In the run-up to the first Lux connected lighting conference, a Lux team took a stroll down Oxford Street to assess the state of UK retail lighting.
If you look at the glittering surface appearance of the retail environment – from the manufacturers’ press releases to the designers’ Instagram posts – you’d be forgiven for thinking that everything is ticking along nicely and, after much uncertainty and doubt, the LED revolution has finally succeeded in taking the high street. But is that really the case? As Lux prepares to host its first Connected Lighting in Retail conference (Cavendish Conference Centre, London, 27 September), we decided to visit one of the most famous shopping streets in the world to see what’s really happening.
Our brief was simply to see what’s going on. After all, we’ve been talking about LEDs for a long time now, and surely all the rhetorical questions about whether the high street is ready for this new kit have been done to death. We assumed we were in for a treat.
But that’s not what we found. Yes, there were some fine examples of LED installations along the way, usually from relative newcomers to the UK high street. However, to an embarrassing degree, it’s clear that the high street is the last refuge for the (ceramic) metal halide lamp, the fluorescent tube…and the tungsten halogen lamp.
Our visit began at Tottenham Court Road and headed for the Circus, because the thing about Oxford Street is that, despite being one of the most famous shopping experiences in the world, if you start at the east end and head west it closely resembles every provincial high street you’ve ever visited. But it is Oxford Street, and that meant we could barely hold back the tears at the number of surviving recessed fluorescent modular fixtures and metal halide downlights, still doing sterling service years after they should have been offered an honourable retirement and a one-way ticket to the recycling centre.
As we progressed we identified three categories of fit-out:
The legacy scheme
Otherwise known as old and tired and desperate for a refit, these shops are limping along on outdated technology and minimal maintenance.
The fluorescent installations are barely functioning and the metal halide lamps display geriatric colours that simply scream ‘time for a change, matron’.
It’s a depressing sight and it makes you wonder what’s going on around the directors’ tables of the companies concerned.
The clean old man scheme
I refer you to A Hard Day’s Night, in which Paul McCartney’s feisty grandfather (played by Wilfrid Brambell) is constantly referred to as ‘a very clean old man’.
These installations are, indeed, very clean. They shouldn’t be allowed out on the street at their age, but no one can argue that they are very kempt.
For designers of a certain age, it’s always good to see installations designed in previous decades still going strong. But surely, to quote another film: ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’
The bright, shiny, fresh out-of-the-box scheme
This is what we expect from the high street, because this is exactly the way the retailers want us to feel when we get home having handed over all our money to them.
In this category, the quality is excellent, it has to be said. Whether a scheme has obviously felt the delicate touch of the lighting designer or been put together by the electrical contractor (it happens), the quality of the technology shines through. Good planning will, of course, deliver a well-tuned scheme – one that balances ambient with display with feature lighting. Other schemes may just be making sure that you don’t trip over the merchandise, but here is clear evidence that the LED is the future – just in case anyone hasn’t yet got the message.
As you’d expect, given our general cynicism around LED fixture provenance, we were packing heat in the guise of a pocket-sized spectrometer, ready to shame any installation that looked at us the wrong way. In the main, and to our surprise, the quality of colour rendition and colour appearance was uniformly high across the LED installations.
That means you need to look elsewhere for the bad stuff – but we decided against sticking our heads above ceilings to check out the smoking control gear, given the sideways looks we got from some of the security staff. For the record, colour rendering was consistently above CRI80, with a decent amount of +CRI90 to keep us even more interested. Colour temperatures ranged from 3000K to 4000K, so no surprises there, though we had some doubts as to whether certain design decisions had worked out as expected.
So well done everyone who’s taken the LED plunge. Now all you have to do is make the next leap into the world of smart controls and connected lighting.
Walking the Street
How did things work out for our investigators? By the time we’d worked our way along the Street, we’d visited 24 shops, of varying quality and merchandise. It’s probably easiest if we divide the various shops and stores into broad retailing categories:
Fashion is by far the largest group, as you’d imagine, with a fair amount of diversity. Also as you’d expect, these shops displayed the widest variety in lighting quality and age of interior fit-out.
Mobile phones are clearly on the up, given that five mobile companies can survive cheek-by-jowl, with lighting varying from grim to really rather good.
Shoes did not include the traditional UK names, at least along this end of the Street, so can be viewed as a subset of the UK shoe trade. That meant we didn’t see so much of the low-grade, diluted rollout that afflicts so much of the high street.
Specialist stores, otherwise known as The Rest, each offer a particular service, from chemist to sports shoes. Lighting quality, though? Not so special.
To see the outcome of our visit, click on each of the category headings to see the results.
The route to connected lighting
Which brings us back to the chief purpose of our visit. Within the three categories described above, which were pretty evenly split along the Street, there’s still a lot of work to do.
On a positive note for our laggardly Legacy friends, the good news is that the time is NOW for a refit. There are numerous ways that smart technology can further enhance both the customer and the management experience of modern retailing. The existing schemes have paid for themselves many times over, so there’s no value on the balance sheet – they’re worth nothing. The danger with these businesses is that some may lack the will to see beyond the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality.
Our clean old men really want to be very clean young men (and women), as do we all. These are the businesses that are likely to gain the most in the short term. The existing lighting is old and is hanging on due to diligent maintenance regimes. It means that somewhere there is an understanding of how important lighting is to the business. And if it’s clear that there is an appreciation for the quality of light, then it’s not such a stretch to see how much more can be gained by embracing new connected technologies.
The bright and fresh installations have a bit of a problem, of course, simply by being brand new and fresh out of the box. On the one hand, the LED technology that is the prerequisite for smart lighting installations is in place, but the hardware sitting above the ceilings and back-of-house probably doesn’t meet performance requirements for our brave new world. So some brave new decisions need to be taken. Can these guys afford to wait while they are leapfrogged by their currently clean-but-dowdy neighbours? Or do they bite the bullet and explore what they need to do to keep their shops looking and performing as well as they are at the moment?
It’s the inevitable ‘is it really time to change my laptop already?’ moment. The answer is always YES. AND YOU KNOW IT IS.
- The Connected Lighting in Retail conference – organised by Lux – is free for retailers and takes place in London on Wednesday 27 September 2017.
View the full programme and reserve your place now www.connectedlightingandretailconference.com