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Lighting Makes, Breaks Retail Experiences

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Technologies exist, but understanding how best to use them may lag behind developments. With the increased availability of LEDs and control technology, traditional brick-and-mortar merchants have, at their disposal, more ways to draw customers into their stores, enhance the shopping experience, and increase sales.

While there is some creative retail-lighting design and application of new technology, convincing retailers of the virtue of the new options is an ongoing effort. Controls that go beyond a simple on/off switch, for example, are not yet standard in many stores, and the application of LED lighting technology is not always perfectly understood.

“We just need people to stop thinking about sockets and how to appropriately fill them. That model is broken. We have a clean sheet of paper with LEDs. We can have discreet, tasteful luminaires. We can have long, meandering runs - discreet lines of light. It can disappear altogether and calmly and quietly light the space. It is the perfect tool for designers. With LED lighting we can do things we’ve never done before. Our only limitation is our imagination,” said Don Peifer, director of product development, at Architectural Lighting Works (ALW), Hayward, CA.

“Retailers need to recognize that investing in lighting is as important as investing in store layout, merchandising, design, and branding,” added Mai Carr Zakerin, product strategy manager, lighting, Cree Inc., Durham, NC.

Sally Lee, business development manager, Osram Sylvania, Danvers, MA, added to that sentiment: “There is growing pressure in brick-and-mortar environments to provide the unexpected when it comes to the shopping experience as they compete against online stores, even their own. Retail environments need to offer a superior shopping experience - one that’s interactive, interesting, and engaging. Good lighting design is critical to supporting that goal. For example, fashion-forward jewelry brand Kendra Scott now features a central luminous patterned wall in several of its retail stores. In each store, the patterned wall is located behind the ColorBar by Kendra Scott experience, an area in the store where customers can customize their own jewelry. Third-party LED modules are used to backlight the frosted acrylic Danielle jewel shapes that comprise the wall. Various scenes reflect the colors of the jewelry, and each store location also has unique scenes programmed for their geographical region.”

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“As you move across the spectrum from big box to the high-end, high-impact types of retail environments, you move from a ‘good enough’ scenario to one where the lighting encompasses and is part of the brand. The best example of that is the American Apparel stores. Here you had a famously rebellious and vocal founder. The lighting design, which consisted of bare fluorescent lamps taken out of the ceiling plane and distributed throughout the environment captures that ‘I-don’t-care, I’ll-do-it-my-way’ ethic,” Peifer said.

“Choosing lighting for any design is a balancing act among multiple features: performance, value, economic and environmental concerns, aesthetics, and user-friendliness,” he continued. “With big box, the balance is to the left of that equation—predominantly interested in performance and value. With high-end boutiques, it is less about the cost and more about aesthetics and is it controllable.”

“Different types of stores have different priorities, including branding for a big-name store, product discovery for a big-box store, and ambiance for a boutique, Caleb McKenzie of US Lighting Consultants, New York, observed. However, he added, “If you notice the lighting first, the designer has not done his job.”

In an ongoing effort to improve efficiency and the customer experience, UK fashion retailers Next have turned their store in Rugby, Warwickshire, into a test bed for new lighting applications and technology using Lumenpulse and Lumentalk technology. Photo: Ian Robinson, courtesy Lumenpulse
In an ongoing effort to improve efficiency and the customer experience, UK fashion retailers Next have turned their store in Rugby, Warwickshire, into a test bed for new lighting applications and technology using Lumenpulse and Lumentalk technology. Photo: Ian Robinson, courtesy Lumenpulse

More To Be Done

Despite the need to lure customers and create a positive shopping experience that generates sales, not all retail venues have fully taken advantage of available lighting technologies.

“Lighting is the most underutilized tool in retail stores. Very few retail locations, if any, use lighting to its full potential. Lights can, and should, be able to be moved and controlled in terms of light level, scheduling profiles, and sensors,” commented Antony Corrie, president, worldwide sales, Harvard Engineering, San Diego.

Architectural Lighting Works’ Peifer agreed that much more can be done with retail lighting. “Most retail lighting is still based on the previous paradigm: fluorescent and incandescent technology,” he said. “There is a fixture and a lamp source. Most LED solutions that end up in retail environments are lamps. That isn’t designing around the strengths of the technology. The ability for LEDs to disappear into the background of the fixture, where they can work in concert with other LEDs, is critical on so many levels, such as quality of light produced and things like the thermal modeling of the system.”

