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Lighting In Retail

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On  his  visit to the Frankfurt ‘Light & Build 2012’ fair, judging from the number of products focused on retail lighting, Lighting Design  consultant Lyle  Lopez noted  that there was an enormous retail boom lurking around the corner, something so big  that we better be making some serious preparations for it. If the last fair in 2010 focused on ‘humanising’ light in the workspace, this one took the whole business of retail lighting to a new level. “As the debate on FDI in the Indian Retail market nears resolution, it’s clear that the challenge of competing for customer attention is going to be something everyone  in the lighting industry –Manufacturers, Designers and Architects – are going to have to address,” writes Lopez.

All the lighting giants – Osram, Philips, Tridonics and many others – seemed to have invested huge efforts in developing lighting products for the retail environment. This gives an interesting double-take to the term ‘Retail Therapy’, of course the primary meaning being the high one is supposed to experience on a shopping spree – but the second meaning the attention companies in the retail space are devoting to the their business development.

Lighting in a retail environment has to attract and enthuse potential customers, give them a strong visual sense of the merchandise on offer, hold and build their interest and generate enough impact to create an impression that stays in one’s visual memory. You have to keep the initial investments and the costs of ownership, operation and maintenance as low as possible; sensibly apply the criteria of flexibility and re-use.

While we do not have any data on exactly how much of a role good lighting plays in a successful customer experience, one certainty is that a badly lit space just cannot work in the present retail environment where a customer is spoiled for choice.

The visual sense is by far the most influential of all our sensory inputs in our perception of a retail space, and one of the most critical tools in building this experience is lighting.

In this article we’re using the term ‘retail space’ in the context of real estate – often highly priced, with premiums weighted against location, compromises in volumes and heights, high costs of energy, legal restrictions in timings and of course the presence of competition. The web and real estate are heading into an interesting competition, but there are some retail choices that I think are always going to require the ‘see – touch – feel’ experience: Jewelry, Apparel, Footwear, Liquor, Sporting gear, Automobiles, Consumer Durables, Furniture, Luggage and FMCG’s.

Lets talk about signage first

If there’s a fuzzy line between graphics and lighting in the retail world, it’s with good reason, and one clear aspect is signage. One shouldn’t have to look around for clever signage – it has to be the most visible, obvious thing! Consider the signature colours of Bharat Petroleum, and the way they are arranged on the canopy of a petrol pump, in that wavy blue and yellow overlap. On two National Highways that I used to frequent, there were locations where a string of petrol pumps appeared a few meters apart – all of them on the same side of the road. IBP, HP, Indianoil – and tucked in somewhere in between would be a Bharat Petroleum outlet – and while all the others might be empty, there’d always be a couple of vehicles tanking up at the BP outlet.

Signage is the retailer’s callout to the world: all the ingredients of attraction, recognition and familiarity apply here. The values assigned to each of these attributes will vary depending on which customer segment you are dealing with. If you are in the Value For Money, Low Budget, Wide Customer Base segment, you need a sign that is as visible, as recognizable and as cheerfully beckoning as the McDonald’s M or the Bharat Petroleum canopy.

While designing for the premium quality, exclusive, personal service segment – then signage needs to be understated without being invisible and classy without being too staid – in short, your good taste must be apparent in the design.

The lighting industry has produced several interesting solutions for illuminating signage. Neon and fluorescent light engines have given way to dynamic displays using LED arrays that can stream video, embed themselves into lettering and backlights and produce stunning graphics and colours. Of course, the most important ingredient is the design – both graphic as well as engineered – that is going to determine whether signage is just another bunch of glowing text or something special that attracts, allures, enthuses and endures.

Building the visual experience

Trying to get a colour matched under retail lighting is the biggest challenge a customer faces. A trouser which appears matching under a particular lighting can appear noticeably different when viewed under a different lighting. This ‘color shift’ – the colour difference between an object viewed under different light conditions was something that needed to be addressed in the retail space, particularly with apparel. Clearly, besides the need to make sales displays sensationally attractive, there is a need for lighting to render colour accurately. There’s a trade-off that has to be made here; the best colour rendition is achieved by the humble incandescent and halogen lamps (both offer a CRI of 100), but their short lifetimes and poor efficiency have made it necessary to limit their use.

Still – there are some interesting solutions one can use – apparel stores can create a 100 CRI ‘zone’ a table or shelf lit with Halogen lamps where the garment can be shown or compared – or – if location permits, you could have a sunlit zone – either a balcony or a skylight which allows a prospective buyer to view the articles in natural sunlight.

All things considered, an essential attribute is the amount of light energy across a wide spectrum that a lamp is able to direct at the merchandise. A powerful light source ( or multiple light sources) directed at an object increases contrast and brilliance. Ideally, one should aim for a value between five to 10 times the ambient light to be directed towards the object on display – from more than one source, and at different angles.

