Seeing the Light in Retail

Next time your walk into a retail store, take a moment to consider the impact that the lighting environment has on you and your purpose and behaviors in that store.

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In retail stores, lighting can affect how we feel about the store environment and the brand. It can create ambience, distinguish product zones and affect our decision-making.While the technology of lighting is constantly advancing, the implementation of lighting design remains as much art as
science. Like such industries as photography, film making, architecture and graphic arts, it is technology that provides the tools, but it is creativity that engages the emotions.

Customer perception

How a store is lit affects how customers perceive products and, thus, how the goods are sold. While it is true that brightly lit products attract the eye, the misconception of many retailers is that simply adding more light will increase sales.


If this was the case, then successful stores would require customers to wear sunglasses. This is not the case, though. The human eye is a complex and sensitive device. It is capable of distinguishing between many millions of different colours and brightness down to just a few photons. Flooding this sensitive instrument by many trillions of photons at every point in a shop is not necessarily the best way to engage customer interest. 

In fact, the eye regulates the quantity of light entering the pupil by constricting the iris. This compensates for light levels that are extremely low or extremely high, bringing them into the middle ground of optical understanding. You can easily test this by closely watching a match being struck in both broad day light and complete darkness. In daylight the brightness is barely noticed, but in darkness it is almost blinding.

The key point here is that it is not so much the absolute intensity of light that we notice, but rather the change in lighting level. This means that we can control the way products are perceived in a retail environment by using a combination of high and low lighting levels, rather than just adding more light. This sensitivity to change is a common trait of human psychology, and the effect can also be seen in retail pricing strategy. 

For example, the easiest way to make a product appear cheap is to either place it next to a much more expensive product, or show the original and discounted prices together. As with lighting, it is the change in pricing level that is more powerful than the absolute price alone. The application of this theory to a retail store can be a daunting exercise due to the many types of light fittings available and the many different products in need of light. This is where the use of a strategic approach to the application of lighting can simplify the process.


Lighting design strategy begins with understanding that it is easier to control our lighting environment if we break it down into layers, with each layer performing a specific function. In retail stores there are four key layers of lighting: ambient, feature, task and decorative.

The ambient layer is a general lighting array positioned at the highest level in the ceiling space and can cover up to 100 percent of the ceiling area. It provides a background level of illumination throughout the store so that customers can interpret the overall shop space and navigate around it.

Ambient light fittings, such as fluorescent tubes, emit a broad wash of light over a large area. While its levels can change between zones, the light created in the ambient layer is too blunt to be product specific. Highlighting specific areas is the job of the accent layer. Where the ambient layer may cover up to 100 per cent of the ceiling space for general illumination, the accent layer is used intermittently to provide feature illumination. Accent fittings such as dichroic spotlights use narrow-beam lamps to increase the light level on specific products or displays. This focused lighting creates the required change in level to capture a customer’s attention.

Accent lighting is used to direct the attention of a customer towards feature products, brands, specials and promotions. The light fittings used here should have a more narrowly focused beam, with adjustable direction to increase illumination directly Store Design on the product. As a rule of thumb, accent lighting needs to increase the brightness of a display by 50-100 per cent to create a noticeable difference in its surroundings. There is no point in accenting everything, though. It is the relief in brightness between features that resets the eye.

The third layer is for task lighting, which is used to increase illumination over areas where specific work or tasks are performed: eg, service counters, demonstration benches and work surfaces. Lamps that reduce shadow, such as fluorescent fittings, are good for providing even task illumination, but to provide sufficient increase in brightness they usually need to be suspended at a lower level. In many retail stores, feature light fittings are used to attract attention and enhance décor. Pendant fittings with custom lampshades, LED strip lighting and even chandeliers can be used to create a statement and highlight a particular display area.

Decorative fittings should be used sparingly in most stores, partly because they need to remain a ‘feature’ and partly because their high cost usually prohibits excessive use. While these layers provide the basics of retail lighting application, interesting, unique and spectacular lighting effects can be created by manipulating the quantity of and location of fittings in each layer.

At the very least, a simple application of the four-layer approach can help stores both enhance the display of products and avoid simple lighting mistakes. 

This article first appeared in Retail Pharmacy Magazine.