Lighting technology continues to push forward, with LEDs revolutionising interior options. But does investing in technical innovation produce a measurable sales uplift and payback return, and when is the right time to spend capital? Mark Faithfull investigates

In a world in which many companies lay dubious claim to revolutionary technological innovation, lighting manufacturers can point to genuine, seismic change. Over the past decade lamp development has shifted through several major iterations, especially in efficiency, size and colour (impacting, for example, how fresh a grocer’s apples look or showing off a healthy glow for skin tone and accurate clothing colour appearance).

For most industries that would already pass for something akin to revolutionary change but LEDs is where the real change has come. For a start, LEDs are electronic, not electrical. This means the technology is completely different, even at its most basic level, and that previous issues such as energy use and heat gain have been utterly changed, while lamp life has increased equally dramatically.

Initially a niche product, LEDs have advanced to become a competitor to traditional lighting techniques and their development reflects the direction in which the lighting industry is moving - not just in retail but across commercial and public space lighting.

Implementation has also spread rapidly from decorative applications and high-end retail to high street fashion and even the grocery sector. Philips, for example, is carrying out a major project with Tesco to deploy Affinium LED freezer modules, replacing the interior fluorescent lighting installed in its freezer cabinets in more than 750 stores. This has reduced Tesco’s freezer lighting energy use by about 60%. “The LED solution not only makes significant inroads in reducing our operating costs but it achieves this while supporting our own commitment to provide customers with a better place to shop,” says Tesco of the project.

“Total cost of ownership includes more than just energy savings - with lighting the increased service lifetime of the products reduces maintenance costs. It also means that retail space is available for selling and not closed off for maintenance and lamp changes and repairs,” adds Philips Lighting market manager for retail Caroline Easton. “In areas such as refrigeration, lighting LED modules deliver additional benefits in reduced cooling loads and lighting failures. The likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer have rolled out improved lighting solutions across their estates.”

Another grocer, Morrisons, became the first store in Europe to implement an exclusively LED solution at one of its forecourt stores at Illingworth, near Bradford, encompassing the entire site from petrol canopy and car wash right through to signage and forecourt retail illumination, including its chiller cabinets, for projected energy savings of about 64%.

Morrisons group electrical services and environmental engineering manager Ian Jagger stresses that the grocer was not interested in fitting a scheme that saved energy but where light quality was compromised. “We wanted to ensure that within the fuel bay, the pe­trol pumps are clearly illuminated. Everything is visible, pumps, people, columns and cars,” he says.

But if anything, the advent of LEDs has made the payback decision on lighting even more opaque. Not all LEDs are the same, whatever the manufacturer’s claims, and while LEDs from the major manufacturers should do what it says on the tin, this is not always the case for ‘equivalent’ products.

Let there be light

Into Lighting director Darren Orrow says that such is the confusion over LEDs that a number of its clients are now turning to consultancies for independent analysis of LED lamps. “There is no way an in-house retail team is going to have the time to do the sort of research involved,” he says.

“We now have a dedicated research manager to keep tabs on LED technology. We have never had to have someone like that before but things are moving so fast that our own designers need that sort of support.”

Orrow believes that while LED take-up has accelerated, the speed of innovation and ongoing cost reduction is causing many to play a wait-and-see game.

“There is a lot of trialling,” he says. “Take a stroll along somewhere like Oxford Street and you can see it in window displays and in linear detailing, where LEDs are replacing fluorescent lighting. But with LED light output going up and prices coming down, it is very hard for retailers to determine when to jump in. You don’t want to complete a roll out only to find the technology has moved on while you were doing it.”

He also reflects that payback periods are on the margins. “Financial directors have a big say in whether a scheme gets the go-ahead. Given that LEDs typically have 50,000-hours life you are talking about a payback of about three years, after which the big savings kick in for maintenance and energy reductions. But stores are often refurbished on a similar schedule, so you are talking about fine decisions,” he says.

Martin Lupton, director of lighting creative agency Light Collective, adds that specification needs to be considered very carefully. “There are an awful lot of claims being made by LED manufacturers but there is a big difference between the reputable companies and a lot of cowboys,” he says. “Amid all the energy savings talk, we have to remember visual quality. For that reason I wouldn’t recommend any of the pure retro-fits.”

And Lupton also dismisses the contention that payback is quantifiable, aesthetic quality is not. “I can’t think of a single retailer that couldn’t walk into their store and say this looks rubbish,” he says. “What retailers need is guidance on what questions to ask, the LED industry is lacking consistency and if we’re not careful that will kill it. The trick for retailers is to trial, test and assess really robustly.”

Easton adds that making a change to the lighting installation does not mean the investment in technology has to be written off if a scheme is refitted. “Accent and decorative lighting can be low energy and change the behaviour of shoppers in a way that attracts attention to merchandise,” she points out. “There are also differences between retail sectors in the frequency of renovation - it is possible to design lighting solutions to work with new designs or set different themes such as colour changing LEDs. These types of approach to design also enable the retail sector to achieve lower ownership costs.”

And Orrow reflects that for all the incredible pace of LED change, traditional technology still plays an important role. “I’d think of retailers like All Saints and Ted Baker, where ambient levels are low and where established and cost-effective lighting technology is used to great effect,” he says. “And of course if lighting levels are a bit lower you can replace a 70W lamp with a 35W one, and you get those immediate energy cost savings. There is certainly not one solution for store lighting, retailers need to take a holistic approach.” n