“Most of the fixtures in retail environments are heat traps, Peifer explained. “You put the lamp in it and you have problems. Phosphor is degrading; electrolytic fluid in the power supplies that sit piggyback on the lamps evaporates. You get system failure and/or poor performance, which leads to poor adoption.”

Randy Burkett, FIALD, LC, president and design principal, Randy Burkett Lighting Design Inc., St. Louis, observed there is some very good retail lighting design being done for highly visible projects or brands, but there is also a lot of marginal thinking. “Lighting, since it is one of the last components that goes into a store before it is turned over to the merchandising folks, often is value engineered or cheapened to meet a budget. This might mean sacrificing glare control, superior color rendering (especially with LEDs), aesthetic or thematic reinforcing light, and so forth,” he said.

“High priority tends to be put on the finishes in a retail space, while the lighting design is often overlooked,” agreed Mai Carr Zakerin, “but lighting can make a space look good or bad, influencing consumers’ perception and ultimately impacting the buying decision. Let’s face it, what use is beautiful furniture and flooring if the designer chooses low-cost, inefficient lighting that doesn’t allow customers to fully experience those features?”

Echoing the common theme that controls get value-engineered out of many projects, Kaynam Hedayat, vice president of marketing and product management, Digital Lumens, Boston, commented: “The perception is that controls increase project cost, and customers are skeptical about whether they will deliver the specified benefits. That skepticism is rooted in legacy lighting technologies and control systems, which were poor performers.”

Small businesses not working with a lighting specifier often overlook lighting and just use the existing lighting in the space, Chris Johnston, national sales manager, commercial accounts, Nora Lighting, Commerce, CA, commented. “Larger national retailers do an excellent job and often have departments dedicated to lighting design. They understand the importance of lighting design and the effect it has on the shopping and buying experience,” he said.

Simon Morrison, senior vice-president, Global Business EMEA, Lumenpulse, Montreal, concurred: “We do meet retailers that have great knowledge about lighting applications and the lighting industry, but we also have clients that need some education on the advantages of effective retail lighting design and LED technology.”

Good retail lighting can be had on any budget for all levels of stores, according to Caleb McKenzie of US Lighting Consultants, “But good design is the result of group effort. The whole team—owner, architects, engineers, interior, graphics, and lighting designers—needs to work together. A successful lighting design is never just tacked on at the end. And if everyone on the team understands the design process, then the design is more likely to survive the dreaded value-engineering phase,” he said.

Pretty Please, a chain of fashion boutiques featuring feminine wear, has embarked on a multi-store conversion of its track-lighting systems to LED fixtures. Along with projected energy and maintenance savings, the new LED track heads are adding more sparkle and splash to the wall and rack displays. Photo: Nora Lighting
Pretty Please, a chain of fashion boutiques featuring feminine wear, has embarked on a multi-store conversion of its track-lighting systems to LED fixtures. Along with projected energy and maintenance savings, the new LED track heads are adding more sparkle and splash to the wall and rack displays. Photo: Nora Lighting

Don’t Settle For Just On/Off

Lighting control in most U.S. stores is still basically on/off, McKenzie observed, noting, however, that energy concerns may be one factor to encourage extended use of lighting controls.

Lighting controls play a huge part in the future of retail, but just as he feels a need to think about lighting as more than just filling sockets, Don Peifer insists we must likewise begin thinking about controls differently.

“Instead of controls, I like to think about it in terms of ‘controllable’ lighting,” he said. “LED lighting is a digital device that can talk to other digital devices. Lighting is laid out in such a regular, repeatable grid that it becomes the perfect Trojan Horse for networking nodes. Each light has a power supply; it is hooked up to the grid; and you can put all manner of sensors in the fixture itself. Smart lighting is really going to facilitate the next paradigm of information technology, and you can see the industry growing up around it. Many of the large players in the industry have vertically integrated controls and networking businesses in anticipation,” he said.

Controls obviously play a role in load scheduling, such as making sure lights are off at day’s end, but Randy Burkett sees increased use for special effects. Cross-fading displays for windows and dynamic settings in special areas, for example, will become more common, he thinks. “I see LED-enabled white-color-tuning playing a big role in future retail design. One can imagine tuning white-color rendering to heighten an appropriate palette for an autumn fashion rollout or using preset LED white settings, which can be changed when the display is updated, to emphasize a dominant color on end caps throughout a grocery store. Lots of enticing opportunities lie ahead,” Burkett said.

