If anyone can find a bright side to today's economic gloom, it may be Michael Minsberg, president of family-owned Creative Lighting in St. Paul and a third-generation entrepreneur.
Minsberg sees opportunity in the guttering business cycle.
That's why, after months of work and a hefty investment, Minsberg in January flipped the switch on a redesigned website. The site is a hybrid that aims to fill a gap in the marketplace, Minsberg said. To that end, it offers a selection comparable with that of online retailers and the personalized service of speciality showrooms such as Creative Lighting.
Launching a new website in a downturn also lives up to Minsberg's nature as an optimist who is more than willing to go against the grain.
"In a contracting business environment, to be spending money on a new business is a very contrarian way to come to market," Minsberg said. "But it seems to us the exact right time to execute, especially when there is a point in the market that's not being properly serviced."
That's not to say that Creative Lighting hasn't felt the effects of the souring economy, especially as new home construction -- formerly a staple -- has plummeted, Minsberg said. Revenue, close to $5 million in 2008, has been flat in recent years, Minsberg said. The store has 20 employees, down a few positions from a couple of years ago, when the slowdown in home starts began.
Minsberg said he wasn't sure what the redesigned website might add this year, estimating an increase of perhaps 10 to 25 percent of total sales.
An increase in remodeling projects, particularly in bathrooms and dining rooms, has kept sales going during the downturn, said Tami Stauffacher, sales coordinator and lighting specialist. New lighting fixtures are an easy, relatively inexpensive way to update a house or to stage it for sale.
The store's bargain room, with discontinued or one-of-a-kind fixtures, also is seeing greater traffic, Stauffacher said.
Minsberg, who oversees operations, owns the store with his brother Jonathan, who handles purchasing.
Their grandfather founded the store in 1926. It moved in the 1960s from its original location, on the site now occupied by the Xcel Energy Center, to its 15,000-square-foot showroom near Snelling Avenue and Interstate 94.
While residential construction likely will rebound over time, Minsberg said, he's not waiting for that to happen.
"I can't control that, so I might as well essentially ignore that market now," Minsberg said. "So how do I grow the business? That's the focus and that's why we have this new [online] business."
The key advantage of the site is its direct integration with the store's inventory, said Stauffacher, who headed the website redesign. Customers can browse online to see what's immediately available from the in-store stock of more than 2,000 fixtures, Stauffacher said. They can pick up a fixture to complete a weekend project or have it delivered to a home or an office.
Within 90 days, Minsberg said, the online selection will grow to 30,000 to 35,000 fixtures, covering everything from inexpensive to high-end fixtures and traditional to contemporary. The bulk of those will come from other vendors, and usually will be delivered within seven to 10 days.
Shoppers also can create online wish lists before visiting or while they are in the showroom, Stauffacher said.
And they can select a lighting consultant to work with online or in the store, and can work with that consultant in person, via e-mail or over the phone during and after a purchase, Stauffacher said. The store's staff averages at least a decade of experience in the lighting business.
"The service with the national e-tailers is completely slow motion," Minsberg said. "If you've got a problem, we're right here. We're in everybody's back yard. We can take care of it much faster."
The showroom draws many customers from the Twin Cities' eastern and western suburbs, and hopes to expand its reach within the state through the website, Minsberg said.
"We're focusing on primarily as far as Alexandria to the north and Rochester in the south," he said. "We're not trying necessarily to be a national competitor. But there's certainly enough business within 150 miles of here to lead us into the next generation."
Creative Lighting also is positioning itself as a pioneer in energy-efficient, or green, lighting, something customers increasingly are asking for, Minsberg said.
The store offers a selection of light-emitting diode fixtures, and an LED bulb typically will last 20 years. Stauffacher said it likely would take 50 incandescent or 10 compact fluorescent lamps to match that life span.
But the LED technology is more expensive, with some bulbs ranging from $40 to $150 each, compared with compact fluorescent lamps that cost $10 to $12, she said.
Longtime customer Elyse Rabinowitz said that she has gone to Creative Lighting for small projects and to find lighting for the new home her family moved into a couple of years ago.
"Going there to do a major project was based on the good business experiences that we'd had there through the past 20-some years," Rabinowitz said. "They were very good in helping us see a variety of more modern fixtures, because that's the style we were interested in. [The salesperson] was helpful, thorough and creative in terms of giving us different options. If it wasn't quite right, we were able to change out a couple we needed to change for technical reasons."
The experts says: Carmina Cavazos, assistant professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said this is a good time for Creative Lighting to launch its website.
"Even though the economy is bad, the investment can give them a higher return," Cavazos said.
But the company has to have a clear objective for the site and needs to measure how people use it and how they find it, she added.
Cavazos recommended a cautious, focused approach. Expecting a new site to increase sales, appeal to a broader market and expand its product range may be too much. Cavazos suggested starting with a site that explains the company's strengths, presents its products and introduces a product line that is not available in the store to help gauge user interest.