Up until now we have discussed the importance of lighting in retail. How quality lighting and lighting design can influence you shoppers’ overall experience, how it helps cut down on operational costs, save energy and make employees more productive. We also learned what the main objectives lighting has to fulfill in retail, along with a simple lesson on how light works and types of fixtures for retail stores.

Moving on in our retail lighting series, we will explain all the different areas and layers of the store that require illumination.

Ambient, General or Overhead Retail Lighting

Ambient lighting Harvey Nichols

Type of Lighting

The idea of ambient lighting is that it focuses strictly on the background. It shouldn’t be used to emphasize products or put the focus on particular areas of the store. It refers to the primary light source of your store. The ambient in your brick-and-mortar store has to be relatively bright, so as to make your shoppers feel comfortable, safe and guide them. It has to accurately represent their physical appearance, just like daylight would. Using low-quality lights might not be a good idea or investment merely because they might make customers look different, unhealthy or quite possibly sad. The ambient lighting will also create the very first impression so make sure to get everything just right, by making it pleasing to the eye.

Technical Details

The general lighting, being the vastest source of illumination, is also the main source of energy consumption, It is the area where you can improve costs and waste issues. The overall lighting of your store should not exceed 2.5 watts per square foot to meet latest energy code requirements. For example, according to the experts at Advanced Lighting Guidelines, 50-60 foot-candles use only 1.2 watts per square foot by using modern lighting technologies, so there is no need for you to feel overwhelmed.

As above mentioned, the lights have to be bright and to range between 30 and 50 foot-candles. For ceilings that are over 9 ft tall, we recommend that you use suspended overhead lights that provide you with approximately 70 foot-candles of continuous and overlapping illumination.

The ideal temperature of ambient lighting ranges between 3000K and 3500K, this provides a warmer white light. Anything between 3500K and 4500K is neutral white and 4600K and higher is considered to be cool white that offers a bluish glow. You can simply lower the fixtures, especially if you are using LED bulbs, to ensure that your store is perfectly lighted, thus saving you money and energy. You can use incandescent or fluorescent lights if your store is not in the high-end niche.

Ambient lighting pendant


Considering your budget is important. If you can’t afford high-quality lighting in all the required areas of your store, then at least invest more in overhead, general or ambient lighting. If customers ask to see an item on display, or pick up some from shelves, racks, display tables and so on, they have the possibility to view them in the best light your store would have to offer.

Our advice

Work on the general lighting only after placing all the furniture and fixtures in your store. You should also finish installing decorative, accent, task and any other type of lighting layer first. This is because it will be much easier for you to fill in the areas that require more light, with ambient lighting. This is also the order in which Leslie M. Stern advises anyone to create their lighting design.

Retail Task Lighting

Type of Lighting

This kind of lighting layer is used exclusively to illuminate a specific area or for a particular task. It is called task lighting because it provides a more focused beam of light to emphasize details, merchandise or high traffic areas. These areas include the entrance, signage, dressing rooms, client service desks or checkout counters, the latter representing the final interaction between customer and store employees. Moreover, closing sales is the most important task in the retail world, so it is common sense that this section has to have exquisite light. The selected light is brighter than accent lighting, to ensure that tasks are performed efficiently.

Excellent task lighting helps you fill in and get rid of shadows in various areas of the store and prevents glares, which can be disturbing for the overall visual experience.

Technical Details

Task lighting check out counter

According to the technical guides, task lighting levels range between 50 and 200 foot-candles. There has to exist a difference between the task area and the general lighting in your store. This difference consists of brightness and contrast, that create a 3:1 ratio. This ratio is good for reading labels, tags, signs and packaging as well as for your customers examining the products on display.

For task lighting, it is highly recommended to use permanent fixtures. In general, the areas that require this layer of light won’t be relocated or moved inside the store. The spaces that require such lighting are more about function than atmosphere so the recommended light temperature ranges between 3500 and 5000 K. Bulbs with higher lumens and better color quality are required.


The process for deciding on which type of task lighting fixture is best for your store is similar to deciding on accent lighting. Much like accent lighting, can lighting, pendants or track lighting are the fixtures of choice for task lighting.

Our Advice

Pendant lights are perfect at the check-out counter, providing sufficient light for employees to wrap or bag products and run the cash register. Use only highly efficient light sources to cut down on operational costs.

