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Lighting to Sell - Retail Lighting for Small Shops

There are many contract lighting consultants ready to work on retail lighting design for a 100,000 square foot department store. Affordable retail lighting advice for the small store or boutique owner, however, is more difficult to come by. This article outlines simple lighting strategies to help the small retail store owner increase overall sales by using lighting to:

  • create an inviting shopping environment to attract and keep customers in the store longer
  • focus shopper attention on merchandise to maximize opportunities for purchase
  • communicate quality and exclusivity of merchandise

Lighting Various Business Types
To begin, let’s put a little structure around your intuitive understanding of why different lighting types should be used in different retail environments. Grocery stores, drug stores and fast food restaurants all sell sought goods. When people run out of cereal, they go to the grocery. Customers seeking these goods will find the nearest store to complete the purchase. Once the customer enters the store, the purchase is essentially a foregone conclusion…the customer needs just enough light to find the product they are seeking. Naturally, price competition ensues in such markets and sought goods retailers do everything to keep costs down. This is an ideal environment for general illumination using cost-effective fluorescent fixtures.

But what if you operate a business selling goods that people don’t necessarily seek out every day? What if you are more interested in increasing revenues rather than saving a few cents a month on your electricity bill? In short, what if you run a small boutique shop and you just want to attract customers? Lighting in these retail environments plays a critical roll in the success or failure of the business and therefore requires a little more thought.

Lighting to Sell
To make merchandise in a front window or on a prominent display ‘pop’ and thus attract customers, keep two lighting principles in mind: contrast and color. Overall brightness isn’t as important when lighting your merchandise as is the relative brightness of the merchandise. If the general, ambient lighting in your store is very bright then accent lighting on your merchandise will have little effect. If ambient lighting is low, accent lighting will create significant contrast and the merchandise will stand out and command the attention of customers.

To keep customers in the store, you must create a welcoming, comfortable lighting environment. This will occur naturally if you keep ambient lighting levels at a low to moderate level and carefully aim your accent lights to prevent glare. The subtle, resulting effect is to place merchandise on stage while placing customers in a more relaxed ‘off stage’ observer roll.

Clearly, the harsh, cold, flickering light produced by fluorescent fixtures is a poor choice on all fronts. It delivers too much ambient light which makes accent lighting ineffective in contrasting your merchandise, it dramatically reduces the color impact of your merchandise and the harsh glare makes many people uncomfortable. Fluorescent lighting should never be used in higher end retail environments.

So, What Type of Lighting Should I Use?
The most cost effective solution to keep ambient light levels down while introducing sufficient accent lighting in your store is track, monorail or cable lighting. Each of these systems allows multiple fixtures to be run from a single point of power which will keep electrician costs low. The multi-head nature of each system allows you to quickly and easily focus light on existing displays or re-aim fixtures at new displays.

Track lighting is the most cost effective of these options. Track lighting may be suspended below the ceiling and may typically be installed in just a few minutes. Monorail and cable lighting offer the same benefits of track, but the sleek styling of these systems allows them to be used as a design element themselves. Monorail may be shaped in gentle curves while tensioned cable lighting systems essentially disappear to produce a floating effect for the suspended fixtures.

Whichever type of system you choose, fixtures should point almost directly down to prevent browsing customer from casting shadows on the merchandise as they walk. If you cannot aim a fixture down without crossing the traffic path of customers, try to aim two or more fixtures at the same display to minimize single-light source shadow effects.

The Importance of Color
When choosing a lighting system, consider the color rendering index (CRI) of your lighting. The Color Rendering Index of a lamp (aka light bulb) is a measure of its ability to display the colors of illuminated objects. More specifically, CRI is a number between 1 (monochromatic light) and 100 (the sun) representing the breadth of the visible light spectrum a light source emits. For example, fluorescent lamps such as those in office buildings and many kitchens obviously have a very low color rendering index. Many colors look the same or nearly the same

under such light. Most incandescent lamps have very high CRIs. Unfortunately, they lack precise directional characteristics desired when lighting art. One benefit of low-voltage track and cable systems is that they typically make use of halogen lamps. Halogen lamps combine nearly perfect color rendering abilities (typically 100) with precise beam control. Color Temperature is another factor determining how colors appear to the eye under a specific lamp. The concept is fairly intuitive in that warm colors will be more vibrant under ‘warm’ lamps and cool colors are richer under ‘cooler’ light sources. Incandescent bulbs emit warm, if not yellow, light while halogen lamps such as those found in most contemporary track lighting, cable lighting and monorail lighting systems emit extremely white light in the mid to slightly warm range.

In short, halogen lamps are excellent choices when lighting merchandise.

Communicating Quality
Cheap lighting is surprisingly obvious. Lighting in higher end stores should match the desired perceived quality of the merchandise. Accent lighting on small groupings of merchandise lends an air of exclusivity and quality to the store and its merchandise.

Don’t Forget the Rest of the Store
Fixtures with high CRIs should be used in other critical, but often overlooked, areas as well. Dressing rooms are key since you want merchandise to look its best in these environments. Consider using recessed lighting in dressing rooms. Sconces are another good choice in dressing rooms. Placed on either side of the mirror, sconces help to minimize unflattering shadows while trying on new clothes.

Cashier stations and customer service areas require ample task lighting to make them functional as well as approachable and easy to find.

Lighting a small retail boutique is more involved than lighting a grocery, but the importance of proper retail lighting should not be underestimated. Proper use of accent lighting with understated general illumination can transform an unremarkable small shop into a delightful shopping experience.


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