Lights out on the high street

Stuart Mitchell, chief executive of retail marketing agency Live & Breathe, discusses the effect of the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme on retailers who may have to switch out the lights on power chugging window displays to reduce carbon emissions.

Stuart Mitchell,
Stuart Mitchell

From April, retailers of a certain size (using more than 6,000 Mega Watt hours of electricity a year) will have to register for the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme and, from 2011, pay for the carbon they emit. According to the Environment Agency, switching off the lights on all night displays could be a solution.

If only it was as straightforward as that. All night displays might seem an easy target but as anyone who works in retail knows, the reality is far more complex.

The recession has decimated the High Street leaving a large number of empty units which contribute to the neglected, run-down aspect of many of our city centres. While there are schemes to use some units on a temporary basis as exhibition space or for other civic purposes, switching off the lights in those that are still in business will do little to lift the morale of beleaguered retailers and residents who see the High Street as a key part of their local community.

Leeds holds the unfortunate accolade of having the highest number of vacant retail units in the country. What the city needs most is a shot in the arm, rather than draconian clamping down. At night, the empty, unlit units can become a safety issue, requiring additional street lighting or making the streets in question an area to be avoided.

At a time when stores are slugging it out with their online counterparts, they need to be using everything in their arsenal to draw in the shopper and show him or her a good time. The real world shopping experience has become increasingly important. Retail theatre plays a vital role by providing an interactive and exciting alternative to the convenience and functionality of online shopping.

Retailers can offer consumers something the internet cannot by presenting their products via a shopping experience that is truly engaging and depending on the brand in question, anything from flamboyant, to provocative, to sexy to energetic. The role of lighting in retail theatre is a key one. Turn it off and a good part of the appeal has gone.

Another issue that seems to have been forgotten in this debate is that shop windows, for many retailers, are in fact their only means of promotion. Some simply do not engage in above the line advertising or at best infrequently. Peacocks changes its windows every three weeks. Consumers who want to know what’s going on at Peacocks simply stop by their windows, as part of the shopping ritual.

Take away the ability to light up goods after hours and many retailers will need to find other ways to promote themselves. This might involve producing additional collateral – leaflets and brochures – which in themselves require raw materials and expensive machinery to produce. The environmental issue, just as in the packaging debate, is a complex one. Remove one element from the equation and you find yourself with unexpected consequences and knock-on effects.

There is likely to be confusion amongst retailers as to who will be affected by the scheme and to what extent. The big department stores such as Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Harrods with their legendary window displays are in a league of their own when it comes to electricity consumption. I would hazard a guess that most everyday retailers, the likes of New Look, Dorothy Perkins and others, with their hundreds of stores nationwide use just as much electricity inside their stores as in their windows.

Already many are doing a great deal to reduce their energy consumption. Peacocks turns off its window lighting when it closes its doors to shoppers as do many others. Some, like Sony pull down their security shutters, leaving lighting to a minimum. Shopping centres or malls are another case in point where energy consumption after hours is a non-issue.

The months ahead will be interesting ones as we see how the scheme pans out for retailers up and down the country.

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