Shedding Light on our Shopping Indulgences

Close up detail of the church candles

Professor Gemma Calvert and Koh Juan Zhen

Have you ever wondered why large supermarkets tend to be extremely well lit, while high-end and luxury boutique stores seem to have more subtle lighting? Or why casual fast-food joints popular among the masses seem to have brighter lights compared to high-end restaurants catering for a romantic night out? Lighting in retail environments serves an important role in creating the right ambience to grab shoppers’ attention. These subtle adjustments in lighting conditions can change our perceptions and, more often than not, influence the brands and products that we choose.

Consumers are constantly faced with decisions. Whether it’s deciding between a luxurious apartment with a perfect sea view and a cheaper yet functional apartment nowhere near the oceanfront or having to choose between a tempting Alaskan king crab spaghetti and the less expensive mushroom fusilli, they often have to make the choice of whether to splurge or to hold back. They have to decide between the hedonic option or the utilitarian alternative. The problem for consumers lies in the fact that the former tends to come with a bigger price tag than the latter. Utilitarian products tend to be plain and simple; defined solely by their functionality and convenience. Hedonic products, on the other hand, emphasise intrinsic pleasure, entertainment value and self-expression.

It turns out that the lighting in which we consume products has some interesting effects on our choices, specifically on whether our purchase decisions will be driven by enjoyment or practicality.

Effects of lighting on purchase decisions

A previous study conducted by researchers from the University of Toronto and the Northwestern University[i] showed that our emotions, both positive and negative, tend to become more intense under bright lights. Darkness, therefore, reduces our emotional bias towards objects and products and that can affect our judgment and decision making.

In today’s retail environment, lighting plays a significant role in ambience creation, but how does it influence consumer choices and decisions? Its impact on our choice of products can be clearly seen from research conducted by Dr. Irene Huang[ii], a Fellow of the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight, and her colleagues. In the studies conducted, participants indicated their preference for pleasurable or functional product options either in darkened surroundings or in the presence of bright lighting, across a range of different scenarios, such as when purchasing a chair, a laptop or a mobile application. They found that consumers tend to choose products that are more indulgent in darker surroundings, and more functional in brighter ones.

The findings further revealed that our emotional connection to others is dulled whilst in darker surroundings, in turn leading us to assign less weight to their opinions. This diminished connection heightens our tendency to act in accordance with our own values and desires. We no longer seek others approval and can make the purchase decisions we want to without fear of judgment. Perhaps it is only under the shadow of darkness that our thoughts become more self-indulgent.

What does this mean for businesses?

As it is, businesses have an entire arsenal of strategies to attract customers, ranging from price reductions to increased mainstream marketing. Apart from these, in-store lighting could also play a vital role in boosting consumption. For example, sales of self-indulgent products such as luxury handbags may be boosted if displayed under dimmer lighting conditions, while those built to fulfil a specific purpose, such as stationery, may do better if featured as part of a well-lit shopfront display.

For example, specialist chocolatiers can choose to keep the lights in their shops dim so that customers feel more at ease with their guilty pleasure purchases. Customers are led to feel that, akin to being in a dark corner, no one is there to observe and judge them, and are therefore free to make purchases unencumbered by the judgments of others.

In Asia, some high-end retailers are already making use of mood lighting to influence consumers to buy. Perhaps the most notable of these is fashion company Shanghai Tang. Shanghai Tang outlets are distinctive for their dark in-store ambiences. By maintaining a dark environment, they can make consumers feel more comfortable making purchases that they truly want. Someone who would usually feel averse to buying something from Shanghai Tang for fear of seeming ostentatious might instead now choose to make the purchase. Darkness liberates them to act how they would as though no one was watching.

Already in existence are many businesses that are making use of lighting to augment the in-store experience, by installing LED and strobe lights to enliven the atmosphere and uplift the mood. The logic behind this is to build a vibrant and lively environment to make customers feel refreshed and more willing to buy. Customers may very well have their energy revived and spend more readily because of these lighting systems – but the attractiveness of certain gratifying goods can be enhanced with just some simple mood lighting alone instead of resorting to such elaborate measures.

By no means is this practice restricted to physical brick-and-mortar stores; businesses can make use of lighting even on the online environment. For example, based on the time of the day, businesses can strategically plan when to push marketing messages to consumers. Deals and discounts for no-frills functional products can be launched during times of bright daylight on sunny days. On the other hand, advertisements for indulgent luxury products might be more effective if scheduled later in the day after the sun has set.

This research by Dr. Huang provides insight into novel ways in which businesses can leverage lighting to more effectively target consumers. Companies would do well to understand this surprising yet salient aspect of consumer behaviour and seek to implement it into their own retail environments.



[i] Xu, A. J., & Labroo, A. A. (2014). Incandescent affect: Turning on the hot emotional system with bright light. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24(2), 207–216.

[ii] Huang, X., Dong, P., & Labroo, A. A. (2018). Feeling disconnected from others: The effects of ambient darkness on hedonic choice, International Journal of Research in Marketing, 35(1), 144-153.

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Authors: Prof Gemma Calvert & Koh Juan Zhen
Date: 26 March 2018

About the Authors

Gemma Calvert is Professor of Marketing at Nanyang Business School, and Director for Research & Development at the Institute for Asian Consumer Insight, NTU Singapore. A pioneer of neuromarketing, she helps companies to break into Asian emerging markets through deeper understanding of Asian consumers.

Koh Juan Zhen is a Research Assistant at ACI. Prior to joining ACI, she was an Assistant Marketing and Business Development Manager in the tourism industry and led various integrated marketing campaigns and partnership initiatives to drive reach and sales. Her research interests lie in the area of consumer behaviour and how emotions and subconscious mental processing influence decision-making.