Musical Merchandise Review — April 2014
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MI Store Lighting Know-How: Part I
Pete Miller


The selection of the right lighting can be a major contribution to retail sales. Lighting can establish a store’s image, lead customers inside, focus their attention, make the products attractive and visible, and in general encourage purchasing. “Energy Effective” lighting provides all these benefits for the lowest life-cycle cost, while saving energy, operating costs, and maintenance. This guide shows you how it is done, with sample layouts and specifications that are energy effective, and energy code compliant.

Retail lighting must have good color, contrast and balance between lighted surfaces. Other qualities are listed in the chart below. There is no single formula for all retail lighting. A professional lighting designer or retail designer may be able to create successful designs while breaking all the rules suggested here. However, this guide is intended to provide sound advice and simple techniques for consistently successful and “energy effective” retail lighting.


These layouts are intended for independent MI retail establishments between 500 and 1,000 square feet in size, and for three different types of stores: Basic retail lighting systems are appropriate for high activity, self-service retailing such as mass merchandising and discount stores. Shelves are generally tall and dense. Bright surfaces, exposed sources, and industrial luminaires are an important part of the approach, communicating the image of “maximum value” to customers. Higher-end retailing requires lower ambient levels and more accent lighting to create contrast and drama. These stores have a more relaxed level of customer activity with more personalized sales assistance. The majority of stores fall in between these categories, requiring more ambient lighting than exclusive shops, with fewer accent lights. We call this category an intermediate retail store.



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.


Spotlighting used to provide higher levels of light in a focused pattern to accentuate selected objects in relation to their surroundings. Accent lighting establishes the importance of certain objects through the use of contrast, and highlights the form, structure, texture, or color of the merchandise.


Lighting the vertical surfaces. Asymmetrical light fixtures can direct light on tall vertical shelving and displays, typically located at the perimeter of the merchandise area. Valance lighting allows the source to be quite close to the merchandise area. 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, shelving unit or gondola. 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.


Small or miniature light sources located very close to the objects being displayed, shielded from the customer’s views. This lighting must be carefully selected for the particular application to avoid accidental contact with hot lamps and to prevent damaging instruments and other merchandise with too much ultra-violet radiation or heat.


Q. Incandescent light has a 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 types.

Q. Low-voltage lamps use 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. However, low-voltage lamps have smaller filaments, 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. Lighting for retail 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.

quick tips

Getting the Most “Bang for your Bucks”

1. Put the light source close to the merchandise.

2. For ambient lighting, use efficient, diffuse sources, such as fluorescent.

3. For accent lighting, use narrow beam spotlights such as Halogen PARs or Low-Voltage MR-16s.

4. Use the fewest types of lamp to get the desired effect, educing relamping mistakes, and maintenance headaches.

5. Illuminate the aisles with spill light from the accented merchandising areas or displays.

6. Lower levels of ambient lighting require fewer watts of accent lighting.

7. Use the lightest colors on the interior surfaces of shelving.

8. Use organized patterns of light fixtures. Chotic patters may confuse, agitate, or fatigue the customers.

9. Use high color rendering lamps for both ambient and task lighting.


Common Misapplications

1. Using incandescent lights for everything.

2. Track lighting rather than fixed locations.

3. Using foodlights rather than spotlights.

4. Random fixture layouts or visual chaos.

5. Too many shiny surfaces.

6. Black ceilings.

7. Dark finishes.

8. Accent everything, while emphasizing nothing in particular.

9. Spotty lighting. Not enough ambient light to clearly examine merchandise.


Higher-end shops do not need to use more energy to be effective. The lighting layouts we’ll discuss in Part II of this guide all have connected loads of 2.1 watts per square foot or less. All achieve good quality lighting appropriate for their businesses. Higher light levels are provided in Basic retailing. Higher-end shops provide more focus and highlights by decreasing the ambient light levels. Compared to common practice, 2.1 watts per square foot not only meets the latest energy codes, but also saves 30 percent of a store’s energy cost for lighting.


These specifications include lighting fixtures that will ensure a balance of performance, flexibility, energy-savings and maintenance at a cost-effective price. Many standard products will meet these specifications.