New lamps and advanced technology expand lighting possibilities for retail stores.

Just as store design passes from one trend to another, so do the lighting schemes used to enhance the retail environment. And advances in technology, as they affect many other facets of retailing, prompt designers into rethinking traditional lighting standards.

Five years ago, store designs grew darker as federal and state energy usage regulations limited the amount of power retailers could use. Incandescent lamps used too much power to be considered for bright ambient lighting schemes. Fluorescent lamps also threw off light that designers considered too cold and harsh. Thus, dimmer ambient retail lighting complemented by dramatic incandescent accent lighting became the standard.

Customers were subsequently conditioned to understand lighting "code": Bright stores lighted by fluorescent lamps meant low prices, and less bright stores with lower accent lighting offered middle-of-the-road prices. Downright dimly lit stores with bright dramatic accent lighting asked arm-and-leg prices.

Over the past couple of years, new lamp technology has begun to alter lighting formulas throughout the retail world. These new products have enabled designers to brighten stores significantly, using lighting colors and patterns to define store images and build store brands.

Hot tracks, new lamps, energy efficiency Low-voltage MR halogen incandescent lamps have been popular among lighting designers for years. Recently, new track technology has made these lamps more flexible than ever.

"You now see low-voltage cable systems and rail systems on the market," says Gary Garofalo, a principal with Philadelphia-based Lighting Design Collaborative. "Instead of attaching MR-16s or MR-11s to a large, cumbersome track, you can clamp the fixtures to the cables or rails and slide them into place. The cables must be stretched taut, but you can bend the rails to follow merchandise displays below."

Garofalo also anticipates that fiber optic lighting may soon become economical enough to use in case lighting. "I don't think [fiber optic] is there yet, but it is on its way," he says. "For display cases where you would normally use heat generating, low-voltage sources, fiber optic systems can deliver a nice punch of light, with virtually no heat."

For the time being, fiber optic systems provide decorative lighting for retailers unconcerned about cost. Southfield, Mich.-based Jon Greenberg and Associates (JGA) recently developed a design for Audi's New York showroom, for example, that includes a curved glass back wall with fiber optic lighting. The system causes the wall to shine and change colors, attracting the notice of passersby.

Meanwhile, workhorse fluorescent lighting continues to improve. In years past, retailers had to choose between low-cost, efficient fluorescent lamps and lamps offering good color rendering. "You don't have to sacrifice one for the other anymore," says Cynthia Turner, vice president and lighting director for New York-based FRCH Design Worldwide Inc. "Manufacturers have married both benefits in T-8 fluorescent lamps."

Turner also notes that fluorescent lamp diameters have been shrinking. T-5 and T-2 1/2 size fluorescent lamps are now available, offering diameters of just over 1/2-inch and 1/4-inch, respectively. "In a design we developed for Baker Shoe Stores, we were able to use sleek, elegant cases and still include lighting under the shelves in the form of thin T-5 lamps," she says.

At the same time, according to Max Zanoni, an account executive and former lighting designer with JGA, manufacturers have improved compact fluorescent lamps. "The new lamps give higher lumen outputs and better color rendition," he says.

Still, fluorescent lamps do not provide sharp point-source light - a role reserved for quartz halogen and, increasingly, metal halide lamps. "One of the most exciting developments in the past year has been the arrival of metal halide par lamps that can replace quartz halogen lamps as point sources," says Turner. "You can now replace 100-watt quartz halogen bulbs with 35 watt metal halide pars."

According to Turner, metal halide lamp fixtures carry price tags about three times as expensive as quartz halogen fixtures. At $35 per lamp, metal halide lamps cost quite a bit more than $5 to $7 quartz halogen lamps. Then again, she notes, metal halide lamps last two and three times as long as quartz halogen lamps and use far less energy.

"In the Northeast and in many large cities across the country where utility costs are high, retailers may realize instant savings by switching to metal halide," says Turner. "In the South and other areas where utility costs are lower, the cost of metal halide and quartz halogen lighting is about even."

Turner cites two distinct benefits of metal halide lighting. First, metal halide lamps throw off less heat and reduce air conditioning loads. Sometimes, says Turner, that helps trim initial construction costs.

Second, metal halide lamps offer a range of new design options. "I can put color filters and all sorts of accessories in front of metal halide lamps and not worry about the effects of heat," Turner says. "In the same way heat causes fabric to fade, it also causes color filters to fade. By using metal halide par lamps, [there is no need to] worry about the colors degrading over time."

New ways to light up store images Retailers are putting this new lighting technology to work in two ways. On the one hand, stores are generally growing brighter, thanks to brighter energy-efficient lamps. As a result, stores feel more spacious and airy.

"The Gap is an example of a store that has always been bright," says Turner. "Today, you can go into any number of specialty stores, and they are all going for the same thing: a bright space that feels large and open."

Other stores are using lighting designs that include more colors, patterns and movement. "We did five stores for Harrah's Casinos in Las Vegas," Turner continues. "In those stores, we used a lot of metal halide par lamp track lighting to create dramatic accents. About half of those lamps use plastic color filters that can be changed as the displays in the stores change. In one store, we used pattern filters."

Another FRCH Design project, Tumi Luggage, a manufacturer with specialty stores and in-store shops, uses light to create soft color changes on an acrylic feature panel at the back of the space. The acrylic panel houses fluorescent lights connected to a programmed dimming circuit. As the current cycles, light flowing through the panel changes colors and causes the merchandise to change colors.

Store designers and lighting consultants are teaming up to create elaborate interactive light shows. At the MGM store in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, JGA and Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Illuminating Concepts joined forces to create a show with coordinated audio, video and lighting components. The show begins at the entrance to the hotel store, where lights display the MGM lion on the floor. A programmed light and video show then erupts, drawing attention to video that previews events taking place in the hotel.

JGA and Illuminating Concepts also worked together to develop an interactive audio and lighting sales concept for the national Camelot Music chain. "The lighting system is programmed to activate as people walk through the store," says JGA's Zanoni. "On the floor, we placed a series of numbers, one through 10, on certain carpet tiles. The numbers correspond to the top 10 popular music hits. When a customer steps on a numbered tile, the light above the area dims slightly and a 30-second sound bite is heard, while the area of the wall displaying that CD brightens."

Elaborate lighting concepts, involving colors and patterned templates, alter the focus of store architecture in important ways, according to Zanoni. "In a store designed to act as a foil for a light show, the architecture cannot create as much of an architectural statement," he says. "Instead, the architecture must create an environment for the lighting. It must be simpler, more like a canvas for the lighting to work on, rather than a space that needs to be lighted."

Zanoni admits that light shows can increase the cost of store construction, but notes that it is a one-time cost. A well-designed, computer-controlled lighting system, he says, enables retailers to change the look of a store on a regular basis, for a lower cost than conventional redesign involving new paint flooring and fixtures.

As trends come and go in lighting design implementation, technology is a constant engine pushing lighting to new heights. All in all, the latest in contemporary lighting equipment and design have created a bright new world of possibilities for retailers.

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.