Is It Time To Re-Think Your Lighting Approach?


October 2013

By Jack Sjogren
Hillphoenix Design Center Specialist

Light may be the single most important item inside of a grocery store. It can be used to provide ambience, create a shopping pattern, stimulate a product purchase, give the appearance of freshness, or simply be used to see where one is going. If it is done right, it can lead to more sales, and if it is done poorly, sales will be lost. It is, therefore, important that careful thought is put into the design of lighting up-front and that all light sources are taken into account.

The perishable aisles are where lighting is most important. Most perishable products are uneven in shape so they are harder to light and their lifespan is affected by all light to some extent. Just as we keep potatoes in a dark area to extend their shelf life, other products are changing state as well based on the amount of light being driven onto the product. This change can occur because of the light waves themselves, ultraviolet rays, or the heat radiated by light.

As Light Emitting Diodes (LED’s) become more popular, retailers are discovering the vast potential applications in the supermarket refrigerated environment. LEDs are durable, safer to use, and give a nice fresh sparkle to many of products. Although LED’s are superior to traditional light in most applications, they still give off light waves and heat. Therefore it’s important to recognize more is not always better – even with lights that save energy.


More lighting can actually lead to lower sales, whether it is due to product integrity or a decrease of visual appeal. Brighter lighting may diminish visual appeal due to glare coming off of the product, enhanced shadows, or when placement causes a customer’s eye to focus on the light source itself. When thinking about lighting, it’s important to consider all the various light sources to which a customer is exposed. There are lights in the case, lights around the case, lights reflecting off the case glass, and possibly natural light coming in the store via windows or skylights. With multiple light sources, the customer’s eye will adjust to the brightest light source and may not be able to focus as well on the merchandise they are looking at in the display case. This phenomenon is illustrated by two cars driving toward each other at night with their lights on. Even though there is twice as much light focused on the road, it is harder to see the road because the eyes compensate for overly bright headlights.

Lighting by contrast

Using less wattage and lumens can not only save energy and money, it can lead to more sales and help reduce food spoilage. The main driver of visual impact is contrast. More contrast can be achieved with less ambient light. Think of a very bright sunny day versus the morning or evening sun. Items have more visual appeal during the times of less light because contrast is more easily seen. During the morning and evening hours, our eyes can see detail versus adjusting to the bright light around noontime. That is why photographers prefer morning and evening light. It’s also easier to perform a visual task, such as reading a book outside, during periods where there is a reduced amount of light.

Grocery Aisle Lighting

So, how does one apply this “less light” philosophy inside a grocery store? First, take a holistic, storewide approach when considering lighting applications. Think of balancing store lighting as tuning a high performance car. Second, consider store hours and the need for consistent light during that time period (i.e., not brighter during periods of high light conditions outside or darker during low light periods). Third, chose light sources that provide balanced light on the areas where the light is directed. Evenly distributed light patterns look more natural to a shopper than spotlighting certain areas on a product. And lastly, use high quality light sources that allow for good color separation and saturation of the product. This makes product colors look vivid, clean and fresh.

The eyes react immediately to input – and they react strongly to harsh input – so “warming them up” is helpful. This “warm up” can be achieved by staging the light sources to which customer is exposed upon entering the store. The first area of staging can be an overhead structure outside the store that helps keep direct sunlight out of the store; the second area of staging can be entering into a cart corral area or vestibule area; and the third area could be a floral area as they are moving farther into the store. If the store is staged well, it becomes less noticeable that light is reduced inside the store, and a customer will be able to focus right away on store products versus having to adapt to a different light level.

Produce Lighting Before & After

Once a customer is inside the store, there should be nice even lighting on the display that enhances the product being displayed. This can be achieved by targeting the light on the products themselves in the areas that are most appealing. It is therefore important to think of the quantity of light and the projection angle. For example, if a product inside a dairy case has a blank top, a shelf light probably isn’t the best application. Putting more light on the front face of the product in that situation would help target a customer’s eyes onto the specific area of interest. Even dry gondolas can be jazzed up by focusing lights throughout the vertical facing surfaces versus simply covering it with generalized overhead lighting. Keeping customers’ eyes concentrated on the products versus the floor helps to sell more product.

Beyond focusing lights on specific products and product attributes, it is important to understand the entire range of lights being used directly and indirectly in the broader area. Context is key to establishing contrast. Even lights that have great cosmetic style and individual performance may not be right for the overall environment.

Meat Lighting Before & After

Once the lighting elements and contrast have been established, it is time to account for trying to hide the light sources themselves. This can be achieved through various fixture types, signage, reflectors, and projection angles. The more a light source can be hidden, the cleaner the light appears on the products to the customer. Lighting can be complex, but the payback is huge when it’s done properly. A well done holistic approach with quality light sources can ensures that your customer sees your products in the best possible light.