chain of lighting showrooms in New Jersey.
Growing up in Freehold, N.J., Steve Heyn showed his entrepreneurial skills at a young age, crafting his own wooden lamps with his dad and selling them at flea markets such as Central New Jersey’s renowned Englishtown Auction, one of the largest open air markets in the country. He broadened his assortment to include ceramic lamps, and watched his business grow.
Heyn’s interaction with consumers gave him a solid idea of what people were looking for when decorating their homes and his success eventually led him to open a small brick-and-mortar store (named Lamp Warehouse) in affluent northern New Jersey in 1984.
Over the next three decades, the Wayne showroom (eventually renamed Lighting Expo) grew in size to 35,000 square feet and additional, smaller storefronts were opened in Parsippany and Freehold. The Parsippany store shares space with Kelly’s Dinettes, a partnership that has expanded the customer base for both businesses. The Freehold showroom gives Central New Jersey residents a more convenient location than driving more than one hour north to the original store.
Through the years, Steve and Karen Heyn held true to their company’s core principle of offering a wide selection of product at a fair price without the inflated pricing and fake discounts they had noticed retailers in other industries do. Before staying home to care for their children, Karen was a computer programmer by trade. She began working part-time at the Wayne lighting showroom when the children were in school and has become a full partner in the business as well as serves as the chief buyer for each of the stores.
While offering lighting and accessories from more than 200 manufacturers has established the company as a go-to source among interior designers, architects, and homeowners alike, it is the helpfulness and expertise of the sales staff that Steve and Karen Heyn believe sets their stores apart.
One of those employees is Joseph Violante, who – at 38 years old – has had lighting in his blood from a young age. Violante’s father used to do metal casting and polishing for American Brass & Crystal in New Jersey as well as for Stiffel and served as production manager for Illuminating Experiences’ factory. Joseph followed in his father’s footsteps, working part-time around his school schedule for those same companies. By age 18, Joseph knew that there was no other business he wanted to be in besides lighting.
Working his way up through the ranks of a few New Jersey lighting showrooms doing everything from hanging fixtures, arranging displays plus “cleaning toilets and shoveling snow,” Violante jokes, he is most happy selling product and managing the sales floor. As General Manager for all three stores, Violante breaks up his week with time spent with the staff at each showroom.
What he has learned from the Heyns is how to engage with customers while teaching them about lighting. “Learning allows you to upsell,” Violante explains about his passion for taking educational classes to brush up on new techniques and components. There are so many different facets to lighting and all of these little parts and elements are what helps you make layers of light to create a pretty room for the customer,” he notes.
“I love dealing with people,” Violante states, adding, “I’m not a [behind-the-scenes] office desk type.” Not surprisingly, he has had loyal customers follow him from when he worked for a different lighting store before coming back to Lighting Expo. “My customers are dedicated to me,” he admits. Violante also credits the Heyns for allowing him to grow. “I’ve always wanted to work for someone I respect and trust, and I have that here,” he comments.
Violante has great admiration for another long-time Lighting Expo veteran, Joe Randazzo, who has been with the showroom for 30 years. “He’s an expert at assessing the customer,” Violante says, adding that he has learned a lot from him.
It is the lighting knowledge and expertise that the Heyns feel distinguish their operation from the experience that consumers have online. Lighting Expo will match Internet pricing and boldly proclaims that fact on signage throughout the showrooms. There are also prominent, bright hangtags that denote discounts and savings on nearly every fixture. “Some people really need to see that discount tag,” Violante explains. With the Internet always advertising bargain pricing, brick-and-mortar showrooms like Lighting Expo worry that customers have become so conditioned to seeing “Sale” that they might feel reluctant to shop in a store that doesn’t make the price savings obvious.
Not to say that the Internet hasn’t been a help to Lighting Expo. Violante notes that salespeople will use the store’s Web site when working with customers versus printed catalogs. “Customers are time-pressed nowadays. In the past, they might be in here for hours and we could pull every catalog off the shelf to help them select their lighting,” he says. “Now, they come in already knowing [from shopping online] that they want an Antique Bronze finish and they need a product in five minutes.” The salesperson can also create a Wish List for each customer to bring home with them.
The success of Lighting Expo lies in the balance of helping customers in conjunction with the Internet (in showing available finishes or models) and being physically present in front of the customer to answer all questions and go over detailed plans or blueprints if needed.