Showing Products in a Better Light
It's time to trash those harsh overhead fluorescents. Spotlights and sunshine put retail customers in a buying mood.
By Jennifer Alsever

(Business 2.0) – This was one of those things you just had to see to believe. Jihad Rizkallah knew it would be tough to make his case for investing in more expensive lighting at the $11 billion Stop & Shop supermarket chain, so Rizkallah, the retailer's vice president for design, transformed an empty building in Quincy, Mass., into a mock-up of a Stop & Shop store. Skylights added warmth to aisles of cereal and canned goods. Spotlights accented bright red apples. Company executives immediately noticed the difference, and today, instead of relying on buzzing fluorescent fixtures, Stop & Shop installs focused lighting in its new stores--even though the improved hardware costs twice as much. "The products jump out at you," Rizkallah says. "It absolutely feels better."

Call it Muzak for the eyes. Armed with data that shows how the right lighting can increase sales, retailers such as Albertsons, Kroger, Safeway, Staples, Wal-Mart, and Whole Foods Market are using tricks of illumination to make merchandise more attractive. According to Minnesota-based consultancy Design Services Group, a typical retailer now spends about $300,000 on lighting--about 10 percent of total store construction costs, up from 8 percent a few years ago. "All the elements build the feeling of a store," says Staples director of merchandising Michael Moran, who uses focused fluorescents to highlight featured items. "It's not just about where the products go."

Increasingly, it's becoming about where the beams go. Small hanging lights create the illusion of spacious aisles, while lights aimed at ceilings reduce ominous shadows. Minneapolis-based grocer Cub Foods shines red-toned lights on meat cases to make its cuts look more appealing. Natural light, meanwhile, adds warmth to the setting, though installing skylights or oversize windows may require costly structural modifications. Nevertheless, Austin-based Whole Foods uses natural light in most of its 171 stores.

But does better light really boost sales? While direct correlations are difficult to establish, many cite a series of studies conducted by energy research firm Heschong Mahone Group, which looked at two anonymous retail chains. The firm found that naturally illuminated stores saw as much as 40 percent greater sales than their fluorescent-lit counterparts.

Wal-Mart is certainly a believer. The nation's largest retailer builds all its supercenters--including the 160 it's erecting this year--to exploit natural lighting. While energy savings are a big draw for the thrifty retailer, Wal-Mart spokesman Keith Morris says the company credits improved lighting with increased sales. And in a business where margins are razor-thin, every ray of sunshine helps. --JENNIFER ALSEVER