Accent Lighting In Retail

Accent lighting

Type of Lighting

Accent lighting is designed to emphasize the shapes, finishes, colors and textures of merchandise inviting customers closer to examine. It creates a more dramatic impression by using focused or point light sources, at the same time it adds depth and contrasts.

It rids your store of unwanted shadows and glares, if set correctly and are in general mobile. Mobility ensures that you can set the right focus on your products, even in the case of moving display fixtures it will serve you well. Finally, this lighting layer is designed especially for window displays, product displays, decorated areas of the store, in shelving and display nooks and even in display cases.

Technical Details

Accenting requires a more precise light, an intense pulse that shines brighter than the background, than ambient lighting to be more specific. The contrast has to be at least 3:1, ideally 5:1 and some items may require a ratio of 10:1, those that have a darker color to emphasize its details. Feature displays require a 15:1 or 30:1 (for jewelry and or crystal) ratio of accent to ambient lighting to achieve the desired effect.

The recommended light levels for this layer o lighting range between 150 and 500 footcandles.


The fixtures that are the best choice for accent lighting are: track, recessed with adjustable trims, recessed with concealed adjustable illumination and point source lamps.

Our advice

Pay attention to accent lighting, it is aimed to make your products stand out. Consider the ratios above so as to not over-illuminate.

If you have a large store be sure to choose only 2-3 main displays to highlight, if you can’t afford them all. Highlight the ones that have new items, seasonal ones or discounted products. The window display is crucial because it is the one inviting customers into your store, be sure to emphasize it.

Decorative Lighting In Retail

Type of Lighting

Decorative lighting layer

This layer of illumination’s only purpose is to add a hint of elegance, sophistication and that elusive “je ne sais quoi.” It is focused more on the fixtures used than on the lighting itself, thus serving two purposes at once, lighting and decoration.

Why would you invest in decorative lighting you ask? Well because it contributes significantly to your overall brand image, it helps emphasize the theme selected for your decor, and it helps you fill in any shadows you may have in your store. It helps customers feel more at ease, creating a more appealing atmosphere, making them want to spend more time inside and, of course, could increase the chances of a successful transaction.

When thinking of decorative lighting you have to think exclusively about creating the right atmosphere or ambiance, to point out the fact that you care and want what’s best for your customers. Take into consideration the fact that decorative lighting is not for every type of retail setting. Hardware stores, grocery stores, supermarkets, sporting goods stores and others, don’t quite fit in with this layer. On the other hand, we have those that would benefit greatly from it, including: jewelry stores, apparel stores, boutiques, antique shops, furniture stores and many many more.

It has to be in plain sight, typically at the level of the customers eye, or somewhere in his or her’s full vision to have the desired impact. It is, in fact, a statement of your store’s personality and it conveys a strong message along with a clear light in which customers can interact with your merchandise. For small stores, it can also double as general lighting, making it a great advantage.

Technical Details

The main fixtures used for decorative lighting are: chandeliers, wall sconces, table lamps, floor lamps, pendants, cylinders and of course any kind of light sculpture or light art that will help you create a splendid ambiance and the perfect mood.

If you decide on pendants, know that they should be mounted somewhere between 8 to 13 feet above the finished floor level. The reasoning behind this is that they must be in the view of the customer, but not too low, as to not inconvenience the entire shopping experience.

Cylinders and sconces, in order to create a pleasant visual experience, should be placed approximately 5-1/2 feet away from the finished floor level. The optimal distance between sconces is approximately 8 feet, but this depends on the space you have available in your retail setting. Consider the following forms of wall lighting before you decide:

  • Cove – placed or located in a ledge / shelf or recess spreading the light upwards.
  • Soffit – placed closer to the ceiling, it directs light downwards.
  • Valance – placed high on the wall, spreads light vertically, both upwards and downwards.

This technique is called indirect lighting. It is favored by the professionals of the industry because it helps avoid glares and shadows.

Statement pieces such as chandeliers should be placed at the main entrance to create a powerful impact even from the beginning of the buying experience.

Here is a concrete example of light temperature. For jewelry stores, it is recommended that decorative lighting ranges around 2700K, creating a warmer and more soothing color tone.


