In today's economy, dressing room lighting can spell retail life or death

March 10, 2009

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Dressing room lights may determine how bright the outlook for clothing sales is with the nation’s retailers, a new University of Florida study suggests.

In today’s tight economy, the lengths apparel stores go to lure customers with deep discounts and colorful interior designs are likely to fall short if shoppers don’t like how they look in the mirror, said Anne Baumstarck, who did the research for her master’s degree in interior design at UF.

“The dressing room represents the final moment when the consumer decides whether or not to make a clothing purchase,” she said. “It is where the sale is made.”

Yet retailers often overlook the importance of how the room is illuminated, thinking all shoppers need is an overhead light to be able to see when trying on merchandise, Baumstarck said. But shoppers may have other needs, and lighting direction appears to affect how people see themselves, she said.

“After all sorts of money is invested in a store’s atmospherics, it gives shoppers a letdown to have poorly planned dressing rooms,” she said. “Retailers diminish the feeling they’ve worked so hard to create in the main store.”

While other studies have examined lighting on the sales floor, none have looked at the effects it has on shoppers in dressing rooms, Baumstarck said.

In Baumstarck’s study, 60 female shoppers ages 18 to 35 who tried on clothes in the dressing rooms at Wolfgang, a Gainesville clothing boutique, showed a clear preference for frontal lights — those installed along the sides of the mirror — to overhead lights, which were mounted on the ceiling.

“Women complained that overhead lighting created shadows on their face, making them look unattractive,” she said.

To avoid these unflattering shadows, shoppers had to step back from the mirror and move around, Baumstarck said. “They were constantly engaged in trying to negotiate the best spot to stand and ended up dancing around the dressing room,” she said.

When customers notice the negative aspects of their surroundings, it distracts them from paying attention to the merchandise, Baumstarck said. “You never want a consumer to be thinking ‘I hate this lighting’ instead of ‘I like this dress,’” she said.

Overhead lighting also makes a room seem smaller — even cramped — creating a need to escape, Baumstarck said. With frontal lighting, dressing rooms appear roomier, and shoppers said they were willing to stay longer and even try on more clothes, she said.

Women most impressed with frontal lighting were those who placed a high priority on personal appearance and how they looked in clothes; by comparison, more utilitarian shoppers cared only about finding a particular article of apparel that fit, the study found.

Results showed that this “self-oriented” shopper would sometimes comment about frontal lighting giving their skin a healthy glow, making their cellulite less visible or being so soft and flattering that it made it appear they were in a bar or restaurant in the evening, she said.

Previous research shows consumers choose a store with a particular image, such as one that is healthy and sporty or sexy and trendy because they want to be seen as having those attributes, Baumstarck said.

Lighting was so important that it captured a majority of the comments — 51 percent — that women made in the study, Baumstarck said. Of the 36 comments made about overhead lighting, 25 were negative, representing 69 percent of the total, and 11 were positive, making up 31 percent. In contrast, frontal lighting generated 34 comments, of which 20 were positive — 59 percent — and 14 were negative or 41 percent.

Lighting in stores varies, with overhead lights common in lower-priced bargain stores, Baumstarck said. Some retailers don’t even designate lighting for dressing rooms; the same overhead light fixtures serve both dressing rooms and the main sales floor, she said.

“It’s not all about the clothes,” she said. “What woman doesn’t go into a dressing room and engage in a dialogue with herself about how attractive she is? You don’t want to give her any opportunity to feel badly about herself.”

Baumstarck’s study has great implications for retailers and consumers, especially with the economic downturn, said Paulette Hebert, an Oklahoma State University design professor and lighting expert. “One important variable, such as dressing room illumination, may mean the difference in a store remaining viable in today’s economy,” she said.