Retail lighting can be broken down into four primary types: general/ambient lighting, task lighting, accent lighting, and decorative lighting. There are also many bulb options, like halogen, fluorescent, and LEDs. This retail store lighting guide will help you plan the right lighting, bulbs, and fixtures to brighten your store and spur sales.
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Why Retail Lighting Is Important to Your Business
Retail lighting is a key component in making customers feel at home in your shop and enticing them to buy. According to Leslie Stern, a retail design and lighting specialist and owner of Leslie M Stern Design, “the right retail lighting does much more than simply illuminate your retail space. It sets the mood and atmosphere, guides shoppers to key areas, and provides an overall backdrop for your customer experience.”
Intimate, upscale, trendy, funky, quick-service, or zen—whatever your image, your store lighting helps to instill that feeling the minute customers walk in the door. Images: Mynd Interiors and DigThisDesign
Achieving the perfect retail lightscape isn’t difficult once you understand the principles and techniques behind designing a retail lighting plan. This guide will walk you through the process, step-by-step.
1. Learn the Four Different Types of Retail Lighting
Lighting-inspired moods are achieved by pairing two elements—light fixtures and light bulbs—in various ways. How you combine these depends on your store’s lighting needs. According to Stern, “retail stores typically use some combination of four different lighting techniques to light up their space.”
These four techniques are:
Accent lighting is used to highlight specific areas, displays, and decor throughout your retail store. “The purpose of accent lighting is to make products pop and add a sense of importance,” says Stern. Various types of accent lighting are used to draw shoppers to particular areas in your store, such as products within shelving and nook displays, in windows, and on walls, as shown below.
Accent lighting draws the eye to the elements that you want your customers to notice, like displays and featured items. Images: Pegasus Lighting and enlightenmentmag.com.
Accent lighting can also be installed into cases or behind displays as backlighting and used to brighten dreary corners in your store. “As a general rule, accent lighting is the answer for any display space that needs to be brightened or highlighted beyond the wash of ambient light in your store,” says Stern.
Task lighting is focused lighting used to illuminate areas where more lighting is needed for certain tasks or purposes. “Store checkout counters, dressing rooms, service desks, and back office and stockroom areas all benefit from task-specific lighting,” says Stern.
Task-specific lighting that’s also decorative checks both boxes. Images: Mynd Interiors, left; InStoreDesignDisplay.com, right
Decorative retail lighting adds a decorative element to the lighting tactics covered above. Decorative lighting is achieved by using a fixture with a certain aesthetic, such as a chandelier, set of pendant lights, or sleek track system to help define your store brand while filling an accent, task, or ambient lighting need.
Decorative lighting is meant to be memorable, like these eye-catching orange chandeliers and mixed monochrome pendants. Images: Cabinet Space and Zen Merchandiser.
General (or Ambient) Lighting
General, also called ambient, lighting is the main light source for your store. “Ambient lighting fills in the gaps between the lighting used to highlight displays, counters, corners, and shelving,” says Stern. The overall purpose of general/ambient retail store lighting is to make customers feel comfortable in the space and provide enough light to safely explore the entire store, like these inviting boutiques, below.
Ambient lighting can make a statement or be a simple series of panels or recessed can lights. Images: W&Co. Displays and Signs and LED Supply Co.
2. Know Your Options for Bulbs & Fixtures
Each of the four lighting methods covered above can be achieved using various light bulbs in fixtures that are strategically placed to illuminate certain areas of your store. Done correctly, your space will be awash in light, your displays will pop, and your customers will see all of your goods in their best light.
Retail Lighting—Bulb Brightness & Color
Before we explore the three different types of bulbs used in retail store lighting, you first need to understand the two different ways that light is measured: color temperature and lumens. Each of these two factors plays a role in creating the atmosphere you want to achieve in your retail lightscape.
Color Temperature = Color Tone of the Light
The tone of the light—warm or cool—is determined by its color temperature, and this is measured in Kelvin, shown as the letter K on bulb labels. As a rule of thumb, the higher the Kelvin, the whiter—or cooler—the light that’s emitted from a bulb.
As shown above, warmer tones hover at the lower end of the Kelvin scale, around 2000K to 3500K; daylight and cooler tones are 3600K and higher. This color temperature has a major effect on the ambiance of your store. Warm temperatures are cozy and inviting while cooler temperatures impart a modern, crisp tone, as shown below.
Warm tones (left) and cool tones (right) create entirely different moods in retail stores. Images: Fraztec Lighting and DigThisDesign
You can mix various color temperatures throughout your space, but small stores tend to stick with one general color tone. Plus, your wall colors, ceiling heights, and the amount of natural light from windows all factor into selecting the right tone for your space.
