Bright Ideas

Bright Ideas Experts offer advice on how to choose an attractive and cost-effective retail lighting system.
by : 

Cheryl Reeves

November 1, 2011

Providing customers with a highly attractive shopping environment is one of the key factors in supporting retail sales. And, at the most basic level, a store cannot begin to optimize profits without a proper lighting system. Not only will lighting enhance the presentation of your merchandise, it also affects the mood of shoppers in your store.

To create a modern identity (and brand your image) by using creative lighting techniques, there is much to consider in advance, starting with cost. By spending a little time and money, planning a better lighting scheme can really pay off in higher sales and repeat shoppers.

Good lighting is an important strategic advantage, sending a message to consumers about the quality of merchandise, price points, and even the kind of service they will receive while shopping. Special lighting techniques such as spotlighting corners or areas where thieves may stash merchandise can deter shoplifters. It’s also key to make sure dressing rooms and restrooms are pleasantly lit.

Two kinds of light: ambient and accent

In order to create drama and stimulate visual interest, experts recommend a combination of fluorescent general lighting and accent lighting.

Brian Weltman, owner and creative director of the design firm Retail Habitats says the biggest mistake to avoid is not lighting a store enough. A dark store, he says, does not sell much merchandise.

“Typically, small gift stores are going to have dropped ceilings with fluorescent lighting for overall ambient light,” Weltman says. “The best/easiest/cheapest way to address these fluorescent lights is to replace the diffusers. They often feature basic plastic diffusers that you find in any office.” He explains that retailers can upgrade their fluorescent lighting by installing parabolic diffusers that serve to soften the way light is dispersed.

At her store, Lady of the Lake in Temecula, Calif., owner Linda Smith recently installed more energy-efficient overhead tube lighting. Since her store is in an older building, she had some restrictions to overcome. “You’ve got to work with the age of your building, and ours is almost 40 years old,” says Smith, who also notes she supplemented her general lighting with energy-efficient lamps set on pillars placed in key selling areas around her store.

As indispensable as quality lighting is, it also represents a retailer’s biggest energy expense, so efficient options that give you the best light for your energy dollar are key. David Apfel, lighting expert and founder of David Apfel Lighting Design, says retailers can take advantage of compact fluorescent lighting. “Compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) is available in a variety of sizes, shapes, and wattages. It provides excellent color rendering and color temperature options,” he says. “In addition, CFL has a very long lamp life and offers a lot of light for very little energy.” And, although incandescent halogen is currently everyone’s favorite, it may not be possible in new construction where energy codes apply. Apfel suggests considering 20 or 39-watt metal halide.

He adds that a general-lighting-only solution results in dark spots. He also reminds retailers to make sure they change the aim of accent lights every time a floor fixture is moved and a product display is rotated or otherwise modified. Further, he suggests placing adjustable accent lights directly over the aisle; this is a great position for this type of lighting to accent store fixtures along the aisle.

Melanie McIntosh, owner of Inspire Retail Solutions, says merchants should make sure they are using the correct bulb in their fixtures. Moreover, she emphasizes that bulbs are available with a variety of beam widths and color temperatures. The beam can focus light on a display as a spotlight or wash a wall with illumination as a flood light.

“Color temperature is important to the mood of the store,” states McIntosh. “It also alters the way colors are perceived. Lighting can appear to be warm or cool. The color temperature of light is measured in degrees of Kelvin. Retail lighting is often between 3,000 and 4,000 degrees Kelvin.” The lower the number, the warmer (more yellow or red) the light, with the typical 60W incandescent bulb being around 2,700 degrees Kelvin. McIntosh advises retailers to check for color temperature on lamp packaging before purchasing.

Shedding new light on energy costs

In lighting design, due to fast-evolving technology, innovations abound. “L.E.D. lighting is the hot new thing,” reports Apfel. “Its small size allows it to be built into many store display fixtures. Retailers can cut energy costs by using fluorescent and metal halide lighting.”

Weltman agrees that L.E.D. is the cutting-edge way to lighten up. Even though L.E.D. track fixtures cost more up front, a store owner gains in the long term. “While 75W or 50W incandescents are a cheap way to go initially,” he says, “they won’t be doing you any favors as far as energy costs, and they need to be replaced often.”

Instead, he suggests retailers compare $65 per L.E.D. with about $5 for a standard incandescent lamp. Even though the L.E.D. is considerably pricier, overall energy costs will be less because they last between 50,000 and 65,000 hours.

Candace Apple, the owner of Phoenix & Dragon Bookstore in Atlanta, Ga., says in the last few years she has added additional track lights in her store to focus on particular displays. “Special displays are lit with halogen spotlights. I’ve increased the number that use less electricity,” she notes, adding that the spotlights have a convenient transformer box right next to them. Apple says she would love to start transitioning soon to L.E.D. lighting for her jewelry and crystal counters.

To combine lighting methods, Apple uses full-spectrum fluorescents throughout her store. “They are a bit more expensive, but give a more daylight effect. We use natural daylight for much additional lighting. Behind the crystal display is a full wall of glass block windows, which lets in the light without distracting visual stimuli to interfere with the product.”

In the business of lighting design, daylighting is the art of combining natural light with effective internal lighting. This helps maximize visual effect with a reduction in energy use. Electric light usage can be reduced by installing fewer bulbs because daylight is present. One can also dim lights automatically in response to the presence of daylight.

“One of the coolest innovations I have seen lately is a product called Solatube,” says Weltman. “Solatube is basically a skylight that is installed to look like a light fixture but actually provides natural daylight. They come with a whole bunch of diffuser options, and you can also add a light to them as well for nighttime.” Additionally, Weltman says Solatube is a big energy saver and affordable for even a small retailer to install.

More ways to save

When shopping for lighting, take advantage of even more savings strategies, including rebates, says McIntosh. “There may be incentive programs in your area to help businesses install more efficient lighting to lower long-term energy costs.”

Another savings strategy McIntosh recommends is asking for expert help. Instead of going to a general hardware store or big-box store, she advises heading straight to a dedicated lighting store. Even with a low budget, retailers can save by getting the best lighting they can afford with the help of trained sales staff that can offer guidance in selecting products for specific needs.

“A lighting consultant can also help ensure that you have the right levels of light for different areas of the store, such as higher levels for cash desks and other task areas,” notes McIntosh. “With a lighting consultant, you can look at options for using different lighting at different times of the day. This can reduce energy costs by only using some lighting when it is needed.”

Another tip she offers is replacing lamps and ballasts. New energy-efficient lamps are available for existing fixtures, and only the best lamps should be used. Ballasts also can be upgraded for existing fixtures, and by doing so, retailers will save even more money by reducing energy costs.

Among budget-minded retailers, there is always the temptation to cut costs by selecting the lowest-priced lighting methods available. Experts urge retailers to consider the big picture. “It’s all about asking yourself what is more important: up-front costs or residual costs,” says Weltman. “Many people get sticker shock with the higher end products and go the cheap route but end up paying more in energy, replacing fixtures, and manpower hours of employees changing light bulbs when they could be spending their time on the sales floor.”

Apfel says retailers need to make peace with paying a bit more for new, energy-efficient lighting. “On the positive side,” he notes, “long lamp life and low energy consumption will offset the initial cost over time.”

Finally, retailers should pay attention to the proper cleaning and maintenance their system requires. Well-maintained lighting will not only give objects more distinction and character but also serve to attract more appreciative customers.