All too often replacement shades are treated like a step-child of lighting; however, these shade retailers prove that this category can become highly profitable if promoted properly.
Shades: Every lamp has one, and many interior designers find shade replacements to be among the easiest and no-brainer décor updates for their clients. When left to their own devices, however, consumers lack the confidence to select a replacement shade, citing such a purchase as stressful.
In truth, finding the right shade for a lamp is not so simple. It involves more than merely choosing the perfect “white” color or sifting through patterns; there’s also the matter of correct sizing to keep the balance between the base and top and deciding on either contrasting soutache braid or self-trim.
For some lighting stores, stocking shades is a nightmare; while other showrooms narrow down the shade choices too far in an attempt to improve profitability of the category. All too often, shade departments are located in a dusty, back room, with a monochromatic assortment that can look visually boring.
How to Boost Shade Sales
There are some retailers who do a bang-up business in replacement shades — and they’re willing to share their secrets. What do they have in common? For starters, shades require a deep commitment. As such, successful shade retailers invest in training their personnel. Others have found success by optimizing the Internet or by creating their own workrooms within the store to make choosing a lampshade as enjoyable as possible.
“Selling shades is a constant part of sales — and we sell a lot of shades,” asserts Rick Schneider, General Manager of Harold’s Fine Lighting, with locations in Seattle and Bellevue, Washington. “Every day we are selling shades or getting special fabrics and frames for designers,” he adds. A multi-generation family-owned business, Harold’s has maintained its five-decade reputation as one of the largest shade resources in the state and is backed by its own four-person manufacturing facility and restoration shop.
“Typically, our customers are looking to replace or refurbish 20-year-old shades,” Schneider explains. “Usually it’s a sewn model that needs relining, which can become expensive. We do stock a large inventory from other manufacturers – which we try first – but then move on to unique and custom work if the customer isn’t satisfied,” Schneider explains.
|The popular drum shade gets some drying time in the Harold’s Fine Lighting manufacturing studio.
|A tall pendant shade is inspected in Harold’s custom workroom before it’s shipped to a commercial customer.
At Shades Unlimited in Buffalo, N.Y., owner Laurie Koerner maintains a small custom studio to recover, line, or create new shades for customers in addition to a large selection of ready-mades from American shade manufacturers.
“We do a lot of custom work because we are the only lampshade store in this area,” Koerner comments. “We have several stations throughout the showroom where we can work with customers to pick out the right color, texture, or simply show how a contrasting trim and new finial will work,” she says. Shades Unlimited, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year, showcases several colorful shades and unusual portables to create visual interest. Although they don’t seek out commercial work, the showroom’s staff has completed projects for several restaurants and even the Buffalo airport.
For customers at the Joy of Lighting in Chester, Conn., the process is similar. “People come to me to buy art. My media are exotic fabrics and wallpapers,” notes owner and artist Susan Schneider (no relation to Harold’s Schneider). Specializing in vintage fabric shades and upcycled lamps she makes herself, Schneider takes her customers through a journey of discovery. “They have a fun time picking a shade, a frame, fabric, and a finial; it’s a joyful experience.” She prefers to create something unique rather than carry generic shades that she describes “at their most benign are boring. During the Recession everything was cheap, but exhibited no real craftsmanship. Today, people are seeking more artistic things for their homes.
“Customers want to live with more color, and they can easily start by adding a little bit of elegance with shades,” Schneider explains. “Right now, little chandelier and sconce shades are very popular.”
“The lamp industry has come a long way in the past few years, and the shades have followed,” notes Judy Lake of Pawlet, Vt.-based Lake’s Lampshades. “There’s more public awareness about lighting in general, and Lord knows, Martha Stewart has made designers out of all of us,” she jokes. Known locally as “The Lampshade Lady,” Lake creates small and medium hardbacks using her collection of vintage textiles, embroideries, French ticking, and linen. In addition to her shop in Vermont, she maintains a shop on Etsy.com, which has enabled her to cut down on the number of craft shows she used to participate in.
“As a result of the economic downturn, I’m making my own self-trims now – some in the same fabric, and others contrasting,” Lake states, adding, “I like using ticking in self-trims because the stripes really pop out.” She admits that beaded trims are a rarity these days, and her frame shapes tend toward the classic and not too trendy (mainly hexs, drums, squares, and bells).
