On the most basic physical level we all share similar responses to color. Wavelengths of reflected light (color) stimulate our nervous and endocrine systems, creating distinct biological responses. Our heart rate and blood pressure can increase while observing intensely saturated red and orange hues. We can become sleepy, anxious, or even get headaches while gazing upon large areas of bright whites or grays. Or we can achieve a sense of well being when surrounded by a combination of cool and warm hues. However, for the most part these responses happen beyond our awareness.

So why is so much time spent on the understanding of color? Better yet, how do all these instinctual responses relate to retail? Simple. By relating to a person's innate responses, color can make the difference between whether a customer buys one item or 20. After all, we're all influenced to some degree by the colors that surround us.

The colors of success

The key to using colors for specific purposes within a retail environment is to understand both the physiological and psychological influences. In a retail atmosphere the main goal is to help the customer simultaneously identify with both the environment and the products, generating a healthy sale and a satisfied customer. Following are questions to consider as well as some basic principles that may be used as guidelines when choosing your retail color palette:

  • Define the goals and the culture of the business.

Who are the customers? What should they experience? Are they teenagers, thirty-something parents, seniors? Do you want to generate excitement or quiet interest? Do you want to create a space that is festive, trendy, utilitarian and funky, or elegant and sophisticated?

  • Is the physical space large or small and intimate?
  • Is there available natural light?
  • Consider the psychological associations we have with various colors:
    • Red: assertive, exciting, passionate, warm

    • Pink: stimulates desire for sweets

    • Orange: sociable, “folk-style,” implies affordable; currently a trend color

    • Blue: relaxing, refreshing, cool; symbolizes trust, integrity, intuition

    • Green: nurturing; has universal appeal; can be showy, dynamic

    • Brown and earth colors: stable, secure, friendly, receptive; relates to instinct

    • Yellow: cheerful, communicative, casual, youthful

    • Purple/Violet: deep version is mysterious, serious; pastel shade is a favorite with young girls!

    • White: unifies; brings life to other colors; culturally ambiguous; cold/impersonal, sterile

    • Black: culturally ambiguous, formal

    • Gray: implies ambiguity when mixed in hues; trendy metallic/pearl versions are more mysterious

The perfect palette

Creating a successful palette is all about balance. Combinations of color and lighting will influence any response. Therefore the balance of hue, value, contrast and light reflectance is the key. Strong color, high contrast, and more patterning will create a more stimulating environment.

Close tones and lower light reflectance values will create a place where people will linger. Comfortable, sophisticated neutrals and more subtle textures can be punctuated with strong hues and mixed materials for visual interest.

Color is a vast subject. New research is continually deepening our understanding of its power to evoke emotions. We could study it for a lifetime and one fact will remain tried and true — there really is more to color than meets the eye. Everyone is influenced by the colors that surround them to some degree. The challenge is creating a successful color palette that allows its influence on customers to work for you.

Barbara Jacobs is principal of Barbara Jacobs Color and Design in Medfield, Mass. She is an architectural colorist who provides integral color design for the built environment.