Lighting designers take on the retail pragmatists

Lux received a bi t of a bashing from the design community last month on Twitter. Designers say we have shamelessly championed the energy-saving revolution in lighting that is LED at the expense of good lighting design, and cite the mass rollout of LEDs in supermarkets.

And this is where the design community often misses the point. Lux has always been about cutting energy use, celebrating the car park, the warehouse and the hospital corridor – areas that represent 90 per cent of the world’s lighting-related energy use (we’re also the only lighting magazine in the world that punishes the bad and the failing, and does independent product reviews, but let’s not labour the point).

These unglamorous areas have for years been left unloved and untouched by the hand of a professional lighting designer, and have carpet bombed illumination levels. They could all benefit from better design, but budgets don’t let you move the fittings or disrupt business. Retrofitted assets must earn a living and justify a short payback time. In these instances the client has few choices. Do they sit back and live with high energy and maintenance costs, or opt for the quick win of a retrofit?

“We’re entering a new chapter in which retail lighting is the link between the online world and the physical store”

My local supermarket has recently been retrofitted with LED fittings. I could tell the difference as soon as I walked in, it appeared brighter and fresher, probably because the old louvred fluorescent fittings had gone. Yes they could have realigned the fittings with the aisles, but then they wouldn’t have been able to do the job in just a few days. Over the past five years we have conducted numerous roundtable sessions with retailers across the spectrum. The niche players have it easy, they know the demographic of their customers well – age range, spending power and acceptance of technology. Supermarkets probably have the toughest job, they sell the widest range of products to the widest possible range of customers from cradle to grave, and operate in a fiercely competitive market. Someone aged 70 with failing eyesight would struggle to navigate around a dimly lit Hollister, or be likely to pay the price for the privilege.

Which leads us to the $64,000 question of retail lighting: does lighting influence the sales performance of a store? Yes, we have all seen examples from the pages of LinkedIn where a new lighting scheme has doubled sales overnight, but is the world really this simple? I liked my newly relit supermarket for the first few weeks, now I don’t notice, and I revert to my normal behaviour. I’ve just got off the train, I know I need some milk, so I’ll go to the closest shop. This change is simply a derivative of the Hawthorne effect – that we react to change.

Now we are about to enter a new chapter in retail lighting, one in which the lighting becomes the link between the online world and the physical store. We are about to start seeing the rollout of indoor positioning systems that let retailers pinpoint you in a store, and tell them what you’re looking at in real time. This will let them interact with you, and tailor the service to match what they already know about you. In the case of luxury retailers, if you are a high net worth individual they want to know that you are in the store so they can offer you a personalised service. Supermarkets can make offers related to what they know you buy, or don’t buy. Why offer a two-for-one on a product they know you buy every week? Much better in the longer term to try to make you buy a premium brand with a higher margin.

This kind of technology will let retailers test different strategies with known individuals and then we may be able to see just how much lighting influences a sale. At this point we may see a supermarket being brave and implementing radical changes to lighting and store layout.

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