Shop Lights

THE ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR IS PART OF A TEAM in retail lighting design. The objective is to get the job completed on time and within budget. Retail stores have one main goal—selling product. A store’s lighting design has become an increasingly important element in accomplishing that objective. A lighting scheme makes an establishment a pleasant place to shop, while also making products seem more appealing. Lights can create mood, they can draw customers to products and prompt them to stay in the store. However, lights also consume energy and raise costs, which makes it a challenge to create a lighting design that has customer appeal, is installable by the contractor and fulfills energy efficiency, code compliance and maintenance considerations.

Kelly Shay, vice president of Apollo Electric in Brea, Calif., which has installed lighting for retail stores including Target, Nike Women’s stores and Sav-On, said, “Lighting for retail is totally driven by what kind of retail space it is and whether they are selling clothing or parts. The merchandise drives the lighting.”

Lighting designers consider how light falls on the merchandise. Where the fixtures will be placed is drawn up by the electrical engineer, but electrical contractors often raise construction issues. For example, a selected fixture may have a depth that is greater than the space in the ceiling, or mechanical ductwork might hang next to where a light fixture is designed to be. The interplay of those involved is important and can vary tremendously.

“The difference between designers, engineers and contractors is that a designer has a certain vision,” Shay said. “He wants something to look a certain way but doesn’t know how to engineer it. The engineer can take the wattage of the fixture, load of the equipment and draw circuiting to it, but it is two-dimensional. It takes the contractor to put both of those things together and come up with a workable solution for the installation as well as to maintain the visual aspects of the designer. It can be a challenge.”

Retail merchandise is displayed in many ways. Products may be on horizontal shelves or displayed vertically. They may be hanging on counters or in cases. Therefore, the lighting depends on the establishment and must target the products’ illumination to the display.

“In a Wal-Mart, you will see high-bay metal halide lamps that provide an overall light level instead of fluorescent because they provide a longer lamp life and call for fewer fixtures,” said Robert Cook, operations manager of dmfLighting, Los Angeles, who also functions as a lighting designer.

“On the other hand, in a Neiman Marcus store, you will find a wide variety of lighting designs. The jewelry department is not lit in the same way as the furniture, the accessory or the shoe department. In those departments, metal halide and track lighting are used in every conceivable position.”

Installation of the track lighting that is used to highlight particular merchandise on a display case, shelf or rack is more complicated than it at first appears. Placement can require more time than many electrical contractors or their estimators would expect. Fixtures can be designed to be spaced at 1/4- or ½-inch increments, often the case in department stores, and that can involve the placement of thousands of fixtures. Contractors often cannot use the standard National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) labor units for installation of the fixtures but must budget for two to three times the NECA allowance.

“Coordinating the placement of the fixtures, the support of them, the framing for them and getting the correct fixtures in the correct spots can be labor intensive and a real challenge. For electrical contractors, it is particularly important to pay specific attention to the dimensions that are on the drawings, the type of fixtures and the exact layout for the fixtures,” said Jim Eddy, division manager of Taft Electric, Ventura, Calif.

The challenges in retail lighting are not the same as those contractors face on commercial projects.

“When dealing with retail lighting, the complexity of the installation is usually based on aesthetics more than just on general illumination,” Eddy said. “With commercial jobs, we usually go with standard layouts where the designer might take a full distance and divide it by the number of fixtures and come up with a space per fixture. That’s usually about as difficult or complicated as it gets. When it comes to retail, it can be very time consuming because a fixture has to focus on certain merchandise. Circuitry is also much more complicated than a standard commercial installation because designers are looking for specific banks of fixtures to operate in specific ways.”

While commercial offices may have one or two switches to regulate the light, retail installations may include hundreds of relay panels set to create scenes within different departments. Some might control as few as three fixtures, but labor for installation has to be considered. In stores with hundred of types of fixtures, the labor required to install fixture control scenarios can add up. Keeping track of the fixtures can also be more labor-intensive than expected.

“For the department store, when we took the fixtures out of the boxes, we had to label them either by color coding or large numbers or letters,” said Eddy. “We couldn’t depend on the manufacturers’ markings because that is usually on the outside of the box. We needed to do it so our relabeling was very visible for the installer and for those who came through to double-check the lighting plan from the ground to make sure the correct fixtures were installed in the correct locations.”

The interplay between lighting designer and the electrical contractor can have many permutations, some more collaborative than others.

“A lot of times, there are lighting designers who say, ‘Here’s what I want. Make it work,’” said Robert Fagnant, senior lighting designer at Randall Lamb and Associates, San Diego. “But you can’t design in a vacuum and get the design you want.”

When possible, Fagnant prefers to work with electrical contractors to implement a design rather than have a contractor unilaterally modify the design because of construction issues, which can sometimes radically change the design. That situation may not be a desirable one for any of the involved parties.

“As we draw up a design, we’ll choose a fixture we want to use, but if we know who the contractor is going to be, we will bounce it off of them,” said Fagnant, who is currently working with Dynalectric in San Diego, a wholly owned subsidiary of EMCOR Group Inc., on a resort project that includes retail establishments. “We’re going through each one of the luminaires specifically, just to make sure that we’ve looked at things from Dynalectric’s point of view so that the owner is getting the best value.”

That also must include considering fixtures that comply with California energy code restrictions, which are more stringent than those in many states.

Dynalectric brings their knowledge of fixtures and construction to the project.

“There are so many lights out there to choose from,” said Bob Riel, vice president of Dynalectric. “A designer like Robert may pick a fixture that meets his needs, but we may have some experience with that fixture and we may say, ‘Here’s another fixture from a different manufacturer that will provide the same light quality, but it is available soon instead of six weeks from now and it is at a better price.’ Or a down light might be too tall, but we know of one from another manufacturer that is small enough to fit in the space given. That’s the kind of thing we’ll help out with.”

That type of collaboration can have a considerable impact on a project budget. Electrical contractors, like Dynalectric, can use their relationships with lighting manufacturers representatives to negotiate better prices for a fixture package, a practice that can definitely benefit the owner. On the resort project, Riel used that strategy to substitute most of the chosen fixtures, which resulted in a lighting package that saved the owner approximately 25 percent.

Saving money, as well as investing in lighting design and installation, always attracts attention.

“We utilize a contractor like Dynalectric as the budget police because they have access to the distributor and can get a good contractor price. With retail projects, the lighting is really, really important to make the product look good,” said Fagnant. “You want to do a good job lighting because that’s the big part of merchandising. If it doesn’t look good, it has been proved that the customers don’t show up or stay.”

In retail lighting, the look is what matters. How that is achieved is dramatically affected by the interplay of lighting designers, electrical engineers and electrical contractors, with the contractors playing a crucial part.  

CASEY, author of “Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors” and “Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World,” can be reached at or

About the Author

Susan Casey

Freelance Writer
Susan Casey, author of "Women Heroes of the American Revolution," "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors," and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at or www.susancaseybooks...

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