November 2017 //

Shining a Light on Retail Lighting

By Brad Barbee

When working with a retail client to create or update a store environment, there are many factors to consider. A lot of thought and discussion goes into selecting on-trend finishes and furnishings, as well as designing the ideal layout and flow. As designers, we dwell on the details to create comfortable, inviting spaces that are the best statement of our client’s brand and will help drive sales. But all these efforts can be in vain if we forget to consider one of the most important elements of a successful space: lighting.

It’s important to start the conversation about lighting and control systems as early as possible. During schematic design, as we are sketching ideas, lighting should be part of assessing the different routes a project can take. Doing so will help eliminate oversights that can hinder successful lighting design and ultimately a store’s profitability.

Below are the five lighting topics I recommend addressing with retail clients early in the design process.

1. Fitting rooms

What happens in the fitting room can make or break a sale. A recent study revealed more than 70 percent of shoppers who try on clothes become buyers. Too often, I see brands impede this crucial part of the buying decision process by featuring intense overhead lighting in fitting rooms.

Overhead lighting that is too direct (not diffused or softened appropriately) not only makes merchandise look unappealing, but can cause customers to feel unattractive before they even try clothes on.

The best thing clients can do to prevent a negative scenario in the dressing room is to invest in illuminated mirrors that provide frontal lighting. These mirrors should be supplemented with strategically-placed ambient fixtures to softly illuminate the customer from above. Balancing vertical light with overhead light will reduce unflattering shadows, making the person and the clothing more attractive.

It’s also important to keep your lighting specifications consistent from the sales floor to the fitting room. Installing fixtures that have the same color temperature and color rendering characteristics throughout the retail space ensures the merchandise will look as vibrant and colorful as when it caught the customer’s eye in the window.

Tommy Bahama’s fitting rooms provide customers with the proper balance of light from an illuminated mirror and overhead ambient fixtures.

2. Mood

Ambient lighting is intended to provide a uniform level of illumination that creates a comfortable environment and allows customers to safely circulate through the space; however, there are certain retailers that use it differently. They intentionally lower the ambient lighting levels in stores to attract a younger / hipper demographic.

If done correctly, knocking down the ambient light to play up the accent lighting can create a stylish, moody environment. It allows accent lighting to pop, adding another level of drama and excitement to the experience. If done too dramatically, it can cause customers to become frustrated or distracted. An under-illuminated retail space impairs customers’ ability to see the color and texture of merchandise. When a customer takes a piece of apparel off the shelf or rack, its overall appearance should not drastically change once it’s in their hands.

Accent lighting should be used to create depth, contrast and focal points within a space, which can help guide customers through the store and the brand experience. An overreliance on accent lighting diminishes that impact, especially if all other areas of the store are evenly lit at a dim setting.

The store image on the left is the ideal way to use ambient lighting to create visual hierarchy in a darker retail environment. The store image on the right offers too much contrast between ambient and accent lighting, which distorts the colors of the merchandise.

3. Mock-ups

Unique, custom lighting conditions are becoming more common within the retail industry. This trend makes mock-ups an increasingly important part of the construction process. Before a client installs a luxury one-of-a-kind lighting fixture or implements a new lighting detail, I recommend producing a full-scale model of the design. Having a conversation early with the client about building a mock-up helps them understand the importance of this part of the construction process and allows the contractor to factor in allowances in the budget, as well as milestone dates in the construction schedule.

When coordinating lighting mock-ups, it can be worthwhile to reach out to the manufacturer. Some lighting manufacturers may be willing to provide fixtures for mock-up purposes based on the scale of the project or if they have a vested interest in the design for future marketing or product design research.

Mock-ups are most successful when reviewed and observed in an environment as close to the final space as possible. Ideally, a mock-up will be constructed “in-place” at the job site, allowing overall ambient lighting levels and finishes to be incorporated. Mock-ups can also be performed earlier to test out solutions prior to issuing final design details and can allow the client to comment on execution, as well as the contractor to provide feedback on constructability.

Examples of lighting mock-ups.

4. Budget

We’ve all been there as retail designers. Bids and pricing have come back for a project, and you’re asked to help your client reduce the cost of constructing the store. It’s time to go back to the drawings and specifications to examine where costs can be cut.

All too often, lighting and electrical are the first elements to be value engineered as they represent one of the largest costs for retail projects. The problem with this strategy is it’s difficult to “cut cost, but match design” for lighting schemes.

To prevent the plug from being pulled on the lighting concept you’ve been working on, I suggest working with specifications and materials specialists to determine what project finishes can be replaced with more cost-effective options. The hope is by making these efforts, the client will be open to considering alternate finishes in an effort to preserve the lighting design.

Another effective way to lower lighting design costs, especially if the client has multiple retail projects in development, is to establish partnerships with select manufacturers. Advise your client to set up national accounts to receive bulk discounts.

In the case the client is adverse to design sameness, instead wanting each store’s interior to reflect its local community (a smart decision), talk to them about keeping ambient light consistent across stores and tweaking the accent and decorative lighting on a store-by-store basis. This allows the client to save money and pursue a hyperlocal strategy.

5. Lighting controls

Not only do lighting control systems maximize energy savings and fulfil code requirements, they also allow retailers to create multiple lighting scenes within a space. This is especially important as brick-and-mortar retailers are attempting to attract customers by hosting in-store events, including runway shows, shop-in-shops and live musical performances. The lighting flexibility needed for these different occasions requires a modern lighting control system that enables switching, dimming and color tuning.

It’s important to not let the complexity of lighting controls intimidate your client. Bring in lighting designers, consultants and suppliers to share their expertise. In addition to explaining the benefits of their systems, they can educate the client on how to train store employees to operate the system effectively.

If an advanced lighting system is too excessive for a particular client’s needs, there are plenty of powerful basic control systems on the market that are easy to set up, adjust and use. Even the most simple control solutions now offer automatic shut-off, level control, dimming, daylight zone control and track light current limiting capabilities.

Example of lighting controls interface.

When it comes to lighting, it’s all about getting your client the solutions they need at the budget they have.


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