Flawless finish

It started with resolving a beauty problem at Selfridges and ended with a whole new light module. Claire Hamill and Anna Sandgren of Nulty+ review the research project that gave a new complexion to retail lighting.


Words by Jill Entwistle

As lighting designers our process is often driven by the exploration of the built form. By using light as a medium we create tones, textures and a narrative in response to the needs of the environment. In interiors, we use light to sculpt shape, to create the essence of the environment, to enhance scale or even create a sense of intimacy. Light can help aid the functionality of space for tasks, way-finding and highlighting key objects and elements, telling the story for the user. It is a fundamental element that evokes connections and engagement between a space and its users, ultimately helping create user experience. This makes lighting a very influential design tool.

We know lighting plays an important role in how people experience and interact within an environment. But one very important element that is often overlooked is how the users look and feel within the space. How does the lighting installation respond to the vast variety of skin tones and global cultural diversity of colours? We know lighting should flatter how we see both ourselves and others in a space, but often lighting has the reverse effect, making people's complexion seem unhealthy or even ill. This experience can leave people with a negative memory of, or connection to, a place or situation.

Research has shown us that up to 80 per cent of retail sales' decisions can be made in the changing room, and we know that most cubicles are lit by artificial light.

Lighting in this instance should be honest but, more important, it should make people look and feel good. If the lighting is unflattering, a customer is more likely to leave with a negative experience of the brand and the store.

The fundamental importance of the relationship between light, space and brand experience within retail environments became more evident to us a few years ago.

We were approached by a high-end cosmetic brand to review the lighting installation within its flagship London concession at Selfridges. This is where brands' products come face-to face-with customers and is the frontline for a retailer to promote brand experience and engage in sales.

Independent volunteers compared the match of foundation shades and more
Independent volunteers compared the match of foundation shades and more

The brand had reported a series of repeat problems about the concession's lighting. The artificial light was not performing, merchandise was not standing out and skin tones looked unhealthy, deterring customers. In-store beauty consultants were also having problems correctly colour-matching foundations on customers. The colour rendering and appearance of skin tones was inconsistent and often varied from the other concessions in the department store. The existing lighting made some skin tone colours appear a pale blue or green, often associated with illness, while others reported a yellow or very red tone. These illuminated conditions were clearly not ideal for colour-testing foundations or make-up, and with these multiple issues it was evident that the lighting had to be addressed immediately.

While working with the brand we were told that the biggest customer complaint was people being dissatisfied with their purchase because they had been sold the wrong colour foundation. After further investigation, it transpired that it was not just a single brand issue, but a global industry problem. Given the scale of the problem we approached manufacturer Xicato, one of the world's leading researcher and developer of superior light-quality technology for LED modules. The company has developed a number of LED light sources and has carried out numerous research collaborations, from developing light sources for applications in galleries and designed to bring out the authentic hues in paintings, to retail, where the light sources were developed to bring out the true colours of merchandise.

We did extensive research into what light source and light application can enhance and improve the experience of skin tone in the cosmetic retail environment. The approach was to look at skin-tone science from the perspective of lighting technology and design.

As we know, lighting has gone through a revolution in the past 10 years that mirrors the transition from gas to electric lighting. The development of diode-based lighting (LED) over traditional lamp technology has brought huge energy, economic and maintenance savings, but has given little in the improvement of light quality. This is evident in the retail stores and concessions, where you have numerous LED and halogen light sources fighting against each other, creating undesired and conflicting effects.

Positive impressions, both physical and emotional, in the cosmetic retail environment is not only a key requirement for brand concessions in a department store, but also for the store owners. Nearly all department stores have the cosmetics area located at the ground floor entrance; this is because beauty concessions often take in more revenue than all other departments combined.

The research

Together with our colleague Christina Hebert we worked alongside Roger Sexton, VP specifier services at Xicato, and with Peter Raynham and Navez Davoodian from The Bartlett at University College London (UCL). They helped design the experiment and undertake the scientific analysis, while we broke down the research into different stages.

We started with field research in five of the largest flagship department stores in London. The method we used was visual analysis and semi-structured interviews with customers and in-store beauty consultants. For retailers, how the consumer interacts and connects with the brand during their time spent at cosmetic counter/concessions is one of the most interesting ways of achieving brand feedback.

The goal was to identify what the key issues were in relation to three lighting considerations:

- Colour matching of foundation

- Proper illumination of merchandise

- Emotional connection between customers within the space to encourage dwell time

All the beauty consultants we questioned reported various difficulties with colour-matching foundation and choosing colours because of the overhead lighting. They said it has always been common practice to send customers outside to review colour matching, as it is felt that daylight gives the best results. This is automatically problematic because in some department stores the exit is at quite a distance, which can result in a lost sale, and there is potential embarrassment for the customer because they are having to check their make-up in public. The outside weather is also a variable factor because of the limited number of daylight hours during winter months. London store Liberty has gone as far as mounting mirrors next to the windows in order to use daylight when checking make-up and colour matching.

The Nulty+ team was brought in by British brand Cosmetics á la Carte, in Selfridges, London to improve colour matching and the customer experience
The Nulty+ team was brought in by British brand Cosmetics á la Carte, in Selfridges, London to improve colour matching and the customer experience

It became clear that through research and a scientifically proven method of lighting skin tones, accompanied with good lighting-design practices, we could greatly improve the experience for both the customer and retailer.

From the results collated during the field research and focus group, we organised a three-step pilot day at the beauty brand's London HQ. Some 50 female volunteers between the ages of 18 and 54 participated in the study. Independent volunteers compared the match of various foundation shades, as well as how they felt about the different colours within each lit environment, particularly POS merchandise.

Creating the LED module

After months of development, with constant testing and discussion between the team, a set of LED modules were created that allowed for final testing with the same three-step criteria as the pilot day: colour matching, merchandise display, and emotional connection. The results were analysed by UCL and the final module collectively chosen by the collaborating team, resulting in Xicato's Beauty Series.

Our initial intention was to define the existing problems and try to find a solution that would better improve the current lighting situation in department-store beauty concessions. However, the results far exceeded our expectations -- the introduction and development of a new LED module. We have developed a light source that evokes an emotional connection within the space, stimulates a feeling of health and wellbeing, encourages dwell time and creates a flawless brand experience.

'I would say that what makes Beauty Series so effective is two things,' says Roger Sexton. 'The first is colour point: a warm and comfortable white with a rosy tinge -- this often imparts a feeling of wellbeing. For colour discrimination and the matching of foundations, the colour rendering and gamut area are relevant. However, I would say its overall effectiveness derives from the robust, dedicated specification research that Claire and Anna carried out with UCL.'

Not long after we developed the new module, we had the opportunity to apply it to a real-life installation, a London-based make-up and skincare brand, Cosmetics à la Carte. The brand's simple ethos for making customers look and feel good was the perfect project for this new light source. It was one of the first boutiques where we've installed the Beauty Series LED module and the end result enabled us to achieve a space that was welcoming and engaging to customers, and a scheme that beautifully complements the interior, giving clients a flawless face and brand experience.

We identified that environments that cause you to reflect on yourself such as changing rooms, restaurants and cosmetic counters, make you immediately become more emotionally connected to the space and self-aware. So creating an emotional connection with the environment, through lighting as a response tool, is key to building connections between users and their surroundings.

Lighting research and technologies have previously looked at the built environment in response to interior design, but what about lighting the human factor? People ultimately want to look and feel good.

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