While LED lighting has helped many businesses reduce their carbon footprint, each retailer must decide if the endeavor is a worthy long-term investment.
By Pat Pape, Contributing Editor.
During holiday season 2011, the 74-foot Norway spruce in New York City’s Rockefeller Center was covered in 30,000 multicolored light-emitting diodes (LED). Those glowing decorations were an eco-friendly choice since they use less power to produce the same light, last longer than conventional bulbs and burn cooler, reducing the risk of fire.
The same reasons LEDs were used to adorn the traditional Rockefeller Center tree are why many convenience chains are turning to LEDs for interior and exterior lighting.
LED lights have many applications for convenience stores and gasoline stations. They can be used for recessed lighting, retail spot-lighting, under-cabinet lights, and exterior fixtures, such as signs and fuel pump canopies. They give off minimal heat and reduce glare. While results vary, they can use as much as 85% less energy and last up to 50 times longer than incandescent lighting. LED technology has been around since the ‘60s, but product performance can vary greatly among manufacturers.
At Kum & Go, the West Des Moines, Iowa-chain with more than 400 Midwest locations, much of the outdoor lighting, including exterior monument, building and canopy ovals, relies on LED backlighting.
“Our 15-foot pole sign uses Sylvania induction lighting for backlighting,” said Adam Hammes, sustainability manager for Kum & Go. “The price signs used for commodity pricing are scroll numbers with LED backlighting, and our interior menu boards are 40-inch LCD screens.”
Company officials believe their customers care about conserving energy and protecting the environment. As a result, they are working to have 100% LED lighting in all new stores. “It’s just one more way Kum & Go is continuing to be a strong environmental steward,” said Hammes. “We understand the importance of paying up front for better technology that lasts longer and uses less electricity. It’s a win-win for our customers and for the environment.”
LED is also good for the look of a store. It’s hard to imagine the visible difference between LEDs and fluorescents until you see them side by side, according to Joe Albanese, vice president of facilities management for Stripes, the 500-plus store chain headquartered in Corpus Christi, Texas.
“I had the opportunity to walk into a store where we were installing LED lights,” he said. “Half the lights were fluorescent and half were LED, and it was like night and day. Fluorescent is yellow compared to a white, bright, clean LED light. LED accentuates the food products and the labels in the vault. It’s just a cleaner presentation.”
Stripes is installing LED in its new big box stores, which feature full-service restaurants and range in size from 5,000 to more than 7,000 square feet. “Our bigger stores all have exterior LEDs in the signs, canopy, front fascia, side lights, wall packs, everything,” said Albanese. “We’re trying to get the same look in the older stores.”
The company is testing LEDs in the coolers of new stores and is investigating in LED for fountain and slush beverage translights.
“We have two stores in the greater Corpus Christi area where we tested LED lights for the sales floor,” Albanese said. “That’s a work in progress, but very exciting, and it’s possible we’ll do more testing in 2012.”
Toot’n Totem, operator of 63 stores in the Amarillo, Texas, area, uses LED from LSI Industries of northern Cincinnati, to illuminate fuel canopies in all new stores. “It’s the newest and greatest that LSI has to offer,” said Terry Harrah, director of maintenance for Toot’n Totem. “It’s more of a directional lighting. It looks good.”
LED brightens store interiors, he added. “It definitely makes your product look better inside the store and makes your concrete look cleaner outside. Instead of a yellow cast, it’s more of a brighter white [light]. We wouldn’t be putting them in our new stores if we didn’t think it made a difference.”
Decreased maintenance costs are another advantage. Most LED lights will last for seven or eight years—and some will last twice as long as that—while fluorescents burn for approximately two years, said Albanese. That means the maintenance department has more time to focus on projects other than replacing burned out lights.
“Because we’re a 24/7 operation, we don’t turn them off,” he said of store lighting. “Fluorescents degenerate over time. They may start out white but then degenerate to a yellow” before they burn out.
Replacing random fluorescent lights as they go out results in “that patchwork look” because the new lights are brighter than older ones, Albanese added.
Currently, Valero, the San Antonio-based operator with almost 1,000 Corner Stores, is installing interior and exterior LED lighting in new stores and retrofits.
“It’s relatively new for us,” said Bill Day, executive director of media relations for Valero. “It’s good for coolers. It doesn’t throw off a lot of heat.”
Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes of Canastota, N.Y., has 85 outlets in upstate New York. The company has installed LED lighting inside and outside its newest locations and retrofitted older stores’ coolers with LEDs.
LED puts off less heat, and “It allows us to eliminate the fluorescent tubes and the ballasts that run the tubes, making it more energy efficient,” said Peter Tamburro, senior executive vice president of Nice N Easy.
Spending and Saving
No investment in LED should be taken lightly.
“There is a fair amount of sticker shock associated with LED lights,” said Albanese, noting that LEDs cost at least 50% more than fluorescents. “However, you have anywhere from a 15-20-month payback [on exterior lights]. On the interior side, the payback is less than six months, so it’s a huge windfall long term.”
Nice N Easy has worked with National Resource Management (NRM), a Boston-based retrofitter of LED lighting, controls and motors for commercial refrigeration. NRM not only did updates for Nice N Easy stores, but also helped the chain collect rebates through an energy-conservation program sponsored by the regional utility company. “It’s actually cheaper to save energy than to build a new power plant,” said Jim Staley, chief operating officer of NRM, explaining why many states have passed laws mandating energy conservation programs.
Under these laws, individual utility companies collect money from each rate payer—both business and residential customers—and use those funds to underwrite energy-saving programs. Some programs offer generous rebates to businesses that take steps to reduce energy use, such as switching to LED lighting. In fact, some rebates pay for up to 70% of a store’s LED installation.
To find out more about rebate opportunities, retailers can check with their own utility providers or go to the Website featuring the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (dsireusa.org), which is part of the U.S. Department of Energy.
The right lighting can save energy and brighten up the store, making it more attractive to passersby and helping shoppers select the products and fresh foods they want to purchase. But does the lighter, brighter look from LED help drive sales? “Sales are up in a lot of places, but it’s kind of hard to tell,” said Harrah, of Toot’n Totem. “When you walk in and see the Bud Light glowing, it does make you want to go toward the beer coolers.”
It’s also a form of theatre for the customers, said Albanese of lighting convenience stores and showcasing products. “It’s got to look good before it tastes good.”