Digital Lumens’ Hedayat agrees that controls are the future of retail lighting: “Intelligent LED lighting systems are opening doors to a whole new range of retail lighting possibilities. Lighting-management software enables different lighting scenarios based on the time of day, type of shift (retail versus stocking or cleaning), or season, with lighting automatically cycling on, off, or dimming to meet changing operational needs.”

A system that offers fully integrated capabilities, combined with granular, fixture-based controls, can help retailers deliver the desired customer experience while driving energy efficiency. For example, in a premium retail environment, controls allow the space to be illuminated perfectly across the day, ensuring a consistent color temperature on the high-end merchandise, Hedayat added.

“The ability to track occupancy motion provides retailers, architects, and contractors valuable insight into how spaces are used or not used,” according to Zach Gentry, vice president, business development, Enlighted, Sunnyvale, CA. “So much is possible—from identifying traffic patterns for the most-visited areas within a store to creating heat maps of motion, motion trails, and tracking when employees arrive or leave. In addition to occupancy sensors, time-of-day dimming controls also increase the retail atmosphere by helping to support circadian rhythms.”

There is yet another reason that controls may be part of future retail lighting. For example, California has added controls to their Title 24 building energy-efficiency requirements. “Like it or not, controls will be a code requirement in many parts of the country,” predicted Nora Lighting’s Chris Johnston.

Lights can, and should, be able to be moved and controlled in terms of light level, scheduling profiles, and sensors, according to Antony Corrie, president, Harvard Engineering. Photo: Harvard Engineering
Lights can, and should, be able to be moved and controlled in terms of light level, scheduling profiles, and sensors, according to Antony Corrie, president, Harvard Engineering. Photo: Harvard Engineering

Saving Yourself Out Of Business

But while saving energy appeals to retail managers, there is a right way and a wrong way to achieve energy reduction. “There is a saying in retail lighting that you can save yourself right out of business,” said Osram Sylvania’s Sally Lee. “Controls for energy savings are a much better strategy than marginalizing accent lighting in an effort to save money on operating costs. Dynamic white lighting with personalized control in a dressing room or using controls to gradually shift lighting over time when daylighting isn’t present, are gaining ground.

“Controls can be used to ‘reverse dim’ LED lighting systems over time—sometimes called lumen maintenance management, Lee said. “This is a great strategy to keep designed lighting levels constant versus enduring a gradual deterioration of typically 30% over a product’s lifetime. Splitting the difference over time, it’s a controls strategy retailers can use to deliver additional energy savings.”

Additionally, controls integrate software into lighting, meaning there is a certain period, where you can upgrade your lighting systems for “free,” that never existed before, Antony Corrie observed. “As data-gathering technology improves, you can integrate it into the control software. For example, imagine being able to pick up Bluetooth signal from somebody’s smart device (smartphone, tablet, etc.) and send them a buy-now coupon if they walked away from a product. This can all be done from lighting sensors. This is the next wave of lighting technology to come, which is why it is so important to integrate controls now. Those who do it now will be the best prepared for the next wave.”

Mistakes Are Sometimes Made

Retail lighting is a complex issue, and misunderstanding the principles and overestimating the capabilities of technologies can produce less-than-optimal results, lighting professionals agree.

Misuse of LED technologies—not understanding the need to control glare; not realizing that color temperature and color rendering can often be really poor depending on the product involved; thinking that LED sources can solve every problem; and not taking into account the extreme thermal sensitivity of the source, especially in confined spaces such as cases and vitrines—are just a few of the mistakes made in retail lighting, according to Randy Burkett of Randy Burkett Lighting Design.

Mitigating glare is easily the biggest retail-lighting issue, according to Don Peifer. “Everyone’s vision is different, so it is incredibly important to, before anything else, do no harm,” he said.

“I come back to the American Apparel design,” he explained. “Dan Flavin [an American artist who created sculptural installations with fluorescent tubes] has made beautiful and captivating light sculpture out of the bare fluorescent lamps, and I can see their design as an homage. At the end of the day, however, it is obnoxious. Put those lights on dimmers, specify warm-white lamps with a special tri-phosphor blend, and maybe it will work.”

