Natural Foods Merchandiser

Think 'aesthetics first' in upgrading store lighting

What does lighting say about your store? Does it guide customers through the aisles and highlight products you want them to see? Does it provide a natural, inviting atmosphere where people feel comfortable and enjoy spending time, or does it provide a harsh monochromatic effect that may subconsciously drive them away?

Good lighting creates an ambiance for your store and helps to attract customers, makes products look appealing and facilitates customer buying and satisfaction. Balancing costs, energy savings and quality can be a challenge if you want to upgrade the lighting in your store. What you might save in energy use can be lost in sales if you have a poorly designed and executed plan.

Start with the fundamentals of good lighting design, says Bridget Williams, of Bridget Williams Lighting Design in Apple Valley, Calif. “Good lighting doesn't start with the fixtures,” she says. “It starts with the source of the light—can it produce the right amount and color of light, and can it be aimed at the right place? If it can't do that, then it won't work to make the products in your store look nice.”

Lighting style basics
There are two basic approaches to lighting design for retail, according to Edward Bartholomew, a lighting specialist for the Integrated Design Lab/Puget Sound at the College of Built Environments, University of Washington. The first approach is uniform with no visual hierarchy. Calling this “the warehouse approach,” Bartholomew says it works well in big stores that focus on volume. “It is functional, but there is no drama or contrast, so it is seen as institutional rather than high-end,” he says.

The second approach creates a distinct visual hierarchy throughout the store that emphasizes vertical surfaces or product displays. The technique, Bartholomew says, uses accents or spotlighting to create contrast that directs people through the store. Contrast is defined by using brighter lighting on objects in the foreground as opposed to those in the background. “It is first noticeable at a ratio of three to one,” he says. “Good ratios for retail are between 10 and 15 to one.” Commonly used in high-end and small boutiques, this approach helps draw customers deeper into the store, giving them more opportunities to find something they want to buy.

Applying style to your store
It is not uncommon in natural product stores to use a combination of the two approaches, because different store departments present unique lighting challenges. High-contrast lighting works well for the produce department, while general ambient lighting is better for aisles at the center for the store. Skylights, Bartholomew says, are one of the best ways to create a dynamic, natural healthy atmosphere in a store. “When possible add them,” he advises. However, skylights are not good for the produce department because they allow in ultraviolet light, which causes products to spoil faster.

Delis, on the other hand, have two lighting zones. The counter needs lighting that will showcase the quality of the food and make it look natural and appetizing. At the same time, the prep area needs good illumination, but the light shouldn't bleed to the counter or public area. This is where retailers often make mistakes, Bartholomew says. “Product in the deli case will not look special if lighting is bleeding onto it from the prep area. Too much light will not give customers the impression that they are buying something special—it will seem more like a cafeteria. They want it to be fresh and unique, as opposed to someone slopping soup into a bowl,” he says.

Setting the mood with color
Beyond brightness and contrast, lighting color will also create mood while contributing to the natural and appealing look of products. The current prevailing wisdom among lighting experts is the closer to natural the better. Lamps have a color temperature, measured on the Kelvin scale, which indicates how cool or warm the light feels. Color temperature has three ranges. Lights in the 3,000K range are a warmish golden color; 3,500K is neutral and has enough blue and red to make things look natural; 4,100K has more blue. In choosing temperature, Bartholomew says, you can't go wrong with 3,000K to 3,500K—4,100K would be very adventurous.”

Lamps also have a color-rendering index, which measures how effective light is in making items look true to their real color—as you might see them in sunlight. A score of 100 is considered perfect. For retail, most of the newer fluorescent lamps have a CRI of 85 or higher, which is where you want to be, Williams says. She adds that lamp color can make a huge difference in how products appear. A lamp with a lower CRI might bring out the yellow color in lemons—but put a cantaloupe next to it, and it will look gray. If the light is blue, the cantaloupe will look good but the lemon won't.

And it's not just about product. Lighting will affect how employees and customers appear as well. We have red in our skin, and if lights are too blue, “people will look like they're dead,” Bartholomew says.

Beyond brightness and contrast, lighting color will also create mood.

Learn from the professionals
It is always advisable to get professional help to do any lighting upgrade. Help can come from a variety of sources: certified lighting consultants, architects, manufacturers and local utility services. There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter installation, says Ron Horstman, executive director of energy services for the Western Area Power Authority, a part of the Department of Energy. “It is not easy, and it takes a lot of technical experience,” he says, stressing that retailers should analyze options and cost before doing anything.

Both Williams and Bartholomew recommend working with a qualified designer or consultant who is certified with the International Association of Lighting Designers and who specializes in retail. Typically, hourly fees are similar to that of architects—about $150 per hour. A basic three-hour consultation might be enough for a smaller project, Bartholomew says. “But you get what you pay for, and it might be worth it for a consultation that would help fine tune the project and show some modeling analysis.”

Karen Raterman is a Denver-based freelance writer.

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