Making Light of the Store

Making Light of the Store

Working at Shook Kelley, I’ve come to understand the design of grocery store environments in ways the average consumer rarely learns about. I’ve learned why the milk is in the back (it’s an efficiency thing) and why there are always candy bars and fidget spinners at the checkout (it’s a legacy thing). But as I pace the aisles, I often come back to the same question: Why is the lighting so bad?


Sure, grocery lighting isn’t equally bad at every store out there. But by and large, it’s a pretty terrible thing. The strange glow of the supermarket experience often feels unnatural or weirdly artificial.

Curious about this, I sat down with some of Shook Kelley’s very experienced designers to understand the problem and how approaches to lighting might be changing. I learned that bad lighting is typically a result of functional decision-making in store design: tight resource management, budgetary minimization and efforts to simplify operations and maintenance.

Jennifer Reynolds and Jennifer Ochoa, both Architects and Principals in the Shook Kelley Los Angeles office, talked to me about bad lighting in stores. They explained that most grocery stores have been designed with an over-arching general overhead lighting scheme. The purpose of this singular scheme is to reduce the complexity of construction and maintenance, and therefore keep costs down.

Within the confines of these traditional general lighting schemes, light may vary by section or department, but largely for very functional reasons. For example, red meat is kept under 2,500 Kelvins of light to preserve and keep natural color, while fruits and vegetables are kept at 3,000 Kelvins. So, proper lighting helps preserve items in support of other systems, like refrigeration, all working together to keep products fresh and safe for human consumption.

In addition, traditional era grocery stores are filled with LED lights. Those cost more than warmer incandescent lighting, but operate more efficiently and have a longer life, thus reducing costs in the long run.

“In general, the majority of overhead lighting in grocery stores feels institutional,” says Ochoa. “Retailers should want to provide a unique experience for consumers and lighting should play a big role in that.” But until relatively recently, that just wasn’t the case.

The end result of these general lighting schemes, for the customer experience, is monotony. The store’s lights, painted throughout with the same brush, contribute to a sense of repetition and tedium. 


Today, there are new approaches to supermarket lighting. And these approaches are not only informed by a more natural light design experience, but at Shook Kelley, they are also motivated by brand differentiation strategies and shopper psychology. 

Reynolds and Ochoa argue that the right light has the capacity to make or break purchase decisions. It does so by directly impacting the emotional status of a customer shopping the store. To give one example, Ochoa brought up the seafood department. She explained that customers would rather not purchase fish kept under a warm light, which would look unnatural and potentially unsafe for consumption. But beyond reducing concerns about food safety, contemporary approaches to lighting strive to be more emotionally sensitive, too. One goal is to make the eye comfortable and receptive, so people feel gently aware, rather than lighting spaces brightly to allow neon price tags and explosive packaging to attack our senses. “When shopping the store, we want people to feel comfortable spending time there,” Ochoa explained. “People don’t like to shop in spaces that feel forced, uncomfortable or uneasy.”

Further, in an age of heightened grocery world competition, it is increasingly important that food retailers use store design to tell a story—and lighting can play a crucial role in that. While anyone can go to a big box retailer for a monotone experience, many more people desire a different kind of shopping experience. To be competitive, grocery stores today need to pay attention to details like lighting because it can help them differentiate their store experience. Moving forward, stores can win when they are committed to creating experiences that people want to come to. To give an example, Reynolds noted how many newer Kroger stores, such as their Ralph’s chain in California, offer more open retail environments that increasingly rely on natural light rather than harsh overheads. 

“Grocery stores need to be competitive when it comes to attracting shoppers and gaining customer loyalty,” says Reynolds. “In a time when it’s so easy to go to the one-stop big boxes or deep discounters, competitive retailers have to work harder to create memorable experiences.”

But the value of good lighting design is not only a better sensory and emotional experience, compelling lighting can also build retail brands. One way to do that is by using lighting to help showcase distinctive product mixes and unique offerings. As Jennifer Reynolds pointed out, lighting is an important element in highlighting and attracting shoppers to different elements and zones within a store environment. Good lighting should accentuate those propositions, by design. Take, for instance, the Freson Bros “Root Cellar” offering, in their Stony Plain, Alberta store. Initially based on a functional in-store solution for storing potatoes and onions—basically a merchandise fixture partially covered behind a dark sheet to keep root vegetables fresh—Shook Kelley designers transformed the fixture into an entire room within the Freson produce department. In order to create a cellar-like feel and keep these tubers fresher for longer, a dimmer light was employed. The emotional and symbolic impact of the new room is a sense that this brand is doing something different, and that they are in tune with the legacy of traditional “cold rooms” found in basements throughout Western Canada. In combination with spatial design, this specialized lighting is not only functional, but also meaningful.


Light shapes perspective. It can impact how we view the world around us, how we feel about places or things and ultimately plays a significant role in everyday experiences. The sunlight levels outside can determine whether or not I should turn on the headlights in my car, and maybe drive with greater attention. Or the dim interior lighting of a café can suggest that it’s time to relax and unwind.

Light can affect how we remember events, how we filter the present moment and even tap into our subconscious emotions around things of value to us, like food. Vegetables and fruits look so much better under a warm light because people want to put color on their plate. Conversely, it’s better to put cool light on other foods, like fish sitting on ice, because people want to feel safe eating these foods. 

Both Jennifer Ochoa and Jennifer Reynolds explained that one big thing food retailers need to work on in the future is sectional lighting, as light can serve as a good location index. It’s a bit like being at the mall and recognizing that each store has its own brand and personality. In a similar way, grocery stores can offer more variations in their offerings and create more distinctive department experiences. Of course, if a customer can put up with a monotonous shopping experience, they can always go to the big boxes or discount stores, where bad lighting might just be a strategy to signal value and the strictly economical use of resources. But elsewhere, well-designed lighting is increasingly used as a tool to illuminate differences and ultimately, create a strategically designed experience. 

“Lighting in stores sets the mood,” says Jennifer Ochoa. “There should be a drastic difference between buying food at a discount dollar store versus a premium grocery store, not just because of a different customer base, but also because of the investment retailers need to devote to their environments. I think that, moving forward, we’re going to see more high end grocers especially moving toward things like location-based lighting.”

As I sit and write this, I find myself increasingly mesmerized by the power of light—how it can shape not only what is visible, but also whether something looks appealing to us or not. People want to feel good about where they shop, and lighting can make or break the visual experience. 

Light shapes perspective, and whether we recognize it or not, it’s perspective that makes the human experience fiercely unique. 


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