Consider first of all where you would require decorative lighting. In general, it is used for window displays, especially if it has to complement or emphasize a specific theme or idea, at the front entrance to create a powerful first message and an instant connection and on your store’s walls.

Our advice

Since the main idea of decorative lighting is to help your store make a statement, to emphasize your brand and prove to customers that you mean business, you have to make sure you pair all the decorative elements accordingly. You simply can’t use a victorian chandelier in a minimalistic store, built on clean lines and modern decor.

decorative lighting chandeliers

These are the main layers of lighting, but because we know you thirst for knowledge and improvement, we’re going to carry on with some specifics.

Display Case Lighting

display case lighting joaillerie

Lighting Inside Display Cases

Any kind of accessory or retail fixture can be fitted with lighting and display cases are no different. It mostly depends on the construction of the case itself and the merchandise you are showcasing. There are various types of light bulbs that make some objects look better and more attractive to customers. For example, clothing and accessories look much better under xenon lights, toys under incandescent and so on, but LED lights can create almost the exact same effect, without overheating, costing you a fortune in electrical bills and with a longer lifespan. We will discuss more about the benefits of using LED in our next article.

The only moment when lighting a display case would not be beneficial is when the back panel of the display case is mirrored, it would create glares, ruin the aesthetics of the whole showcase and could possibly blind the customer.

The proper display case lighting will not cast any shadows and will emphasize the products on display, not to mention that they are hidden from plain sight. Lighting must not be affected by the customer’s presence, the light color should be selected to expertly suit your merchandise and the heat must be kept under control and ensure that it will not damage your goods.

In order to ensure that these specifications are met, the light sources should be placed in the top back of the case generally a light bar or strip, but a miniature recessed front fixture is also acceptable. In terms of footcandles, display case lighting should reach around 30. Overall the lighting inside the showcase should be 3 to 5 times brighter than general lighting.

Any kind of display case can be lighted in order to delight and attract customers to take a closer view of its contents.

Lighting Over Display Cases

When considering you can use track, recessed or pendants, simply scroll back to accent lighting and you will understand.

Lighting Under Display Cases

Usually, it is a part of decorative lighting, placed under display cases, display tables and other types of visual merchandising fixtures, simply to help create a mood, to guide and to enchant customers.

Clothing Rack Lighting

Fendi clothing rack lighting

The purpose is to draw customers closer to examine the clothing you have on display. It comes in the form of accent lighting, simply because the fixtures provide the required mobility and racks aren’t all that hard to move around. It comes in handy if you enjoy moving product displays around. You just have to adjust the spot and voila, it’s done.

Clothing rack lighting must fulfill two objectives:

  1. To accurately display the colors, textures and overall designs of the merchandise.
  2. To ensure that the clothing is fully illuminated, casting no shadows or glares.

This type of lighting should be stronger, brighter than the ambient, in general, 3 to 5 times higher.

Exit & Emergency Lighting


This kind of lighting is indispensable. Not only will it lead your customers and staff out of the store safely, in the case of an emergency and your primary lighting system fails, but law also regiments it.

In the first article of our Retail Lighting Series, How Important Is Lighting for Retail Stores? we discuss the main areas that require special attention. But how do you pair them with a particular layer of illumination?


  • Sales and Transaction Areas – Task Lighting. Employees require a more focused light and so do customers when paying for your goods.
  • Fitting / Dressing Rooms – Task Lighting. Best quality light because here is where most of the buying decisions are made. Both the merchandise and the customer have to look impeccable, the color rendering has to be identical with the one in the display area, and should at the same time make everything look natural. The focus is on the customer and you have to ensure that the mirror is not lighted in any way.
  • Product and Feature Displays – Accent & Task Lighting. To emphasize merchandise, make it look its best, attract customers and make them interact with the specific items on display.
  • Window Displays – All layer types, depending on the theme, design and props chosen, but the most common are Accent, Task and Decorative. Ask yourself, what needs to be emphasized, where is the focus, is it on the ambiance, how are your products emphasized?


This concludes our layers of lighting article, we hope it inspires you to create the absolute best lighting design for your store.

Stay tuned to find out more about retail lighting design and best practices in our retail lighting series.

Part #4: Types of Lighting Fixtures
Part #6: Coming Soon