For such a traditional and old-fashioned category as lampshades, the World Wide Web and social media platforms have boosted shade awareness among consumers and enabled dealers to broaden their reach.The Influence of the Internet
“I like that I can start the conversation with a customer on Etsy,” Lake says. “I encourage visitors to ask questions and I do, too. For example, I’ll ask what type of lamp the shade is going on. So many people find me now through the Internet. I like to write for my blog and feel people would like to know about me and what goes on behind the scenes. The blog is what led me to write the book, The Lampshade Lady’s Guide to Lighting Up Your Life (Potter Craft, 2009). The publicity from that helps as well.”
Like Lake, Susan Schneider is also active on Etsy. “It generates business from a younger generation wanting to do things with their hands. Handmade is very big now,” she explains. “My Web site has also generated commercial work (mainly restaurant projects). My business has gone nationwide, and I couldn’t have done that without the Internet.”
At Harold’s Lighting, Rick Schneider makes sure the company’s Web site stays active. “We rank high on searches and promote our services online. We have customers in New York City, Texas, California, Utah, and even Alaska,” he notes. “We don’t really sell shades on the Internet, but we use [our Web site] to educate consumers and alert interior designers to our capabilities.” Typically the average project at Harold’s calls for 12 to 20 shades, however, large commercial orders do come in, such as the order for 2,000 shades for a Seattle-area hotel renovation.
To maintain Shades Unlimited’s high visibility online, Koerner has invested in a designated Webmaster who helps optimize her store’s site recognition by search engines. “We feature our custom work on the web as well as special promotions, usually on direct replacement shades. We also have a Facebook page and advertise in regional magazines, newspapers, and even in the phone book since nearly half my customers are over 50,” she adds. “I have developed a relationship with the home editor at one of the local magazines; she always calls me when it’s time to do a story on shades.”
Make the Process Fun
According to these shade professionals, one of their favorite benefits of shade retailing is the direct contact with customers and the ability to offer solutions to homeowners of every age.
“I recently had a 94-year-old lady in my shop who wanted to replace a shade after 30 years,” Susan Schneider relates. “She had such a good time! She came back with all of her lamps. How positive is that?! I also have 30-somethings come in either looking for a unique item for their first home or they bring in their grandmother’s lamp because they don’t like the original shade or base, but want part of it fashioned into a new lamp of their own. They appreciate the fact that I can reuse the really old and transform it into something uniquely theirs.”
Koerner recalls two customers who came to her Buffalo store this past summer. “One was 101 years old and brought her 80-year-old daughter to help her buy a lampshade. More typically, we had another customer in her mid-50s who told us she was sick of [the color] cream. She ultimately went with a burnt red fabric on a tradition square frame for her crystal lamp,” she remarks. Koerner’s younger customers are also enamored with linen. “They like the texture; it’s less formal, but still interesting,” she states.
Lake agrees that her customers are in a wide range of ages, and she enjoys teaching them the tricks of the trade through the shade-making classes she holds in her shop during the spring and summer. Despite having a huge collection of fabrics, Lake also accepts projects using the customer’s own materials. “Because I work with hardbacks, I insist that the fabrics [they bring in] be either cotton, linen, or paper. No silks,” she affirms.
Likewise, Koerner also accommodates anyone who wants to bring in fabric. “One of our most unusual requests came from a customer who wanted shades made from silk boxer shorts,” she chuckles, adding, “Not to worry, they were still in the original packaging.”
While Harold’s has plenty of resources, the company also welcomes customer-supplied materials. “We’ve even used bed linens,” Rick Schneider states. “One customer was a sailor who brought us his old charts to make into shades. We also worked with a New York City photographer, putting his images on shades. That turned out very interesting – the images glowed from behind.”
Self-taught, Susan Schneider has a huge collection of fabrics at her disposal. Starting out originally as an antiques dealer and vintage textile distributor, she has developed many sources. “I love old saris – I use them to make half shades for sconces,” she remarks. “I am currently using a lot of grass cloth and new handmade marble papers. Customers also bring me things like a special handkerchief or even a piece of wallpaper from an old house they just bought and want to honor the past of that place.” Schneider has also adjusted her frames to keep up with demand. “Ten years ago I never would have made a barrel shade. Today, I do a ton of them.”
“In the ’60s it was the drum shape [that was popular], then in the ’70s it was the wide flare. The ’90s brought us shallow drums, not the stovepipe style. Now we’re sort of back to an English drum, which is slightly smaller on top,” Rick Schneider recounts.
Despite assumptions to the contrary, lampshades are hardly a sleeper category of lighting. However, it’s obvious that passion and devotion are essential to enjoying a viable business.