Lumens = Brightness
Lumens are the measure of brightness that a single bulb or integrated LED light fixture emits. Watts, which is the measure of the energy a bulb uses, isn’t a reliable measure of brightness since energy-efficient fluorescent, halogen, and LED lighting emits more lumens per watt compared to traditional incandescent bulbs. So, lumens is the measurement you need to use when choosing bulbs for your retail lighting.
In short, if you need a brighter light in a certain space, you need a bulb with higher lumens. You’ll use your total lumens to determine if you have enough light in your space. Don’t worry! It’s simple math. We’ll show you how that works later in this guide.
Retail Lighting—Bulb Types
It’s also important to know that the different types of light bulbs used in retail lighting offer a full range of light output (lumens) and color temperatures. Generally speaking, no one type of bulb is best for dim or bright uses or for warm or cool tones. Nowadays, you can achieve most lighting schemes with any bulb type.
Speaking of bulbs, here are the three primary types of bulbs used in retail store lighting, plus a few key details about each.
Halogen Light Bulbs
- Average cost – Low to mid-range starting at around $2 per bulb for a recessed light bulb.
- Operating life – Shortest of the three options.
- Energy-efficiency – Lowest of the three options; uses more watts per lumen than the other two types of bulbs.
- Color temperature range – Halogen bulbs come in the full spectrum of color temperatures—warm to cool.
- Best for – Accent lights in retail spaces, task lighting, and decorative fixtures.
Halogen light bulbs are a low-cost alternative to LEDs for downlights, track, and accent lights. Images: 1000Bulbs and City Lighting Products
Halogen light bulbs are the modern version of the incandescent light. Halogen bulbs are less efficient than fluorescent and LED lighting, which we’ll cover next, so they cost more to operate over time. However, halogen bulbs are inexpensive and can be used in many existing incandescent fixtures, so they’re a cost-effective way to upgrade accent and task lighting in checkout areas, display units, and store windows.
Fluorescent Tubes and Compact Fluorescent Bulbs (CFL)
- Average cost – Mid-range, starting around $4 per bulb for a recessed light bulb.
- Operating life – Middle of the three options.
- Energy-efficiency – Middle of the three options; uses more watts per lumen than LEDs but fewer than halogen bulbs.
- Color temperature range – Fluorescent tubes and CFL bulbs come in the full spectrum of color temperatures—warm to cool.
- Best for — General/ambient lighting and task lighting.
Fluorescent lighting comes in all shapes and styles. Images: 1000Bulbs and Izuko Lighting
Fluorescent lighting is a popular choice for general ambient lighting, plus it comes in decorative options in both tube and compact bulb lighting suitable for accent and task lighting needs. Fluorescent lighting tends to be more expensive than halogen bulbs, but long-term, the operating costs are lower since it’s a more energy-efficient option.
- Average cost – Most expensive, starting at $15 per bulb for a recessed light bulb.
- Operating life – Longest of the three options.
- Energy-efficiency – Best of the three options; uses far fewer watts per lumen than fluorescent and halogen bulbs.
- Color temperature range – Like the other two bulb options, LEDs come in the full spectrum of color temperatures—warm to cool.
- Best for – All types of retail lighting.
Energy-efficient LED lighting is available in a range of decorative options and color temperatures. Images: 1000Bulbs
Retail stores are quickly adopting LED lighting for the majority of their lighting applications. LED technology has grown tremendously in recent years, and you can find long-life LEDs for a wide variety of general, ambient, task, and accent lighting. In some applications, like spotlighting, halogen bulbs can still provide more color-accurate light, but overall, LEDs suit most lighting needs and help you save the most on energy costs long-term.
Popular Fixtures Used in Retail Lighting
The three types of bulbs listed above, in any lumen and color temperature, can be used in a wide variety of light fixtures. Most retail store lighting combines several different types of fixtures with various bulbs to deliver the correct amount of light throughout the space.
Here’s a look at the most common types of light fixtures used in various retail applications.
The takeaway when it comes to retail lighting bulbs and fixtures is this—the sky’s the limit. In most cases, you can use whichever bulb you prefer with a wide variety of fixtures to create the look you desire. Next, we’ll walk through the process of selecting the right lighting for a retail space.
3. Design Your Retail Lighting Plan & Estimate Costs
Now that you know the basics, you’re ready to put your retail lighting plan together. The easiest method is to sketch out your lighting ideas onto your retail store floor plan. You can do this using tracing paper over your store’s blueprint, or you can use an online store layout and design tool, like SmartDraw. However you handle it, the four-step lighting design approach covered below is an easy way to get the results you want.
