Retail lighting trends: Counter intelligence

What developments and furniture trends are in retail lighting? DPA lighting partner Gary Campbell has answers.


Words by Jill Entwistle

On the high Street or in the shopping mall of today the competition for customers and their loyalty is as strong as ever. There is more confidence to spend now than there was a couple of years ago and retail brands vie to maximise their market share. We know from media reports that the proportion of online shopping has risen considerably, but brands must still have a strong presence in terms of physical stores.

Each brand works hard to attract customers by providing perceived individuality, quality and creativity. A significant part of how this is achieved is in the retail design of the brand's stores and, in turn, the lighting that complements that design and image. It is a rule of thumb that the lifespan of a store interior is around seven years before it is redone. So, brands are continually looking to improve their appearance and keep ahead of their competitors. Let's look at the fundamental requirements of retail lighting:

  • Provide the appropriate ambience to set the mood for the brand and, at a basic level, allow safe and easy movement around the store. The use of lighting to help with the customer 'journey' around the store.
  • Provide appropriate levels of well-controlled, high quality merchandise display lighting, creating a significant differential from the ambient effect.
  • Provide a high-quality lit environment in fitting rooms.
  • Enhance the interior design to show the store and promote the brand to best effect.
  • Provide visual interest and brand enhancement through decorative luminaires or through lighting integrated into special interior design feature elements.

We are at all times thinking about the quality of light itself, optical control of the light, and visual comfort, as well as keeping in mind capital cost investment considering the lifetime of the store.

So, retail interior design and lighting design are constantly evolving and this is what makes the retail sector of lighting design so exciting to work in. So, currently what sort of developments and techniques are we seeing?

Energy efficiency and sustainability

Clearly, energy efficiency and sustainability are very important topics in today's world. Many brands actively have a sustainability policy that naturally attempts to cater for the world we live in and the requirements of Building Regulations. But brands also use this as a marketing tool to tell their customers that, along with selling you everything you need, and don't need but want, they are considering the welfare of the planet too. When it comes to lighting in these it largely means that the preferred use is of LED or other low-energy light sources, and using as little lighting equipment as possible.

Decorative luminaires and use of colour are ways of providing visual interest and enhancing the brand. Shown is the Qela luxury goods store in Doha
Decorative luminaires and use of colour are ways of providing visual interest and enhancing the brand. Shown is the Qela luxury goods store in Doha

This is, of course, not particularly sophisticated, but at least there is some thought there, and we all understand the need for this. So, there is continued pressure, and rightly so, in minimising energy use in lighting, but sometimes the constraints can be too harsh to produce the high-quality lighting design that the client expects.

So, sometimes a discussion needs to take place to explain what is possible and what is not.

Light sources and luminaires

We know that the quality of LED light sources in terms of efficacy and light quality is improving every month and we can safely say that, while not perfect, LEDs are now a viable light source to use in most high-quality retail applications. In reality, in the absence of halogen, it has to be the first choice. Colour temperature options are good and what we term CRI (colour rendering) is very good.

But it is not enough to specify 3000K and CRI 90. There is so much variation in the market, and so we look at working samples against a range of colour swatches and, importantly, against skin tone. We ask for the individual index values across the range of measurement colours, not just the average. We know that the R9 (red content) is extremely important and so we make sure the specified LED is high for this. It is quite common to get a high CRI value but a poor red.

Optical control is another significant factor with all luminaires and light sources. Clients, retail designers and lighting designers are all striving for the most discreet and integrated ambient and display-lighting solutions. With the prevalence of LEDs in either single-source COB (chip on board) or multi-chip lensed solutions, the physical size of luminaires can be compromised in achieving a proper clean, narrow beam. Some products use outer lenses, but this affects efficiency, and larger reflectors for supposedly narrower beams just create more possibilities for glare.

In comparison to traditional filament sources, LEDs do suffer to a degree in dimming quality, but in retail this normally only becomes a factor in specialist areas.

Many manufacturers are working on miniaturisation of LED sources, hence luminaires, and in time this will improve significantly. Greater compactness is also being achieved with track-mounted spotlights with the driver built into the lamp housing. This is a fairly recent development and makes for a neater solution overall.

Capital cost of lighting equipment has always been a major factor in retail lighting. There are many brands that do not use, or cannot afford, a lighting designer or good-quality lighting equipment. There we see poor colour appearance and rendition, clunky light fixtures and lots of glare. We also see terrible fitting room lighting. We are also seeing more customer interactive lighting, from simple solutions where the lighting 'dims up' when the customer enters to white colour tuning lighting, so that the customer can view themselves in 'daylight' and in the 'evening environment'.


