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Creating a Comfortable Shopping Environment

By Jack Ries
Director, Product Innovation

Today’s consumers desire—and even demand—a comfortable shopping environment. An inviting atmosphere not only brings people into the store, but keeps them there longer. Studies show that the longer shoppers remain in a store, the more money they are likely to spend.

Aesthetics within the retail environment not only affect shopper comfort level but can influence employee morale and productivity. Employees who must work in an uncomfortable environment are not only less productive, but they may communicate a negative attitude to their customers. Consumers will choose to shop in a retail environment where employees are positive and helpful.

Manufacturers invest millions of dollars to visually differentiate their products from their competition. Whether they are trying to make their products stand out through color, shape or texture, the point of differentiation is lost if visibility within the store is poor.

For example, if a customer is shopping for kitchen or bath tile, product selection will likely be based on color and texture. If the consumer cannot distinguish distinct differences between the products offered, selection will be difficult. In some instances, the buyer’s frustration level may become high enough that he or she will choose to shop elsewhere.

Lighting quality and quantity define visibility. Insufficient footcandle levels will result in poor visibility and a dark and gloomy environment. Low light levels will also prevent consumers from comparing and possibly purchasing products. However, too much light can make shoppers uncomfortable and will waste limited operating dollars on energy that is not needed.

Often, the key to creating a comfortable retail environment is to properly illuminate the specific merchandise that is being sold. Footcandle requirements will vary among products. For example, large objects that are displayed in an open environment—such as boats or lawn tractors—will require lower light levels than products that demand closer customer scrutiny, such as books or jewelry.

A boat dealer may require only 40 to 50 footcandles to properly illuminate the merchandise on his floor, using task lighting or spotlights to showcase specific products or areas. A jewelry store, on the other hand, may have over 200 footcandles on its cases.

Lighting Uniformity
Lighting uniformity also contributes to shopper comfort. When uniformity is poor, some products may be highlighted while others in the same aisle may appear dark. If the retailer is intentionally showcasing a specific product, this highlighting effect may be acceptable. However, if the goal is to give every product equal attention, a combination of highlighted and dark areas is probably undesirable.

Most stores will likely benefit from some degree of uplight, which promotes uniformity by reducing the contrast between the light source and the surrounding area. A system with uplight improves the luminance of the ceiling and vertical surfaces, such as signs and vertical displays. This form of indirect illumination also minimizes shadows and reduces glare.

Conversely, supplying too much uplight—perhaps 100 percent—will result in the “cloudy day” effect. If only indirect lighting is provided, shoppers will perceive the environment as gray and uninteresting—even though the actual light levels measure high. When an element of downlight is added, shoppers will perceive the atmosphere as brighter and more comfortable.

Color Rendering
Colors and color trends are always important in the retail environment—whether the retailer is selling clothing, furniture, automobiles or packaged goods. Often, consumers learn to identify certain products by their colors and packaging.

When selecting a lamp source, check the color-rendering index (CRI). The higher the CRI, the more vibrant or closer to natural the colors in objects will appear. A light source with a CRI of near 100 has rendering capabilities similar to daylight or an incandescent lamp. When designing the lighting system, evaluate the different configurations of the same lamp type and wattage. For example, using a coated metal halide lamp—instead of a clear metal halide lamp—will raise the CRI. In addition, a ceramic arc tube metal halide lamp will have a higher CRI than a metal halide lamp with a conventional quartz arc tube.

The color temperature of a lamp also influences shoppers’ comfort level and their perceptions. If a retailer, for example, is selling metal goods such as hardware or office supplies, he may want to create an environment with a cooler feel. If the store is merchandising clothing or linens, the retailer will likely want to create a warmer environment.

Lighting for the Room Size
Another challenge is to match the light source and wattage to the mounting height and the proximity to the customer. For example, an HID fixture with a 400-watt lamp, in most instances, would not be appropriate for a 10-foot mounting height. The luminaire source would be so bright that it would become offensive—like going outside on a very bright sunny day without sunglasses. Luminaires and lamps that create an overly bright environment detract from customers’ ability to view the merchandise—and they waste energy.

Smaller fixtures and lower lumen packages are preferable for stores with lower ceilings. If fixtures with higher wattage lamps are installed, a bottom lens may be used to soften the lamp image. While luminaire size and mounting height are important, the specific optical design of the selected luminaire is key to providing an efficient and comfortable lighting system.

Stores with higher ceilings may use luminaires with higher wattage lamps (250 to 400 watts) spaced at greater distances. In this type of application, fewer fixtures will be needed to achieve the desired footcandle levels, resulting in reduced installation and maintenance costs and a cleaner “uncluttered” appearance.

The size of the luminaires must be proportional to the room size and the targeted design theme. Retailers should avoid fixtures that are too large and mounted too low for the room size and height—or luminaires that are too small and mounted too high.

Sound in the Retail Setting
One factor that retailers often do not consider is how the sound or noise in their stores will affect customer comfort. Consumers spend thousands of dollars to install high quality sound systems in their homes and they expect to hear the same quality audio in the stores where they shop.

Even the highest quality sound system can be disrupted by noise produced by a buzzing light fixture. Even a single buzzing luminaire located in an area where a special promotion is in progress could counteract the promotion. In do-it-yourself environments, buzzing light fixtures may detract from or even drown out intercom messages.

Luminaire noise is not only annoying to shoppers but to employees who must remain in the area for a period of time. If several fixtures are creating noise, the problem can lead to physical discomfort, such as headaches. Galvanized shelving, ductwork, or a metal deck ceiling will magnify the noise.

Today, fluorescent lighting systems with electronic ballasts eliminate the noise problem caused by vibrating laminations within traditional magnetic ballasts. However, many retailers are choosing to install high intensity discharge (HID) systems in their stores because of the high lumen value available in such a small source. These luminaires, in turn, may create noise.

HID luminaires are available that have encapsulated ballasts that reduce and absorb ballast noise. The potting compound used in an encapsulated ballast acts as a sound barrier so that even if the laminations inside the ballast start to work loose over time and begin to vibrate, the sound is minimized.

HID lighting systems are also available that incorporate new electronic ballast technology. As mentioned above, electronic ballasts have long been used with fluorescent lighting systems. In recent years, the ballasts have also been available with lower wattage HID luminaires (150 watts or less).

The new electronic ballasts may be used with 320-, 350- and 400-watt metal halide and pulse start metal halide lamps, making them applicable for a wide variety of retail environments. Luminaires utilizing the new electronic ballast technology offer greater energy efficiency and provide higher maintained footcandle levels than HID fixtures with conventional magnetic ballasts. Also, the new electronic ballast’s dimming capabilities make it ideal for daylight harvesting.

A Reliable Contractor
When planning a lighting project—whether a new application or a retrofit—select a reputable contractor and/or company to specify and install the lighting system. Check with other retailers and businesses that have implemented similar projects to obtain contractor names and recommendations. Determine how long any contractor or company you are considering has been in business and ask to visit completed installations.

Doing your homework prior to project implementation will take time. But the results in terms of shopper comfort, increased same store sales, visibility and energy efficiency will be worth the effort.

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