Four-Step Retail Lighting Plan
1. Light Up Display Areas with Accent Lighting
Both the pros at 1000Bulbs and professional designer Stern recommend approaching your lighting design in layers, starting with accent and display lights first. Following this advice, the boutique pictured above started with versatile ceiling-mounted track lighting (1) as accent lighting to highlight display areas throughout the store:
- Fixture: Track light system that holds three to four movable spotlights with LED bulbs
- Quantity in the plan: 6 at $95 each
- Total cost: $570
Placing accent lighting in the plan first follows Stern’s advice to “illuminate your spotlight areas first, such as display walls and cases, shelving, window displays, and corners and niches.” For this, Stern says, “shops can use accent lighting that’s utilitarian in design, like downlights and track systems, or decorative like sconces or pendants—or a mix of both.”
2. Brighten Your Workspaces with Task Lighting
Task lighting, which generally covers a larger area than accent lights, is next on the list. “Once accents lights are set into the plan, turn your attention to lighting up your checkout counters, dressing rooms, and other task or service-specific areas,” says Stern.
The boutique pictured above added a pendant light set over the checkout counter (2) to add more light directly over the cash register and surrounding workspace:
- Fixture: Pendant light fixture with three shaded LED bulbs
- Quantity in the plan: 1 at $185
- Total cost: $185
Task lighting is another opportunity to enlist decorative elements, like this store’s pendant fixture, in your lighting scheme. “Decorative fixtures can be used across all lighting layers,” says Stern. “Task lighting is a great opportunity to incorporate decorative pendant lights, sconces, or suspended fixtures—and even chandeliers—to drive the aesthetic of your brand.”
3. Add Decorative Flair Throughout
Your accent and task lighting needs should give you ample opportunities to combine utility with style. Once those elements are in place, see if you have any lighting “holes” that can be filled with a statement piece—like this boutique’s two centrally placed chandelier fixtures (3):
- Fixture: Flea-market chandelier fixtures, painted, rewired and fitted with LED bulbs
- Quantity in plan: 2 repurposed chandeliers, $50; Rewiring, $100; 24 LED bulbs: $75
- Total cost: $225
“Decorative lighting is designed to attract the eye and communicate your brand,” says Stern. “The right piece in the right place can make your store memorable, but it must communicate your brand to do the job. For example, a traditional chandelier in a contemporary furnishing store is a mismatch.”
Stern also reminds store owners to be creative, since “decorative lighting can take many forms. It can be installed on walls, in recessed niches, in window displays, on columns, at the entrance, and even over your checkout counter.”
4. Fill in the Gaps with Ambient Lighting
Ambient lighting fills in the lighting gaps between your accent, task, and decorative fixtures. Those elements need to be placed first so you can identify and fill in any gaps with ambient lighting, like this boutique’s ceiling-mounted LED panels (4):
- Fixture: Ceiling-mounted LED light panels
- Quantity in the plan: 22 at $30 each
- Total cost: $660
“This bottom-up approach to lighting design washes your entire space in the appropriate amount of light and ensures that your ambient light doesn’t overpower other lights,” says Stern. “This way, your accent lighting can do its job and draw shoppers’ attention to products and displays.”
Total Cost for Fixtures and Bulbs Used in This Lighting Design
Adding up the light fixtures and bulbs for this boutique’s lighting plan, the total cost comes to: $1,640.
Of course, necessary wiring, retrofitting, or installation work impacts the actual cost of any lighting plan. But the four-step layered lighting approach covered above gives you a head start in judging your overall fixture and bulb needs, plus an idea of the cost.
Need Help with Your Retail Lighting Plan? Turn to the Pros
If you’re unsure of the best lighting placement or products for your store, commercial lighting pros can help. In fact, the trained commercial lighting staff at 1000Bulbs will help you devise a budget-friendly solution for your space over the phone—for free.
Vanessa Vazquez, a commercial lighting specialist at 1000Bulbs says, “many small retailers that we talk to are simply looking to improve the lighting that they already have, or are moving into a space that has some existing fixtures. There are many cost-effective ways to address both of these needs.”
“Retrofitting existing light panels and fixtures to use modern, efficient LED bulbs in panels, downlights, and track lights is a very cost-effective way for small retail stores to create the atmosphere they desire, within budget,” says Vazquez. “Whether the shop owner is starting from scratch, looking to do a partial or full retrofit, or add areas of accent or task lighting, we’ll review their store layout and existing lighting (if any), and help devise a solution that meets their retail lighting needs.”