Another mistake, according to Cree’s Mai Zakerin, is the assumption that retail lighting is only about light levels and that all LED technologies are the same. “Light level is only a part of the design. An important factor in retail lighting is the selection of light sources that offer excellent color quality and low glare. Moving to LED lighting can offer significant energy savings, but it’s important to choose LED technology that has a high CRI and low glare to ensure the solution provides a better light experience, as well as energy savings,” she explained.

Waiting to make the switch to LEDs in the hopes that prices will drop further isn’t a wise choice, Kaynam Hedayat of Digital Lumens asserts. “LED chip prices may drop incrementally, but the dramatic drops have already happened. The majority of the price is the ‘balance of the system’ or the technologies wrapped around the LED chip. While those technologies cost more, they include the embedded controls that drive efficiency. So, while they cost more, they ultimately save more,” he said.

The second mistake is choosing plain uncontrolled LEDs, Hedayat continued. “These simple technologies offer one-time energy savings—usually about 50%—but forfeit future savings and eliminate the possibility of lighting being included in a smart-building strategy,” he said.

Finally, Hedayat said, “The last issue we see is customers evaluating ROI only when considering a project. For LEDs, best practices suggest reviewing a 5-yr. total cost of ownership (TCO) analysis, in addition to the traditional ROI (percentage) and payback (timeframe) numbers. This will provide a complete picture.”

Cost saving was also on the mind of Lumenpulse’s Simon Morrison as a common mistake. In the UK, “we’ve seen retailers use poor-quality retrofits as a short-term solution and then are left having to make changes down the road. This is especially pertinent when considering color consistency throughout the store. Over time, and as new luminaires are added, this becomes a very important issue. Nothing will tarnish a unique retail design more visibly than choosing inconsistent light sources. Luckily LEDs now offer the most stringent color-consistency standards of all the light sources. They also last much longer than traditional lighting solutions, allowing stores to maintain an appearance over a longer period,” he explained.

Poor lighting design and inappropriate fixtures also concern Nora Lighting’s Chris Johnson. “I have seen lighting that makes you feel uncomfortable and not want to shop, such as old outdated fluorescents or low ceilings with track lighting. It is difficult to light an entire store with just track lighting, as you will ultimately be aiming the lights in someone’s eyes. There’s too much light and glare,” he said.

“If you’re selling medium to high-end merchandise, why light the space with 2 x 4 ft. lensed lay-in troffers?” he questioned. “New multiple recessed directional lights, combined with 2-foot x 2-foot LED panels, will give the image of ‘today’ and improve the overall lighting look and shopping experience.”

Retailers also need to consider the “blah effect,” Johnson cautioned. “That happens when an entire retail space is lit with the same fixture. When doing a renovation, or building out new space, change the heights of fixtures, lower over display tables, higher in general areas, add track lighting to wash the walls and merchandise and make the space feel bigger at the same time, add pendants over the cash wrap, and add under-cabinet lights to shelves. This is called layered lighting, and it can achieve very dramatic effects,” Johnson added.

“Flat and drab” lighting, like the “blah effect,” is likewise to be avoided. “Lighting color and quantity often work together, with bright store environments often opting for cooler lighting colors. Often these store interiors rely on cooler store finishes to compliment the store design, like blues and greens,” Osram Sylvania’s Sally Lee observed. “Trouble comes when light levels drop, as cooler lighting seems more unpleasant in these schemes. Add the trend of incorporating overhead daylighting to the mix, and the store feels flat and drab, something like a cloudy day, especially when store lights are switched completely ‘off’ with available daylight. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” she cautioned.

As has already been said, sophisticated controls are increasingly incorporated into retail lighting installations, but there are pitfalls here as well. “Don’t buy a system that only allows you to have single-site control,” advised Antony Corrie of Harvard Engineering. “Find a way to have multi-site control so that you can simply add locations onto it. Retail marketplaces don’t want to have 10 different systems in 100 different stores with 100 different login requirements. This opens up security risks and is hard to manage, ultimately defeating the entire purpose of control and management systems for lighting.”

