Bright lights may be crucial for showcasing products and luring customers into supermarkets, but they also use lots of energy. Now some farsighted managers are taking advantage of new technology to lighten electricity use without sacrificing ambience.
Spurred in part by the National Energy Policy Act of 1992, which bans production of standard 8-foot "cool white" fluorescent lamps beginning this May and 4-foot "cool whites" in November 1995, many retailers are installing rare-earth phosphor fluorescent lamps, which cost more but use less energy and cast a more natural light.
Retailers also are substituting electronic ballasts (lamp starters) for core and coil magnetic ballasts, installing reflectors, motion-controlled shutoff switches and daylight sensors.
Ralphs Grocery Co. launched a systemwide retrofit program last spring. "We're going through the chain and changing all cool whites to rare-earth phosphors," said Doug Smith, group vice president of engineering and construction at the Compton, Calif.-based chain.
"We could have gone on using cool-white fluorescents for a long
time, but I think the legislation really gave us a push to switch. Eventually, the industry will just find that the old lamps are no longer available," Smith said.
The rare-earth phosphor lamps cast a better light on the product because of their chemical content. The phosphor -- a luminescent coating on the inside of the lamp -- is a mixture of different elements, including heavy metals, which reflect light more naturally.
Ralphs estimates the payback period for its 165-store retrofit program will be three years. It's also installing electronic ballasts in the stores, each of which has an average of 800 lamps.
The retailer also is installing motion sensors, which shut off lights when people aren't present in break rooms, closets, locker rooms and rest rooms. Nine years ago Ralphs began using daylight controls that respond to ambient light; many of its stores have skylights.
Bi-Lo, Mauldin, S.C., for its part, began switching to rare-earth fluorescents at its stores about four years ago. "We changed over because of the better quality of the light," said Paul Young, corporate energy analyst for the chain. "It looks more natural. Meat looks redder, for instance, because the light source allows its real color to be seen. It doesn't look artificial.
"Merchandisers here are concerned that there be adequate light for customers to properly see and judge purchases. In our company, that is the driving force," said Young. "From that point, my job is to find the most efficient lighting system that will produce that light."
Bi-Lo also uses motion sensors and reflectors, and is installing electronic ballasts in all new stores. It is retrofitting two of its 196 stores with the ballasts. The retailer's average per-store annual electrical bill is $100,000, of which 15% to 20% is for lighting. Average store size is 31,000 square feet.
Striking a medium between energy efficiency and store ambience isn't easy. Some stores are simply turning up the lights to illuminate products, with the thinking being that very bright stores convey an impression of cleanliness. Other retailers are looking to conserve energy.
"The brightness in stores is the first thing people are aware of. Some people will think stores are too bright, some too dark. Lighting is very subjective," said Leonard Micek, manager of energy and engineering at King Soopers, Denver. "You have to find a point where you provide adequate lighting, but not go overboard on spending more on energy than you really need to," Micek said.
In some cases, "the darker stores are not necessarily the ones trying to save money. Sometimes their image is very upscale and they'll be dimly lit to give a cozy feeling, one that's not so harsh," said Micek.
"Whether they are saving money by having less lighting is questionable. The fixtures may look elegant, but they aren't always very efficient. They could be using just as much power but not putting out as much light," he said.
Dick Lyons, corporate director of maintenance at A&P, Montvale, N.J., said, "I'm very conscious of lighting. If for the first 20 feet when I walk into a store my eyes are drawn upward, then the store is overlit, because you're not selling the ceiling or the decor, you're selling product."
Giant Food, Landover, Md., has "the highest watts per square foot of connected lighting electrical load in the supermarket industry," said Bob Bittner, director of engineering.
"The light level in our stores is higher than anywhere else in the industry because we use lighting as a merchandising tool. Our
mission is to sell food, so we have nice, bright, clean stores. Once you make a decision to do that, you have to pay the energy bill, obviously. You can't have it both ways," Bittner said.
Rebates from utility companies and state laws also are playing a role in lighting fixture use.
In part to take advantage of a utility company's 50% rebate, Larchmont, N.Y.-based D'Agostino Supermarkets is installing more energy-efficient lights in 12 of its 25 stores. It expects a one-year payback. "The first thing we do is showcase our product. Second, we do try to get more energy efficiency," said Nick D'Agostino 3rd, D'Agostino's vice president of design and construction systems.
In Florida, by state law, retailers are allowed to use only so much wattage per square foot. "So you have to achieve a trade-off between conservation and proper illumination, particularly down here for the elderly," said Milton Drechsel, vice president and engineering manager for Tampa-based Kash n' Karry Food Stores.