Although lighting is one of the easiest areas of a display to control and to implement, it is often one of the most overlooked aspects of merchandising. The good news is that retailers are recognizing the role of attractive and strategic lighting design in merchandising, and are integrating professionally designed lighting systems into their sales areas.

Effective lighting doesn't have to break the bank. In fact, it is something you can design yourself. The following guidelines should help you light up your store and your sales.

Function is key Function is the most important consideration when designing a lighting layout. Several questions must be considered for each section of the store:

What type of merchandise will be sold in this area of the floor? Is this a sale item or featured item, or is it a traditionally slow-moving item? How does sunlight affect the day and evening lighting requirements? What lighting control systems would enhance overall selling space and highlighted displays?

The answers to all these questions will help you set up an effective, well-presented sales floor.

Basic types of lighting There are three basic types of in-store lighting: task lighting, ambient lighting and accent lighting.

Ambient lighting is general floor illumination, the lighting that gives a room or an area even light throughout. Good ambient lighting lights a floor at a moderate level and eliminates dark spots.

Accent lighting provides decoration, excitement and interest for a specific area or item. When lighting a sales floor, remember that the eye is drawn first to the most luminous point in a room, and by highlighting different areas of your floor, you can create the interest you want around certain products. Contrast can also emphasize an area by lowering adjacent light levels so the highlighted displays stand out even more.

Task lighting provides proper illumination levels confined to areas where specific activities will be performed that require higher illumination, such as the sales desks, fitting rooms or cosmetics counters.

Remember that good lighting depends on the proper selection and use of lighting fixtures. A well-lit room should have a combination of the basic lighting types. A sales area should have more than one fixture type, with at least two of the three basic categories of lighting represented.

Fixture flexibility The two most popular types of lighting fixtures used in retail stores are recessed and track lighting.

Recessed lighting fixtures - fixtures imbedded into a wall or ceiling - are good for throwing light while being unobtrusive, allowing them to blend in with a showroom's natural contours. Many options and variations are available when using recessed lighting, including different types of bulbs, reflectors and trim finishes.

A variety of mounting options exist to fit most architecture, from sloped ceilings to ceilings with shallow joists. Recessed lighting fixtures are available in very small to very large reflector apertures.

The second type of commonly used fixtures, track lighting heads, provide tremendous flexibility in angles and beam patterns. The ability to replace or reposition heads easily and quickly, or install a medley of bulbs that offer different aesthetics, energy options and sizes, exhibit the main advantage of track lighting: flexibility.

Track heads include general purpose heads that accept bulbs ranging from spots to floods. Wall wash heads are generally wider or deeper than most other general purpose heads in order to evenly illuminate large vertical areas, such as walls with hanging outfits.

Framing projector heads control the frame edge or focus of light beam to direct light only on an object and not on a background.

Low-voltage heads offer a minimal-sized unit that is very unobtrusive. Low-voltage track lighting uses halogen bulbs, which provide a sharper focus and a higher intensity of light in a smaller, controlled projection. They are not well suited to illuminate as large an area as the general purpose heads.

Finding the right bulb The type of bulb can be just as important as the type of fixture, and many lighting fixtures can accept more than one type of bulb. Bulbs fall into two main categories: incandescent and fluorescent.

Halogen lamps, which feature incandescent bulbs, are usually found in fixtures where a high-intensity light needs to be projected, as in a spot track head. Halogen lamps are also found where a high illumination level is needed for a work area, such as that provided by a task light. The only shortcoming of halogen lighting is its high operating temperature, which requires proper safety shielding for the bulb to protect the user from UV rays and lamp breakdowns.

Fluorescent bulbs tend to run cooler to the touch compared with incandescent. They have a longer life span and run more efficiently. They also come in a series of color temperatures - from warm to cool.

Fluorescent bulbs are starting to replace standard incandescent lamps in many applications. The small size and myriad shapes allow fluorescent bulbs to work in fixtures from task lights to table lamps to recessed fixtures. Fluorescent bulbs come in different types, giving the user a choice of wattage, length, lamp color and level of efficiency.

Time to design In designing your store, you need to decide which fixture types work with your lighting concept and what type of control features you might want for each area of the showroom. Set up your budget and venture out to a lighting showroom to see a preliminary choice of decorative and functional fixtures as well as control equipment. Take notes and either specify on your basic lighting plan the fixture to use, or ask your local showroom or lighting professional to help with the final fixture specifications.