Retailers are increasingly turning to LED to light their stores, but how does it measure up when set against conventional lighting and is it just a fashion trend?

Talk to the average store designer, in-house or as part of a consultancy, and you’ll find a depth of knowledge about layout, fixtures and in-store navigation. If you’re fortunate, there may even be those who will be up to speed on new materials and finishes.

When it comes to lighting though, the lamps may well go off and a glazed look will suddenly appear on the face of the individual addressed. The majority of those involved in the business of store design draw the line at knowing about lighting. Jim Thompson, managing director at design consultancy 20/20, says: “There’s a lot of development and skill in lighting and it’s constantly changing, so for most designers to keep on top of this as well as everything else, is probably not realistic.”

There was, at one time, also a sense that some store designers would work on creating the blueprint for a new store and the lighting would be added, almost as a kind of layering on, at the end of the process. As a modus operandi, this too has gone, according to Thompson: “I just don’t think we can afford to do that anymore,” he says.

LED - a geek’s guide

  • LED stands for light emitting diode and is light produced using the movement of electrons.
  • LED lights are reputed to be around 300% more efficient than fluorescent lighting and up to 1,000% more efficient than a standard incandescent bulb. They also contain no toxins and therefore recycling issues are more straightforward to deal with.
  • The downside of the equation is that LED lights are more expensive to buy.

Keep talking to the store designer, however, and the term LED will almost certainly creep into the conversation eventually. At this point, most will demonstrate a fairly patchy knowledge of what an LED actually is and will summarise by saying that LED lighting equates to lower energy requirements and therefore longer-lasting light fixtures. Simple.

There is nothing wrong with this, but generally the cost of installation remains substantially higher than using more conventional light fixtures. While the initial price may be higher, the fact that an LED bulb lasts much longer than metal halide or tungsten light fittings means that ultimately the cost of ownership will be lower.

Philip Welsh, marketing analyst at lighting manufacturer Zumtobel, observes: “The big benefit with LEDs at the moment is that they last a lot longer. But if the average fit-out lifespan is only three years, then that argument doesn’t apply.”

“Most retailers are interested in LEDs but don’t know much about them”

Jonathan Morrish, Erco Lighting

Welsh says to date LED use has been mainly used when retailers want to create a particular mood and that for standard levels of high ambient mood, it has (with the exception of lighting inside freezer cabinets) proved of limited use in the supermarket arena.

He points out, however, that even this hard and fast rule is under attack and that Zumtobel has recently completed work on a Spar supermarket in the Austrian townof Murau, which is lit entirely using LED light sources.

Given the confusion that seems to surround LED lighting, it is hardly surprising that lighting consultancies are currently doing relatively good business. Erco Lighting lighting consultant and sector manager Jonathan Morrish says: “Most retailers are interested in LEDs, but they don’t know much about them and some of them ‘get’ it more than others.”

He cites Toast and Jigsaw, which are both clients, as examples of retailers that are quick to see the advantages of LED and says while the payback argument may be tough to uphold in fashion, “as long as it’s not a terribly long payback, they’re OK with it”. He also says the idea that just because a shopfit changes over time a lighting scheme has to work on the same time-scale is something of a myth. “I’ve been to high fashion stores where the time has come to install new lighting and what’s in place may have been there for around 15 years,” he says.

LED technology remains a relatively new frontier and Morrish remarks: “We only felt, as a manufacturer, that it was right to jump into this market a couple of years ago and retailers tend to be a little behind us on this kind of thing, so it is new.”

“It’s about giving character to a space”

Philip Welsh, Zumtobel

Practically, it seems probable that for the time being LEDs will remain the preserve of the fashion gang, irrespective of the cost, owing to its capacity to create ‘mood’

lighting for different environments fairly quickly. “It’s about giving character to a space,” as Welsh puts it. He continues: “It’s actually a matter of using the right application in the right place. As a retailer you might, for instance, have a requirement for the store to be well-lit but not to see the fixtures. With LEDs, this is possible.”

He also says that store lighting is entirely about context. “With a boutique [he cites Issey Miyake] you can bring the luminescence levels right down and just use accent spots. In other kinds of retailing, it’s about higher levels of lighting overall.”

It is also fair to say there are trends in lighting as much as in anything else and for the last couple of years it’s all been about LEDs. Thompson comments: “You can do much more about controlling the lighting in a store with LED. If you want to change the warmth level, or the colour or even phase the lighting to be different at different times of day, then this can now be done.”

So where does this place lighting and retailing as the world descends on EuroShop and spends a fair proportion of its visit in the hall(s) of lights (numbers 10 and 11, if you are making the trip)? It seems we are at something of a crossroads. Morrish gives an example of the lighting scheme in the Bond Street Victorinox store as an example of how metal halide lighting (considered by some to be a mite old-fashioned) can still be a very valid solution for retailers. “The luminescence per watt from metal halide is still higher than with LEDs and the Victorinox store shows how you can strike a balance in a retail interior between ambient and accent lighting.”

Nevertheless, it seems a fair bet that walking the lighting halls in Düsseldorf will point towards an LED future and most of the research and development currently underway is aimed at ensuring the primacy of this lighting technology. It’s an interesting time for retailers and designers, who need to choose between a perfectly workable metal halide standard and LED. Even allowing for the current status quo, the scales seem weighted in the direction of the new.