[Editor’s Note: This is the first story in an occasional series from the Business Times called "Stories of Survival."]
For local niche businesses looking to stand up against the competition of big box stores, there’s a lamp glowing at the end of the tunnel.
That’s because Santa Barbara Lampshades, a custom lampshade store that has been in business for 20 years, is thriving in the era of Wal-Mart and Target. “It seems to be one of those businesses that no matter how the economy is doing, does well,” said owner and manager Nancy Sanchez.
The secret to her success and the advantage she holds over the Wal-Marts of the world is customization and customer care.
“We give people what they want,” Sanchez said. “Everyone probably needs a lampshade at some point. So we can make something that they already need and make it unique. It becomes something that they can’t pick up at a place like Target, and yet it’s still affordable.”
The store has more than 3,000 lampshades in stock, but also makes custom lamps, does lamp repairs and re-wiring and sells everything from bulbs and lamp parts to chandelier sleeves. Clients include not only the general public but also interior designers and contractors. And come from as far north as Paso Robles just to visit her store, Sanchez said.
She estimated that about 25 percent of the lamps sold in her store are custom rather than ready-made. Some people bring in specific fabrics they want used for a shade, and others bring in whole objects, such as vases, that they want incorporated into a lamp.
“Just yesterday, a woman brought in a crystal decanter which I wired and made into a lamp,” Sanchez said. She and her team of four employees – all women – can wire almost any suitable object, Sanchez added.
People often bring in found objects, knick knacks lying around the house and even family heirlooms to have them wired and fitted with a shade. Other times, she’s helped customers who purchase lamps while traveling abroad and need the plugs rewired. A custom shade from Santa Barbara Lampshades costs about $100, and a quick lamp repair about $20.
A recent day was busy at the store. As usual, Sanchez was there, because she believes that personal involvement in her business is what sets her apart from her department-store competitors – many of whom are struggling in the midst of sharp nationwide declines in retail sales.
“I’m as busy as ever here,” she said. “Maybe it’s because a lampshade is kind of a comforting thing. People go out less and spend more time at home now because of the economy. A nice lamp can really make a room.”
With an associate degree in art from Santa Barbara City College, Sanchez said she’s always been creatively inclined, but the chance to open her own store happened 20 years ago when Mission Lamp and Fixture, where she was working at the time, went out of business.
It was then that she decided to take the leap and start her own business. Within six weeks of opening its doors, the store was holding its own.
“I had a feeling from the beginning that it would do well,” Sanchez said. “But still, it’s such a fear for people to try to open their own business. I remember how afraid I was that first day.”
She laughs too when she thinks back on the reactions some had when she said she was opening the business. “I had a lot of friends who just looked at me like I was crazy and said, ‘You’re going to open a store and make lampshades?’”
Now, of course, Sanchez knows that when that light bulb turns on, you have to take the idea and go with it.
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