A growing number of retailers are adding natural light -- let in via increased use of skylights and high windows -- to their store environments. The aim is to create more of an open-air ambience and enhance the shopping experience.
Natural light, in combination with metal halide and fluorescent lights, helps create an appealing shopping environment, according to executives at H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio; Nob Hill Foods, Gilroy, Calif.; and Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo.
"We are working with the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, and they have said that daylight will provide a higher-quality, more comfortable visual environment, with better color and brightness characteristics during the daytime," said Mike Malone, manager of retail engineering at H-E-B.
The Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, Austin, Texas, is a nonprofit research and education organization that specializes in architecture and store planning.
More retailers are implementing or considering skylights because they let in natural light and can cut lighting and other energy costs. But the energy savings payback can take several years, and some retailers worry about leakage and other maintenance problems.
"As supermarkets lose some of the drop ceilings, especially in produce, in favor of a larger, open-air kind of feeling, a skylight, in combination with other traditional lighting, would be an enhancement in that direction," said Clark Chamberlain, designer at Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City.
"Stores still need to put attractive light fixtures up," he added. "But a skylight is a good way to get a bump in lighting and increase the overall flavor of the store."
H-E-B has a number of small skylights at its Chipinque, Mexico, store. The retailer also uses metal halide lights in the general sales area and white sun lamps over the produce to create a warm look. This combination of traditional lighting and skylights will be installed in H-E-B's second Mexico store in Monterrey, which is currently under construction.
"We're using skylights in Mexico because that is customary with other stores [there]. When you're marketing against other stores, you want to provide the same," said Mike Malone, manager of engineering for H-E-B.
However, H-E-B is also reviewing the economics of the skylight issue. In order to get a payback in reduced lighting costs, artificial lights must be dimmed during the day, and the skylight must use 5% of the roof's area, said Malone.
"Even at 5%, the payback is in the seventh year," said Malone. And while skylights give a retailer the opportunity to save on lighting, the heat they allow in can increase air-conditioning costs.
Nob Hill Foods is taking an aggressive approach to combining daylight with traditional lighting, such as metal halide lamps.
"We're pushing for skylights on the sales floor," said Bonnie Samuel, energy supervisor at Nob Hill Foods, a 27-store chain. "This is the direction we would like to go."
As the chain designs future stores, "we'll definitely use skylights in the back room, and possibly on the main floor, in conjunction with T8s, electronic ballasts and fluorescent lighting," Samuel said.
A new 55,000-square-foot store in Gilroy, Calif., which opened this fall, has an open beam ceiling with skylights used in the main area of the store. Fluorescent lighting and metal halide lighting are also used on the sales floor. In this particular store, fluorescent lighting is used around the checkstand.
The store's design includes a number of energy-saving elements and Nob Hill estimates overall energy costs will be 20% less than in its typical stores due to more efficient refrigeration, lighting and high-velocity air-conditioning systems.
The Gilroy store is wired to cut up to two-thirds of the lighting when enough sunlight comes through the skylight. The lights go on and off as the natural light level changes, but it is not a drastic change, according to Samuel.
"We have an energy management system that controls the lights so we know what the savings are, and we're happy with that," Samuel said. "The savings we get from the addition of the skylights is also good."
A major East Coast retailer, who requested anonymity, said using skylights in combination with traditional lighting is a concept it has explored, but has not been able to cost-justify.
Instead, the retailer uses fluorescent strip fixtures, which provide 95% of the lighting in the store, and has taken some steps in moving to semirecessed fixtures in ambient lighting to get rid of some of the overhead glare. But the chain has intentionally not gone to fully recessed lighting because that conveys more of a high-end image.
"Skylights do not provide a lot of savings and really don't fit with the image we're trying to project," the retailer said. "We are more of the low-cost operator."
Wild Oats Markets, a 50-store chain that uses white sun-style lamps over produce and pendant metal halide fixtures over the sales area, said greater use of skylights is a consideration for the future.
"Currently, we are not using any skylights -- but we have seen skylights used throughout the industry. They give a feel of natural light within the store that seems to encourage the customer to look around more," said Nord Sandstrom, director of new store development for Wild Oats.
"While we are currently reviewing the use of skylights for natural daylight in the stores, we are also moving forward with clerestory windows that are higher up on the building and bring natural daylight into the store without some of the failure problems of skylights," such as leaking and other maintenance issues.
The clerestory windows will be used over the deli and produce areas in three to four new stores under construction. These windows are currently in use over the deli and produce areas at several Wild Oats stores in the Denver area.
Nob Hill Foods said it has not encountered problems with the skylights it installed at its Gilroy store.
"We looked into several types of skylights and the one we're using in Gilroy does not have maintenance problems," Samuel said. "They haven't leaked yet -- and we've had some pretty hard rains. But we researched it rather extensively so that we, hopefully, wouldn't have any problems."
In terms of the cost of skylights, "that is absolutely always an issue," Samuel said. "But the savings are there and they are considerable."