2014 Retail Business Resolution: See Visual Merchandising in a New Light

By Braulio Agnese, Staples® Contributing Writer

As December turns into January and you update your retail business resolutions for 2014, here is one to add to your list: New year, new lighting! Once the hustle and bustle of the gift-giving season has passed, the relative lull until Valentine’s Day is a great time to revisit the commercial lighting in your space.

“The no. 1 thing to understand is that lighting significantly affects the way a product looks,” says Amy Laughead-Riese, owner and principal designer at Cincinnati’s 37 Volts Light Studio, which focuses on specialty and department stores. “Your retail environment evokes a certain perception, and the lighting reinforces that.”

Industry studies consistently show that when used well, retail lighting has a significantly positive effect on a store’s bottom line, including increased foot traffic, higher sales and lower energy costs. So how can you maximize your space’s lighting and revenue-generating potential? Here are some basics.

Learn the Language of Lighting

You’re fluent in the particulars of the products you sell and what they require to sell well. The language of lighting is equally important, and you’ll want to be familiar with it before you get started. Some examples:

  • Don’t call it a bulb: What laypeople call lightbulbs, the industry refers to as lamps. (The bulb is the glass part of the lamp.) And the contraptions that they screw or click into? Those are luminaires, although “fixtures” is also used.
  • Consider color: In lighting, color temperature refers to the red/green/blue mix that a “white light” lamp emits, which affects how it feels: warmer or cooler — not literally, but in terms of ambience. And color rendering index is a measure (against daylight, which rates 100) of how accurately it reveals your products’ actual colors. In a retail setting, “you want a CRI of 90 or above,” says Mike Lehman, vice president of marketing, product development and design at ConTech Lighting in Northbrook, IL.
  • Balance the hard and the soft: A hard light is direct — in other words, it’s pointed at something, like the sun shining on your face. Soft light is indirect, similar to the shadowless glow you experience on a cloudy day.

Think Strategically

Tackle the issue of lighting intelligently — it will separate you from your competitors. “There is a commonality to small business retail shops in that they pay almost no attention to lighting,” says Pete Miller, who has been in the industry nearly 40 years. Miller shares lighting insights for small business owners through his blog, Retail Lighting and Design, and is director of retail lighting design and a national account manager at CBMC Lighting Solutions in Indianapolis, IN.

These key aspects of commercial lighting deserve your attention:

  • You’ve considered your retail space layout; make sure you give the same attention to lighting. Think of your store in layers: ambient light; accent lights for the product, task lights for register areas and places where customers investigate products more closely; and decorative lights.
  • Many retail business owners “tend to design to a uniform light level,” says Rachel Barnes, a design associate at Brandywine Realty in McLean, VA. Note the contrast ratio between the ambient light and what’s shining on your products and displays. If it’s all (or mostly) the same, customers won’t pay attention. According to Len Costello, director of healthcare corporate accounts in the Philadelphia office of Acuity Brands Lighting, “The eye needs a 3:1 level of difference to be attracted to something.”
  • Pay attention to glare and don’t make your customers wince. Also, when using special lighting on your products, don’t overdo it. You want to ensure that potential buyers are focused on the item you’re selling — not the lighting fixture itself.

Be Energy- (and Penny-) Wise

There’s no question about it: Efficiency matters in an energy-sucking business like retail, where lighting can account for a large portion of monthly costs. “The energy code has gotten so strict that you’re only allowed to use so many watts in your building,” says Amanda Mitchell, a lighting specifier for Federated Lighting in Upper Marlboro, MD. As a result, energy-efficient LED lights are here to stay.

Here are some tips for designing more energy-efficient lighting:

  • Learn your region’s watts per square foot limit for retail — a measure of energy usage defined by building codes. “It’s a universal concern, and this is where owners need to work with contractors closely,” Miller says. Understanding what your limits are will help you plan the efficient and not-so-efficient aspects of your lighting much more intelligently.
  • When it comes to LEDs, you get what you pay for. But the good news is that as the technology has improved, LEDs are getting closer to fluorescents in cost. Still, don’t just buy in bulk based on price. Before you commit to using dozens of a certain lamp, buy one and ensure it provides the amount and quality of light you’re looking for.
  • If you’re switching out fluorescent lights or incandescent lamps for LEDs, the best option is to have the whole lighting system set up for LEDs. This is an upfront cost that should be weighed against long-term retail plans, because LEDs last much longer — years longer — than traditional lamps. The cutoff, industry experts say, is about five years. If your plans don’t stretch that far, use LEDs in fixtures designed for fluorescents and incandescents.

In the end, the light in your retail space matters as much as other visual merchandising, so give it some thought. “With a little effort,” says Costello, small retailers “can have a major impact.”

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