While brightness and contrast are essential, it is vital to eliminate glare. There’s little point in dramatically lighting merchandise if your pupils are constantly dilated. The best approach is to make your light sources vanish – try and select fixtures with optimal beam widths, and deep-recessed lamps mounted so that they can be focused on the merchandise displays.

It’s also a good idea to have an illuminated background. This improves depth-of-field perception, and even if one works with subtle colour shifts, actually improves contrast.

Here’s a simple set of touchlines for different types of retail environments:

Jewelry – Create huge contrasts; 15:1 or more on the displays. Best way to do this? Bring your light source as close to the merchandise as you can, but make sure its concealed well. Change your colour temperatures and light colours to suit the merchandise. Don’t shy away from using amber tones for gold, white (6500 K) for diamonds and silverware, and try using color filters or tuned LED’s to make other precious stones look attractive. The background material must be light absorbing.

Apparel: Contrast of 5:1 will work, 10:1 would be ideal, provided your energy budget allows it. Try and use a slight colour shift or a saturated colour tone in the background, not too bright. Linear light sources are not the best solution here; multiple point sources are, at least two for each segment, angled toward the merchandise by at least 30 deg in the vertical axis and 60 deg in the horizo ntal axis. CRI should be at least 90. Illuminated shelf bases are NOT a good idea. The ideal color temperatures for budget apparel are between 4000 and 5000K.

Footwear: Floor reflectance generally tends to be high in footwear stores – so make sure to use low-glare fixtures and train them on the displays. Again, point light sources are preferable to linear, but people tend to walk around in new shoes they are trying out, so some general lighting is necessary, which could be fluorescent.

Liquor: Here the reference is not to bars, but to liquor stores: You need to keep lots of panel space for promotional material – in India, because of advertising restrictions, that’s the only space where limited and imaginative branding can happen. So even if it’s just a photograph of a cricket team sponsored by the brand, it has to be eye catching and slick. There should be provision for a lot of illuminated signage that can easily be moved around shelves. Light wine shelves with minimal light in the 2700K range – just bright enough to read the labels – and the prices. Wines, more particularly the whites, are likely to lose their colour and body when exposed to any light, so the lighting has to be gentle. Do not light beers at all. Premium hard liquor brands are always displayed in opaque cardboard canisters – so treat them like jewelry, and light them with good, bright light preferably in the 3000K temperature, but don’t aim for a 15:1 contrast.

Automobiles: It’s really a challenge to light an auto showroom properly – even in the showrooms of the classiest brands, it is rare to see an outstanding example of good lighting. Most of the time there’s no show window – the store floor display doubles as show window, so dealing with the additional depth poses quite a challenge. Since automobiles nowadays are beautifully designed creatures to begin with, they have to be handled like supermodels, huge pools of light around them, set off against a dark, light absorbing background. There’s a tendency to blast them with bright, white light all the time, but I’d argue the case for a dual mode of lighting – the first being when the store is full of customers – and features and prices are being discussed and pondered – and the second being those moments when the showroom is empty. This is when the ‘supermodel’ lighting mode takes over; the rest of the store fades into oblivion and the cars just bask in warm, 3000K light.

FMCG and supermarkets: Simply because of the dense, packed floors and shelves, any supermarket visitor is swamped with tremendous visual intensity and information. You need to aim for a display value of at least 700 lux and a CRI of at least 90. The best lighting method is high-CRI linear fluorescents arranged in rows that are coordinated with the shelving plan. You must reach a design point where the vertical and horizontal illuminances are high, without causing glare. The ideal colour temperature could be a value above 4000K. It is not just the merchandise that needs focus – the destination itself needs to be made very attractive. The classic example of this is the Lafayette supermarket in Paris, where the spectacular illuminated atrium attracts one of the largest footfalls in the world.

The Retail future

What’s the next exciting thing in the retail future? Adding to the emphasis I place on good graphics and signage working with lighting skills, I see some interesting trends likely to emerge in retail technology. For one, get ready for packaging that glows and pulses with light. As the slogan ‘Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle’ takes root, companies are going to think about attractive self-illuminating packaging that can be re-used and could be returned at the cash counter itself!

As the costs of LCD and LED monitors reduce, get ready for ever smarter countertop displays with product demos and advertising – some companies like Samsung, the top manufacturer of AMOLED screens, are already trying these methods out to pack a greater punch in their retail displays.

Spiraling energy costs are forcing us to find ways to bring sunlight into our showrooms. This is quite obviously a challenge, but don’t let that get you down. There are some very interesting sunlighting devices waiting in the wings to surprise you, and even when you simply collaborate with daylight in your architectural design, the results can be beautiful.

And just think of what the energy savings could do for your bottom line!


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