Instead, Corrie suggested, “Buy a system that has a single, in-the-cloud access point with bank-level security. That system can upgrade its software and has one simple login for an entire organization. You can segregate portions so not all users can access all portions of the site. Ultimately it is the easiest and most practical way to manage your lighting schemes through an online hub.”

Like retailing itself, lighting has become a more complicated and challenging proposition. Fortunately, the means to better lighting are available. It’s just a matter of carefully making the right choices.

Ken’s View - A Little More Hygge, Please

Fourteen years ago I wrote a column for a now-defunct magazine in which I said light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, were the next big thing. Or at least they just might have the potential to change the lighting and energy landscape or something like that. The lighting manufacturers took note, ramped up their research and marketing, and the result is the present-day tsunami of LED lighting. I invested heavily in LED-lighting stock and expect to retire comfortably. I just write for magazines as a hobby.

OK, maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that. Lighting manufacturers probably never read that column; I didn’t have a dime to invest; and this is no hobby. Nevertheless, I have the small satisfaction of having been right about LEDs.

However, the tsunami of LEDs describes the number and variety of products available, not the market share those products enjoy. Market penetration is said to be relatively low as yet, compared with legacy incandescent and fluorescent sources. The good news is that what I said 14 years ago about LED lighting still goes. LED’s have a lot of potential—even more than 14 years ago. You can quote me.

But now that we have LEDs, the question is: What are we going to do with them? Sure, they save energy, but is that all they’re good for? Given their versatility, is substituting them for fluorescents and incandescents in existing lighting designs really all we can do?

I’ve long been of the opinion that lighting in schools, offices, public places, and even homes, tends to the blah or flat-and-drab side, as a couple of contributors to the foregoing article characterized it. Many years ago, in the days before LEDs, I visited the “lighting institute” of a major manufacturer.

The company had full-sized room mockups and controls to demonstrate the effects of different lighting. Today, we say they could create different lighting scenes with the flip of a switch—or maybe a lot of switches in those pre-digital days, since there were no touchpads or smartphone apps to control lighting. The dramatically delivered lesson was that lousy lighting could make a well-designed, expensively furnished kitchen or living room look like a room in one of those ticky-tacky houses I referred to last month.

Though hardly the only element of good lighting, color temperature is one of my pet peeves, especially on the consumer side, where the public has been presented with terms such as cool white, warm white, daylight, and such. What do those even mean? Look at the LEDs on the shelf today, and you’ll find 5,000-K lamps next to 2,700-K bulbs with little to differentiate them.

At least manufacturers are now providing color-temperature information in fine print on the back of the package, not that it means much to consumers nor that many know to look for it. To be fair, I’ve seen at least one lighting company’s website (http://www.westinghouselighting.com/color-temperature.aspx) that does an admirable job of clearly illustrating differences in color temperatures in mostly non-technical terms. In-store displays, not so much.

Maybe it’s just me, but I wouldn’t want 5,000 K lighting in my living room—and it seems inexplicable that anyone else would, if they knew what they were getting. Back in the olden days of magazines, we used a 5,000-K light source to judge the accuracy of color separations for reproduction. It was clinical, but useful. The exercise also served to emphasize that the perception of color can vary among individuals and that the quality of light can affect that experience.

It comes as no surprise that lighting can affect emotions and perceptions. New York City, for example, is replacing street lamps with 4,000-K LEDs, which critics have said are ugly, invasive, depressing, conducive to dismembering corpses, and other uncomplimentary things.

As one of those streetlight critics said, the sensory experience of daily life is not trivial—something the Danish seem to recognize. They have a concept, hygge (pronounced hue-gah), which, although difficult to translate, refers to a feeling of coziness coupled with a sense of intimacy, comradeship, conviviality, and contentment—which sounds nothing like that Hamlet fellow, who was accused of being such melancholy Dane, thus unfairly characterizing a whole nation.

More to the point, lighting, especially candlelight, seems to be central to creating an hyggelic experience, and the Danes, I gather, have a lot of candles. The opposite is uhyggeligt, which means cheerless, sinister, and even grisly. I suspect a lot of the lighting I see each day might be uhyggeligt to many Danes, although I haven’t asked any. While LEDs have a lot of promise, it’s not a given that they will create a better lighting experience. But they could. I hope to see a little more hygge, more thoughtful lighting design, and fewer over-lit spaces. Now, you’ll have to excuse me; I must go see if those damn candles have set fire to the living room.

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