Ambient, accent and valance lighting are all used in this tile showroom. Each vignette is showcased with accent spotlights, while ambient lighting focuses on the display racks. Valance lighting is shown at the ceiling line, focusing up to reflect off of the ceiling and provide more ambient light.


There is no one "right way" to design retail lighting, so the first step is to figure out what type of lighting will work best. For example it is important to understand the difference between accent lighting and ambient lighting. Overall, a store's lighting scheme generally falls into one of three categories: basic, intermediate and high-end. Each, of course, has its pluses and minus:

Basic. These lighting systems are common in high activity, self-service discount stores and other environments where the shelves are generally tall and dense. Bright surfaces, exposed sources and industrial luminaries are central to this bare bones approach as, they communicate the image of maximum value to the customers. Generally we're talking about mass merchants, discount stores, hardware, videos, fast food, grocery, appliance and, on occasion, some furniture or floor covering stores. It is typically a destination store that doesn't rely on lighting or store design to lure customers. It is usually the simplest to design and the least expensive to install. The purpose of the lighting is simply light all objects uniformly, providing good visibility for reading labels and to create a bright, clean, stimulating experience. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Intermediate. The majority of stores fall into this category. It requires more ambient lighting than exclusive shops, with fewer accent lights. Usually this group includes clothing, stationary, salons, gourmet shops, accessories, housewares, furniture and home furnishings. In these stores, the intent is to give sufficient uniform illumination necessary to see and examine product and read labels. Accent lighting is desirable to set products apart, to create highlights, or enhance texture to attract attention to window displays.

High-end. The more upscale approach involves lower ambient levels and more accent lighting to create a sense of contrast and drama. These stores tend to have a more relaxed level of customer activity with more personalized sales assistance. It is an environment that sells more expensive or exclusive merchandise, such as jewelry, gifts, antiques, fine clothing and fine household merchandise. The lighting in these stores helps establish an image and enhances the product color, sparkle and texture. The light should encourage lingering, examination and impulse buying.

While floor covering stores most often fall into the Intermediate category, I strongly suggest that you aspire for the high-end look. Done properly, you can set yourself apart from the competition, showcase higher quality goods and put yourself into a pricing category that is most profitable. No one in the floorcovering business should settle for the basic category, unless you are aiming to move tonnage at the lowest price possible.

Whatever light scheme you choose, it is important to understand the options available. So here is a rundown for some of the keys to know when you map out your lighting scheme.

Ambient Lighting is general, uniform lighting using light fixtures that distribute the light widely, directly or indirectly. Ambient lighting enables the customer to see and examine the merchandise, and the sales staff to complete the sale and perform their other duties.

Accent Lighting relies on spotlighting that creates higher levels of lumination in a focused pattern to accentuate selected objects in relation to their surroundings. It is a good way to establish the importance of certain objects through the use of contrast while highlighting the form, structure, texture and color of the merchandise.

Perimeter Lighting and Valance Lighting lights the vertical surfaces. Asymmetrical light fixtures can direct light on tall vertical shelving and displays, typically located at the perimeter of the showroom. Valance lighting allows the source to be quite close to the merchandise, providing a shield or valance to conceal the light sources from the view of the customer. Valances are often built into the wall or shelving unit. Although primarily intended to provide light down on the merchandise, they also can be designed to light up on signage or provide indirect ambient lighting for the space.

Shelf Lighting and Case Lighting involves small or miniature light sources located very close to the objects being displayed, shielded from the customer's view. This lighting must be carefully selected for the particular application to avoid accidental contact with hot lamps and to prevent damage to the merchandise with too much ultraviolet radiation or heat.

Of course, when you consider the numerous option available, it can get a bit complicated. It is important to understand the language of those involved in lighting. For example understanding fluorescent lamp color options involves a standard three-digit system for classifying lamps. Included is information about the Color Rendering Index (CRI) and the Correlated Color Temperature. Thus "835" stands for CRI of 80+ and a color temperature of 3500 Kelvin.

The Color Rendering Index is important because it indicates how well a given lamp renders the colors of the objects it illuminates. For Basic retailing, a CRI of 70+ is generally adequate. For Intermediate and High-end shops, 80+ is preferable. Correlated color temperature refers to the appearance of any light source. Low wattage incandescent is very "warm" at about 2700 Kelvin, Halogen is somewhat warm at 3000 Kelvin, and daylight is quite "Cool" at 5000 to 10,000 Kelvin. Fluorescent lamps are now available in a wide range of color temperatures, but those most appropriate for retailing are 3000 K for High-end shops, 3500 K for Intermediate shops, and 4100 K for Basic retailing.

And last, but not least, controls are very important. Proper lighting controls assure that individual fixtures are on only when they are most effective. Display window lights should be controlled separately from those inside the store lights. In addition, other fixture types should be on separate circuits, controlled by an astronomical time clock. This way, only the most efficient fixtures will be used outside of business hours, for staff activities such as cleaning and restocking. This not only saves energy, but greatly reduces maintenance for burned-out accent lights.

As you can see, there is much to consider when selecting a light scheme for your store. For those who have the time, you can even take a course on retail lighting at the General Electric's Nela Park Campus just outside of Cleveland. Contact the Lighting Institute at (800) 255-1200.

Not to be taken lightly

Lighting a retail space may seem like a pretty simple concept, but in reality many do not fully grasp the complexities involved. Consider, for examples, these common misconceptions:

True or False:

Q. Incandescent light has truer color?

A. FALSE. There is no true color of light, but mid day natural light is often considered a standard because it has all the wavelengths of color in more or less equal amounts. Incandescent sources are rich in warm tones but weak in cool tones. This is flattering to skin tones but poor in revealing colors for many products, especially those containing blues and greens. New tri-phosphor technology has resulted in fluorescent sources with superior color rendering in a wide variety of color appearances and lamp type.

Q. Low-voltage lamps require less energy than standard voltage lamps?

A. FALSE. A 50-watt, 12-volt lamp uses the same amount of power as a 50-watt, 120-volt lamp or 50-watt, 277-volt lamp. Keep in mind, however, that, low-voltage lamps have a smaller filament, which enables tighter focus of the beam. Thus, low voltage may be the most energy-effective choice for accent lighting.

Q. More light is better?

A. FALSE. Effective retail lighting is all about contrast and focus. Too much accent lighting means no contrast and no focus. The greatest lighting value is achieved by balancing ambient and accent lighting.