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Neighbors Growing Together | Nov 24, 2017

Hiawatha’s Lighting Sales climbs to one of Amazon’s top sellers

By Steve Gravelle, The Gazette | Oct 26, 2017

HIAWATHA — Click over to Lighting Sales’ Amazon storefront page, and you’ll find most of the items aren’t lighting-related. Sure, there are light bulbs and batteries of all descriptions, but there are also refrigerator thermometers, garbage disposals, step ladders and a “high-capacity moisture absorber.”

It’s the mundane kind of merchandise you may not need every day — but when you need it, you really need it.

“The things we sell aren’t brand new, you-haven’t-heard-of things,” company founder and managing partner Les Lehs said.

“They’re existing things that we can be charging less money for and are willing to take less money for than our competitors.”

The other partners are Leh’s wife Jeri and their son, Taylor.

The eclectic product line is the result of what Lehs calls “just a wild hair” of an idea.

“It was the week before Thanksgiving in 2013,” he recalled. “Could we get some Christmas business by listing a few items on Amazon? I just tried to put out a variety of things I thought would be interesting and that our supplier showed had been selling.

“We started getting sales, and so I started putting a few more and we started getting more and more sales. Pretty soon, the demand just overwhelmed us.”

To that point, Lighting Sales had pretty much stuck to its original niche-within-a-niche market: lighting fixtures and other electrical supplies, chiefly for nursing homes. It’s a field Lehs cultivated over 16 years working for a local wholesaler, a job that fell victim to the Great Recession of 2008-09.

“I was the health care facilities specialist,” he said. “Clinics, but mostly nursing homes, the majority of them around the Midwest, but I had smatterings of them across the country.”

Both customers and the vendors Lehs worked with at his old job followed him when he struck out on his own in April 2009, literally working from his basement.

“I was able to continue on with the same customer base for quite some time,” he said. “They knew they had a knowledgeable person they could contact who would know the answers to their questions. It was slow at first, like it usually is.”

Jeri did the bookkeeping on nights and weekends until 2011, when she became Lighting Sales’ second full-time employee. Taylor joined in 2013, a few months before Les Lehs’ Amazon experiment.

“We’ve been having to keep on hiring employees because the business just keeps getting bigger and bigger, year after year and month after month,” Lehs said.

Ten full-time employees now work out of the unassuming brick office building the company purchased last year.

“I think most people would be surprised to see one of Amazon’s top sellers is located right here in Hiawatha,” said Les Lehs. “You wouldn’t know it to look at us.”

The vast majority of the company’s sales are shipped directly from suppliers. There’s a modest stock of boxes and packing materials for the occasional exceptions.

“We do ship a few, a very small amount of things out of here, but that’s increasingly smaller and smaller,” Lehs said.

“Last quarter, 49 percent of sales on Amazon come from third-party sellers such as us, and there are over 5 million sellers currently on Amazon,” Lehs said. “We’re currently in that top one percent.”

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