4. Review Your Plan’s Lighting Coverage
After you’ve sketched out your plan and incorporated a mix of bulb types and fixtures, you’ll want to ensure that your plan will look great in real life. That’s where your lumens come back into the picture.
The Lighting Research Center recommends that retail stores aim for an ambient light measurement of 1.5 to 2.5 lumens per cubic foot. To calculate this, you first need to calculate the cubic area of your retail space, using this formula:
After you figure up the total lumens needed to light the space, add up the total lumens provided by the bulbs in your lighting plan. Does the total number of lumens in your plan come close to the lumens needed per your cubic foot formula? If it’s close, then you’re on track. If your plan’s lumens total is greater, you can pare backlighting in some areas. If it’s lower than the recommended amount, you may need to fill in some gaps with more ambient lighting.
Math and lumens aside, according to Stern, “a good general rule-of-thumb is that retail store light fixtures should be no more than six feet apart. This measurement especially applies to recessed can or track lighting. However, ambient fluorescent or LED panel lights can work with more space between fixtures, depending on the total amount nearby accent or task lighting you have.
Other Tips Plus Mistakes to Avoid in Your Retail Lighting Plan
Here are some things you can do to maximize the lighting in your plan and save money over time, plus a few things to avoid.
Don’t Burn Your Customers
Okay, maybe that is a bit extreme. But, it is important to make sure that the heat emitted doesn’t cause discomfort or fade products, especially in customer-accessible spaces like shelving and displays. In terms of heat emitted, halogen lights are the warmest, LEDs coolest, and fluorescents fall in between.
Do Buy LED Bulbs by the Batch
LED bulbs can vary in color temperature, so try to buy LED bulbs from the same manufacturing lot and buy extras in the batch, so if you do have to replace a bulb (rare), you’ll have a tone match.
Do Factor in Replacement & Energy Costs
The upfront cost is certainly an important consideration, but not the only one. When factoring your retail store lighting costs, consider your total energy cost and replacement bulb costs. This will help you to determine how much you will actually spend per year on lighting. This cost comparison of the three light sources will show you how.
Do Use Mirrors to Reflect Light & Brighten Your Store
Mirrors are an inexpensive way to boost the light throughout your space and brighten your store. Mirrors do double duty as decorative accents and serve utilitarian needs for customers trying on apparel or accessories. In spaces that need a touch more light, a mirror is a low-cost alternative to adding new wiring and fixtures.
Do Use Dimmer Switches
Dimmer switches let you control the level of light usage in your store. Installing simple dimmers can help save a significant amount on your energy bills and gives you control over the ambiance throughout the day. If you have natural light from windows, you can use less energy during daylight hours, then turn up the lights after the sun goes down.
Do Spend Your Money on Accent & Task Lighting
If you’re in a tight budget, put your money where it counts. In most stores, that’s your accent and task lighting. Stern advises, “Accent and task lighting fixtures and bulbs are the most elements in your plan because they highlight your product and keep the work areas well-lit and productive.” She notes that “fluorescent lighting is actually not a bad option for ambient and general lighting needs. It’s cost effective and much more efficient than it used to be.”
Where to Buy Retail Lighting
Retail store lighting can be found on numerous websites, but not all of them offer ready advice for the lighting newbie.
1000Bulbs is our recommended online provider for small retail store lighting needs. It offers a very large selection of lighting for all types of retail stores, plus has a staff of trained commercial lighting pros just a phone call away.
If you’d like to call in the pros to handle your retail lighting plan and installation, the American Society of Interior Designers member list has qualified commercial lighting designers listed by region.
The Bottom Line
Designing a retail lighting scheme involves many factors. Bulbs of varying types, colors, and brightness pair with an array of fixtures to create accent, task, decorative, and ambient lighting for a wash of light throughout your retail space. Using the process and tips covered above, you can easily develop a retail lighting plan yourself, especially if you enlist the help of pros at a commercial lighting supply, like 1000Bulbs. Or, you can call in a professional designer to create a plan for you.
Either way, your retail store lighting needs to enhance both your customer experience and your brand. If you’re on a tight budget, focus your spending on your standouts—accent and task lighting needs—and incorporate decorative fixtures so these essential elements do double duty. Then use less-costly ambient lighting, mirrors, dimmer switches, and energy-efficient bulbs to make the most of the lighting you have and save in the long run.
Do you have any bright ideas when it comes to retail lighting? Please share your experiences, advice, and input in the comments below.