Tropical Lights’ stylish oil and electronic candles can set the mood, providing just the right ambiance at a restaurant table for two, on a hotel bedside stand or at holiday gathering at home. Some of the Fort Lauderdale company’s products offer aromatherapy, in scents like lavender, hot apple pie and French vanilla. But they are not necessity items.

And therein lies a problem in troubled economic times. The hospitality industry is Tropical Lights’ biggest client, but it’s tough to convince a restaurant to beautify its tables when the eatery is worried about keeping its doors open.

Sales are picking up this year but are still down more than 30 percent from pre-recession levels, said Jay Cullimore, president of Tropical Lights. The company knew it needed to explore new sales channels, so Cullimore and his business partner and vice president, Sue Kovarik, turned to The Miami Herald and Broward SCORE for a Small Business Makeover.

Cullimore and Kovarik founded Tropical Lights a decade ago. Sensing correctly that interest in Internet retail would explode, they formed an online business for mood lighting products for consumer and commercial markets.

Through the years the team has added many related products and accessories to their lines. For restaurants, with fire codes becoming more stringent, EcoLytes flameless candles are best sellers, along with a variety of candleholders and illuminated menus. For the consumer market, oil candles and aromatherapy products sell particularly well. “We provide mood,” Kovarik said.

They have six product divisions and have added multiple e-commerce sites, such as TropicalLights.com, eOilCandles.com, RestaurantLights.com, InnLights.com, FireRockdesigns.com and MoodLyte.com. Tropical Lights’ products also sell on Amazon.com (oilcandlesplus.com) and Buy.com. Their products sell worldwide, including to a distributor in Iceland, Cullimore said.

“I don’t want to be the past, I want to be the future. I want to be the next level of retail marketing and private branding,” said Cullimore, who has experience in electronics design and manufacturing and has started other businesses. “I want to do it all and I want to learn how to do it right but it is moving so fast.”

How SCORE helped. 

To help the Tropical Lights team do that, the makeover was conducted by three counselors from Broward SCORE, a chapter of a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to helping entrepreneurs. Dave Harris, with a background in marketing who led the makeover team, Steve Fleisch, a marketing expert with SMF Services, and Jan Wild, president of Success Through Enhanced Performance, specialize in helping more mature companies, like Tropical Lights.

“We think you have a very good business with quality products and good brand recognition and good customer service,” Harris told Cullimore and Kovarik. “But these are tough times, unusual times, and it might be time to say you know what, let’s get some new sales channels, even if the profit margin may be lower.”

Increasing sales to existing customers is the fastest way to boost revenue, the Broward SCORE team said, but Tropical Lights has no full-time sales staff.

While Cullimore wants to hire a national sales manager, Wild urged him to first hire one or two phone-sales people immediately for about $12 an hour plus commission to focus on his existing commercial accounts. Management will provide the training, write a script for the sales person and monitor the results. Wild also offered him an assessment to use when hiring a phone-sales person.

“Telemarketing — we all hate it,” Wild said. “But it is the cheapest, most effective way of generating revenue.”

Noting that Tropical Lights has an impressive existing customer base of 20,000 that the company is not tapping into adequately, Wild and Harris also suggested establishing a customer management system (CRM) with callbacks to customers at pre-established intervals.

“I am always looking for the automated way, going to the masses and see what we get,” Cullimore said. “But this is direct and I know it will be effective and it is something we just ignored.”

They talked about plans for their holiday campaigns — this time of the year is prime for consumer sales — and Kovarik, with deep experience in advertising and web design, already had campaigns in the works.

“We put some gift packs together specifically for the holidays on Amazon. For consumers, we do buy one, get one frees, we give free shipping,” said Kovarik, adding that candles sell well for nearly all holidays. “We do a lot of weddings. We sell a lot of floating oil candles.”

“Men like to buy packs, they buy good stuff and they buy at the last minute,” Cullimore added.

The company’s Fire Rock candles and Wolfard oil lamps sell well for corporate gifts, Cullimore said. One insurance company, for example, had Tropical Lights’ products sent to every employee on their birthday.

“That’s great, but what can you do to promote that?” Fleisch asked.

They also talked about new sales channels — tapping interior designers and home stagers, for instance. Commercial accounts are still the company’s No. 1 revenue-generator — its largest sale to date was to the W hotel in Fort Lauderdale. But getting into retail stores will be important to build the brand, Harris said. For example, Tropical Lights sells CitraScent torch fuel. “I hated going to Home Depot and not seeing your product there,” Harris said.

He suggested making it a goal to get into one major retail store next quarter, at least on the regional level.

What about an affiliate sales network for home parties where consumers could try out the products as scents could waft through the air? This would be a home-based business opportunity for people who would like to make extra money selling the products, and having a lot of people selling a little adds up, Fleisch said.

For this, offer a selection of products, not the whole line, he said. It could start in South Florida, where the Tropical Lights team could provide the training, monitor the process and gather feedback, and then the model could be rolled out nationally.

Cullimore thought these parties could be virtual.

“If you can clone the product line so each seller has their own website, that’s cool, but remember your product line is a touchy feely thing that really shows well in a home party atmosphere,” Fleisch replied. “It’s hard to share a scent on a computer video.”

Next the SCORE team took a look at their websites and search engine optimization.

While the company ranks very high on some key words such as “oil candles” and “scented candle oil,” for instance, there are other key words that are more highly searched, such as “flameless candles” and “electronic candles,” where it does not rank as high. While keywords that get more searches are harder to dominate, it would still help to study and use them in the sites, Fleisch said.

More advice: Think local.

“I know your business is global, but don’t lose sight that local is easy to dominate,” Fleisch said. “Do a Google Places page, it’s free to set up, you can hide your address if you want. That way when people search locally, your store comes up even though it’s online. Down the road if you have an affiliate network, there could be Google Places pages for many locations.”

Tropical Lights has four videos on its own YouTube channel, and the SCORE team recommended adding more. “Show your passion in them and make sure they are key word rich,” Fleisch said.

Other suggestions for the Tropical Lights team:

• Blog. It can be time-consuming but you can hire writers cheaply, Wild said.

• Add a prominent opt-in on all websites. Consider communicating news, special promotions and contests through text message campaigns because the open rate on a text is 90 percent, much higher than email, and it’s opened within hours rather than days.

• Continue with email newsletters but use text messages to announce them — “we just sent out our newsletter with specials, check it out.”

• Make a big deal of your 10-year anniversary because it is a milestone to be proud of, Harris said.

• Add QR codes. Make sure the codes lead to a mobile-friendly page where customers get more information.

“You’re savvy business people and we have enjoyed working with you,” Harris told Cullimore and Kovarik. “What we would recommend is take one bite at a time and implement the recommendations as you can.”

Cullimore and Kovarik said they are already working on their Facebook presence and also their exposure in the local market. For instance, they recently participated in a holiday craft fair in Davie and Small Business Saturday. They’ve been working on their keyword review, and Kovarik has been exploring QR codes. Cullimore said they plan to hire a sales person early next year, and they plan to continue to seek advice from the counselors.

“Being in business for 10 years, Jay and I have often said we’re the only entrepreneurs we know,” Kovarik said. “We don’t have mentors or people to talk to. The makeover has been very refreshing and helpful to us.”

By Nancy Dahlberg ndahlberg@miamiherald.com

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Tropical Lights of Fort Lauderdale explores sales strategies