(Editor’s Note: This week, we begin a new three-part series on local, longtime businesses that have carved their own niche in the downtown area. Look for the second feature story in the March 21 issue.)
Oakdale is home to the largest lighting showroom in Stanislaus County. With close to 3,000 fixtures in about 3,200 square feet on the showroom floors, as well as two floors worth of products in warehousing, that’s a lot of light.
Owner Louie Norton opened the downtown store named Northern Lights more than 25 years ago. He has been in the business for 32 years altogether. He had a partner the first five years and then went into business for himself, opening the doors to the F Street shop in 1987.
Northern Lights has weathered the ups and downs in the economy and has evolved and adapted in its niche market to stay on the cutting edge with the newest products, while still providing personalized service to its clientele.
“The longevity of being here is the only reason we’re still here,” Norton said.
He’s in an industry that constantly changes, he said, noting that it went from beautiful chandeliers in entries and dining rooms to now being mostly can lighting in those areas. He added that the success of the business has been because they’ve been able to diversify and the “good people of Oakdale” have supported the business. He believes that’s because of good customer service and knowledgeable staff.
“It’s our interfacing with our customers that come in that brings them back again,” he said.
He’s worked with many contractors and interior decorators over the years and now, he noted, he’s working with their children.
When the economy was booming, Norton said that because Northern Lights is both a wholesale and retail business, he knew several contractors and developers and would bid lighting and some electrical jobs on new building. Then the tide started to turn when the bottom fell out of the housing market and the new builds halted. He said that the wholesale market has dramatically decreased, so now it’s mostly retail.
Norton reported that one thing the business did to adapt was to close on Sundays and Mondays, which allowed him to retain his employees and not have to lay off anyone. The business started out as strictly a family operation, but now he also has non-family employees and they have all been there for at least 16 years or more.
Northern Lights has also diversified over the years. The store deals in interior and exterior lighting, landscape lighting, industrial and commercial lighting, and also carries home and garden décor.
“You’ve got to diversify,” Norton said. “Now we have more lamps on display… more novelty items for the home.”
Additionally, the store carries a variety of light bulbs, can get the specialty types such as those for projectors or cameras, and can track down those hard to find, “dinosaur” lamp bulbs. He said employees can explain about candescent, fluorescent, and LED lights. They also do lamp repair.
“We’re not only one of the best lamp repairmen in the valley right now, we’re the least expensive,” Norton said.
He’s also a member of the American Lighting Association, which opens doors to 3,300 American manufacturing companies and offers education for store owners to stay on the cutting edge.
“You’ll find zero products in ‘big box’ stores that belong to the American Lighting Association,” Norton said.
He reported that it used to be that stores had to be exclusive in carrying certain companies’ products, but that’s changing now. Northern Lights represents or carries eight of the top 10 fan companies and can order others not in stock.
“A lot of people know they can buy a good, noise free, wobble free fan here,” he said.
He stated that a larger selection and the best products can be found at a specialty store.
“A lot of people misunderstand that. ‘big box’ doesn’t mean you’re getting the best price or the best product,” Norton said.
He explained that lighting is different than appliances when it comes to the big box stores. With lighting and ceiling fans, in a big box store, a brand may be recognizable but it will be that brand’s lower quality line. Plus, trying to find knowledgeable help in a big box store can sometimes be a challenge. He said that anyone concerned about lighting should go to the experts in a lighting specialty store instead of a big box store.
“We’re hands on… Our goal is to have every customer walk out with a smile on their face,” Norton said, adding that they want to make sure their clients have the right product.
As an example, he said outdoor lighting has always been important for people’s security. In choosing outdoor lighting, such as a front porch light, there is a rule of thumb to follow for the size of the fixture and wattage. He said they can help customers choose the right lighting based on the customer’s goal, as well as what’s best and the most-efficient.
Northern Lights also offers a free magazine in-store to clients about the type of lighting available on the market and the store also has a website where patrons can shop and contractors can submit bids at www.northernlightsoakdale.com.