Lights, camera, inaction

26 November, 2010

Running a small business is a continual challenge of balancing expenditure against income. Without wishing to seem too Mr Micawberish* about it, you need more money coming in than you have going out. Mostly this is a simple balancing act, because you know that a pint of milk or another box of ballpoint pens isn’t going to change much. But once a decade, a biggie crops up that actually makes you pick up the phone and ask around for quotes.

So it was with us recently, as the track spotlighting began to slowly die. After over a decade of service, the individual fittings were clapping out one by one. I rang around a handful of electricians to get quotes for replacing the lot. After enduring a lot of teeth-sucking and inflated quotes (the most expensive was three times the cheapest), we eventually plumped for the electrician who happened to be a regular customer of ours.

Both he and his assistant are also freelance sparkies for a TV production company. This meant that not only did they have a good technical knowledge, but there was also an aesthetic dimension to their work. So as well as getting the amount of light right, there was also a bit of playing around to get the “appropriate sense of drama”. Who knew there was an appropriate sense of drama for retailing specialist beer, but there is.

The initial set-up was great, with lots of overhead downlighting that made the bottles sparkle. Sadly, the technique of illuminating the stock but not the rest of the shop gave the place a sort of moody, museum-like feel, so a few more spotlights went in to “fill out the ambient” (as they say in the trade).

It was money well spent. There’s now something about the quality of light on the bottles that makes them look like hyper-real catalogue shots. The colours are more vivid, the edges crisper – and the damn lights show up every smear and speck of dust.

So everything looks great as we slowly add stock for Christmas. It’s something that didn’t occur to me before, but subtle changes in illumination are a great way to draw people to certain areas of shelves. One’s eye is naturally drawn to a brightly lit spot, and you’d think if a product is both eye-catching and good quality, it would boost sales. Not a bit of it.

For a few months now we’ve been stocking beers from an excellent new(ish) micro, the Buxton Real Ale brewery. Of their beers, Moor Top is the one that should be flying out the door, given it’s only 3.6% abv, pale and loaded with luscious, aromatic Chinook hops.

But despite endless fiddling with positioning, and a lot of gentle hand-selling, the beer just isn’t moving as it should.

It’s a complete mystery – the beer is good, packaging is as good as any of the other smaller brewery beers, and now the lighting is so perfect that the labels look almost like a Dali-esque hallucination.

As I’ve said before, drinks retail is a black art. Even when you get the beer, label, shop, service, reputation, pricing and lighting right, there are still unknown factors that stop a product selling. At least we now have a sense of drama.

*“Annual income £20, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income £20, annual expenditure £20 ought and six, result misery.” Mr Micawber in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield

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