Making the Light Decision

What does lighting have to do with customer service? Everything.
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Posted April 8, 2008
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It’s no big secret that today’s consumer devotes less time to shopping than in the past. So the stakes are higher to compete for those few precious moments she has to make her decisions.

Good customer service is a way to ensure a positive shopping experience and keep the shopper’s attention. And beyond prompt service or just service with a smile, retailers are using store lighting to better serve shoppers.

“To be of ultimate service to customers is to aid them in making that decision on a product,” says Paul Gregory, founder and president of Focus Lighting Inc. (New York). “And lighting – showing the product, the store, your brand and your message in the best way possible, to convey the most information – has become a critical element.”

Lighting can set the standard for a positive shopping experience, whether it’s seeing stitching details in a fabric, navigating the store, reading small print on a tag or gauging the true color of merchandise. Few things are more frustrating for a shopper than buying something she thinks is black only to find out it’s navy blue once she’s got it home.

Simply increasing the light levels is one way lighting can aid shoppers. And Bryan Gailey, creative director at Fitch (New York), notes that light levels in general are going up. But it’s not always that simple.

“It’s all about knowing who your shopper is, what she wants and what you, the retailer, are known for,” says Gregory. “Once those factors are in place, we can enhance them with the right light.”

Lighting Specialty Apparel

No two retail environments are exactly alike. And lighting a store varies from the retail sector to the product to the target demographic – what’s good for the Mother Goose store might not be good for the Gander Mountain.

Even within sectors, specialty apparel retailer H&M is a different animal than most of its youth-oriented counterparts. Its large footprint is double the size of other specialty stores, with higher ceilings and more merchandise to display. And though it may have the same young shopper as Abercrombie & Fitch or Guess, it’s selling the idea of trendy, disposable fashions that survive for one season at half the price.

“An H&M store is well-designed and well-analyzed,” says Gregory, “but shoppers are concerned with the value and price of the clothes, not the store environment.”

Inside a typical H&M, the foot-candles are higher because customers associate a brighter store with better value – the money the retailer saved on the ambience is passed on to them. This brightness is achieved through combining fluorescent, metal halide and halogen lamps for increased light levels and, this being an apparel store, also with good color rendering.

MR-16 lamps are currently the reigning technology for proper color rendering and highlighting important details. “MR-16s do a wonderful job in delivering high color-rendering halogen light in the 8- to 14-foot distance with a very controlled and efficient beam pattern,” Gregory says.

But while higher light levels equate with value at H&M, value isn’t a factor at Abercrombie & Fitch, which is selling a lifestyle, a hip and trendy scene, a club-like store environment. The store’s subterranean light levels emphasize that youth rules.

“An Abercrombie store is an experience,” says Fitch’s Gailey. “It’s about being cool, part of the scene. It’s the place to be as much as the thing you’re buying.”

If being of service to your customer is knowing what she wants, A&F’s low ambient light levels with intense brightness on the merchandise focus right on that young consumer.

A different lighting design is necessary for fashion retailers like Giorgio Armani. The levels must be flattering, not overly bright, but still direct MR-16s on the product, allowing the customer to see the fine details and true colors. “A shopper at Armani has different tastes than a customer browsing the racks at H&M,” notes Gregory. “The touch point of what they feel in leathers and fabrics is a great deal different.”

Big Box and Department Stores

In much-larger spaces, lighting must help shoppers navigate the different zones and easily understand product placements and adjacencies.

For the third floor renovation of the Macy’s Herald Square store in New York, where previous light levels were low and the “arcade” that connected the two historic buildings wasn’t living up to its selling potential, Fitch designers maximized the light levels to get the most out of an underutilized space. They used dual PAR 38 lamps with white interiors and recessed compact fluorescent downlights with white reflectors. Illumination at the light coves was provided by single-lamp fluorescent strip lights, while perimeter light was achieved with recessed fluorescent lamp wall-washers with white reflectors in concert with recessed adjustable single PAR 38 lamps.

“People can be pulled with light,” says Fitch’s Gailey. “In this case, the lighting helped increase customer awareness that there was a whole lot more shopping on the other side of the wall.”

In big boxes, using lighting for various purposes can be more challenging.

For Meijer’s stores, Focus Lighting’s Gregory says the concept was simple: create better organization and get brighter light onto the products by using color and light as a means to separate each section of the store.

“We used narrow beam metal halide accents to punch up the ends of the aisles and to highlight specialty products,” he says.

The card area, in particular, received a boost in light, including increased foot-candle levels, asymmetric fixtures that evenly distributed light and shields that helped cut down on the glare.

“We analyzed the angle and location of the light and got the fixture off the ceiling and much closer to the cards,” Gregory says. “Sales went up 30 percent.”

Lighting for Foodies

Lighting in the grocery sector has to serve the customer by emphasizing freshness and making food look appealing. A supermarket needs to sell a lot of produce, meat and seafood, so using light to better present those specialty sections is key.

But many supermarkets have also made energy-efficiency a big priority. Lighting – along with refrigeration, heating and cooling – raises the grocer’s energy output to maximum levels. And if a store is open 24 hours, energy usage goes through the roof.

Bill Eberhard, principal-in-charge for Oliver Design Group (Cleveland), who has worked on the design of Hudson, Ohio-based Heinen’s Fine Foods, explains that many supermarkets are lowering overall ambient light and using technology like ceramic arc metal halides to show food in the proper light and call attention to those specialty sections. And they’re saving money doing it.

“Merchandising effectiveness is increased because the ceramic arc metal halide lamps have a color-rendering index of 96,” he says. “It saves money in the long run because they last two to three times longer than fluorescent sources and they use less wattage to produce a higher lumen output.”

Publix Super Markets says it is constantly looking to improve its lighting standards to save energy dollars. Energy-efficient LEDs, T6 and high-output fluorescent lamps are some of the new technologies being used to present food in the most appetizing light as well as to cut down on costs.

Yet Tom Henken, vp and director of design for Tampa, Fla.-based api(+), says, “LED lights are promising a bright future, but are not quite dramatic enough in their current output, configuration and optics.”

Designing with product-focused lighting rather than general illumination allows for higher contrast and better presents food to consumers. “Metal halide fixtures throw a much stronger light on the product without the heat associated with incandescent lighting,” he says.

And, according to Henken, whose firm designed the Hong Kong-based supermarket ThreeSixty, upward-focused lighting on the perimeter walls is a more efficient method for brightening the overall store atmosphere – plus it’s much more dramatic, and that helps sell merchandise. Good customer service must serve the retailer, too.