Flexibility in retail lighting is a fundamental requirement. Merchandise displays and furniture layouts are always being refreshed and must be catered to in the design stages. This doesn't mean that the brand visual merchandising (VM) teams will always adjust the lighting to suit; but the good brands, aware of what lighting can do, will view this as vital.

We see a trend for track and spot solutions in ceiling troughs, or deep linear profiles with internal movable spotlights. Track lighting is a simple solution and not particularly aesthetic. It was out of favour with the more high quality brands for a long time, but by recessing the track into a ceiling trough a discreet, largely integrated and flexible solution for ambient and display lighting can be achieved.

These troughs are often finished in black to conceal the equipment further and to avoid sight of any blackening.

The same effect can be achieved with linear profile systems. The capital cost is more, but the argument is that the builders' work details are simpler and a trough does not have to be formed by the contractors.

Otherwise neat, trimless, plaster-in, low-glare adjustable downlights are a common solution. They are relatively discreet and enhance the perceived quality of the interior design and the brand. Also, we have the standard multigimbal luminaire that's been around for a long time now.

Custom feature lighting

We see a big trend for custom VM features with lighting integrated within or around them. These features can be floorstanding or suspended, over displays, walkway node points, or wrapped around columns. Integrated lighting to these features is key to bringing them to life and give visual focus to the location. Sometimes, the integrated lighting is decorative only, but in other cases practical task lighting is incorporated, for example in atria or triple-height areas where there is difficulty lighting from the available ceilings.

Visual merchandising points and pop-ups

These areas require additional enhanced lighting, with the capability of colour and dynamism, or temporary light installation provision, clearly to be built in at the design stage.

Facades and entrances

It is important to maximise the store and brand appeal on the street. To achieve this, many brands have developed special facade and entrance portal designs that use light in an important way. We saw this 10 years ago on a large scale in Tokyo with the high-end fashion brands using media screens. but this general concept has become much more common. For the higher budget outlets and one-off flagships this can not only incorporate video display, both real and abstract, but also simpler static-lit effects comprising edge and back-lit glass or metal fretwork. Alternatively, on interesting heritage facades, these are subtly and sensitively illuminated to give significant street presence and perceived brand quality.

Possible future trends and issues

Retail design is continually evolving and so is its lighting design. Energy efficiency and sustainability have become crucial factors in the way we consider the design approach and in the selection of light sources and luminaires. Through recent experience we know that with a bit of creative thinking we can achieve good lighting solutions in department stores for around 30-40W/sq m. But in some locations in the Middle East, the regulations have begun to ask for less than half that across a whole department store. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this while at the same time producing a high-quality lighting solution that satisfies both client and design team. Nevertheless, there will be continued pressure on energy use for everyone, and light source and luminaire manufacturers must work hard to make improvements.

Maximising the store and brand appeal on the street: many brands have used lighting to develop special facade and entrance portal designs. H&M in Sydney is shown
Maximising the store and brand appeal on the street: many brands have used lighting to develop special facade and entrance portal designs. H&M in Sydney is shown

Continued miniaturisation of light sources will hopefully be a developing trend. This will ultimately aid efficiency and help designers with optical control and smaller, more discreet luminaires. Further on, we might see illuminating materials being used as interior surfaces to give further integration of lighting. More work is being done on OLEDs, but there is still some way to go if this is to be a practical light source.

We may see increased application of white colour tuning for integrated furniture lighting. This idea is particularly applicable to jewellery displays, but careful consideration is needed to avoid a mishmash of lit effect that would detract from the overall lit scene.

There will be more emphasis on developing the brand experience and special visual installations to promote the brand and enhance the shopping experience. These will naturally involve creative and flexible lighting to provide a wow effect. This can logically progress to more customer interactive installations and experiences. We have previously designed ambient lighting for a retail brand that responds subtly to the time of day, again to improve the customer experience, and we may see some developments in this direction. We should also see more enhancement of street presence through facade lighting installations.

To compete with easy online shopping, physical stores will generally need to provide more enhanced brand experience with visual excitement. Whether this involves "retailtainment" or value-added environments where you can shop, lunch and get a massage all in one location, the future of retail will demand highly creative lighting solutions.

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