Signs of the times

Retailers have any number of display and signage options available to them: digital signs, high-quality wall-size posters, danglers, power wings, gondolas, wobblers, shelf talkers, standees…

It would be nice if there were guidelines for how to use each of them for maximum effectiveness. Sadly, the situation is much more complex than mapping any specific type of sign to any particular purpose. With retail signage — as in life — the path to enlightenment begins with self-knowledge.

“The starting point is: What’s your brand, what’s your customer experience, and where do they intersect?” says Stephen Keith Platt, principal at the Platt Retail Institute, a research and consulting firm in Hinsdale, IL.

Start by clearly understanding what you are known for. Being the low-cost leader? Providing personalized attention? Offering the broadest product selection? At the same time, look at your operation from the customer’s standpoint. Understand the image your stores project. Are they upscale? Warm? Professional? No-frills? Fun?

Whatever your brand is, “signage will help communicate that,” says Jerry Gelsomino, vice president of marketing and brand experience at Pratt Corp., an Indianapolis-based graphics provider. Everything you do with your signage should reinforce your image and identity.

You could put a sign, handwritten in black marker on neon-yellow paper, that reads “Men’s suits 50% off” in both a discount clothing store and a high-end department store. And the sign would effectively direct suit buyers to both stores. The difference is that at, say, Nordstrom’s that sign would be perceived as garish and unprofessional.

“Sure, you’ll sell suits, but you’ve destroyed the store. You’ve destroyed the image,” says Rick Segel, principal of Burlington, MA-based retail consultancy Rick Segel & Associates. “Never separate your goals. Don’t separate branding and sales; they go hand in hand.”


Of course store signage should be clear and easy to read, not to mention carefully proofread. But beyond those basics, how do you go about creating signs for your stores?

A good signage starting point is to concentrate on aspects of your brand that are not signs in and of themselves but most certainly could be elements of signage: font, color, material. The decisions you make on these elements should permeate all your corporate messaging, from your logo to your store environment.

For such a humble design element, fonts can be particularly expressive. A high-end stationery store might want to use a font that appears handwritten yet elegant, such as Mistral from Microsoft Word. A store that sells reproductions of Early American furniture might employ a font that appears more formal and traditional, such as Word’s Poor Richard. A more playful font, something similar to Word’s Andy, might be a wise choice for a store with products for children.

The lowercase sans serif type that department store Macy’s uses for its logo is simple and elegant, denoting both high quality and a lack of pretension, precisely the impression the company wants to make about itself. Macy’s also makes fairly consistent use of wine red as a background color for signs that contain its logo.

Color all by itself can be a powerful indicator. You know you’re in a Best Buy electronics store when you find yourself amid blue walls with gold accents.

Examples of the use of materials include outdoor sports outfitters such as Recreation Equipment Inc. (REI) and Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS), which decorate their stores with rough-hewn, unfinished wood to connote the outdoors. Color can also be combined with material to create a distinction, such as fast-food chain Baja Fresh’s use of white tile.

The intersection of brand image with signage is a unique exercise for every company. What works for one retailer won’t work for another.

Specialty-foods retailer Trader Joe’s cultivates a casual atmosphere with employees in Hawaiian shirts (also a type of signage). Trader Joe’s signs are blackboards with messages written in chalk. “It doesn’t look corporate,” says Pratt Corp.’s Gelsomino. “It looks fresh and natural. Take that chalkboard and put it in a Limited [apparel store], and customers will think, ‘What? They can’t afford a sign?’”


While your signs should work for you by encouraging sales and repeat business, they had better work even harder for your customers. After all — ostensibly, at least — you deploy signs for your customers’ convenience.

“How difficult or easy is it to go through your store?” asks Gelsomino. “Walk through it with a clear mind — look at the store as a customer would. Is it easy to understand product categories? Price points? Where you get service? What departments you have? Does the store tell me why I should buy this product instead of the one next to it? How much is it? How do I buy it?” If customers have to think too hard about any of these factors, he says, “you’ve lost them.”

The first order of signage is directional. When customers walk into a store, they need clues to help them find what they’re looking for. Common examples are the wall-size signs that mark out a department (“Toys” “Automotive”) and the smaller but still prominent signs that inform customers what they’ll find down each aisle or area (“Garden tools. Hoses. Lawn care”).

Directional signs don’t have to be high-tech. Even a simple stripe, devoid of text, painted on the floor, can be an effective sign, showing customers the main path through a store.

The second order of signage is promotional. Examples would include signs that call attention to a narrow category of products or specific items (“All digital cameras 30% off!), or the presence of a product (“The new Xbox is here!”). Promotional signage can also call attention to the company itself and its business practices (“We buy from regional growers whenever possible”).

The third order is for selling. This sort of signage includes details about value, price, and service. Such signs can be anything from reproductions of print advertisements to demonstrations of a product to detailed instructions on how to use the items to each item’s price tag.

Regardless of how small your store is or how well edited your merchandise selection, you need all three types of signage. “A lot of customers will actually leave rather than ask a question,” cautions Melanie McIntosh, founder of Inspire Retail Solutions, a consultancy in Vancouver, BC. “Even in a small bath-and-body store, it’s good to have signs that say where products are.”

Brian Santo is a freelance writer based in Portland, OR.

Dos and don’ts of store signage

DO ensure that the signs are readable.
DO consider the conventional wisdom “the more expensive the item, the larger the font size.”
DO use larger, more legible fonts and higher contrast if you cater to an older clientele.
DO consider sound (music, ambient sounds), smell (cooking aromas, perfumes), and other nonvisual elements of your retail environment.
DO remember that your employees, while not signage, do signify. Everything, from their uniforms to their attitudes, contributes to your brand image.
DO make sure that any signage you allow suppliers to install does not conflict with existing signage or your brand.
DO avoid misspellings.
DO keep it simple. That includes the message, the color scheme, and the number of design elements. While you’re at it, make sure the design of your sign is balanced.
DO use effective lighting.
DON’T put up so many signs that they become visual “white noise.”
DON’T put up signs without frames or sign holders.
DON’T leave up signs that are tattered, faded, or deteriorated in any way.
DON’T leave up outdated ads and promo materials.
DON’T hide unpleasant caveats in small print: “SALE $9.99! (and up).”
DON’T settle for blurry, unprofessional images.
And most important of all:
DON’T assume that any of these recommendations can’t be violated if the violation suits the image you want to project. For instance, battered signs might enhance the look and feel of a store selling antiques or reproductions of classic products.

THE CASE FOR digital signs

Digital signs — plasma display screens, computer monitors, TV screens, and the like — may not be universally appropriate, but they are more flexible than almost any other option.

There is mounting evidence that they are also very effective. The unaided recall of ads displayed on digital signs in big-box outlets is three to five times better than recall of ads on broadcast TV, according to Stephen Nesbit, chief operating officer of Dallas-based Reflect Systems, which provides software for digital signs.

As could be expected, digital signage is extremely useful in instances in which large amounts of information have to be quickly communicated or readily available to the customer. An example of the former might be a video demonstration of a product, which can be much more effective than detailed written instructions. An example of the latter might be a kiosk with a touch screen that allows customers to access specific product information.

Less obvious — but potentially as effective — is the use of digital signage for targeted selling and promotion. Families tend to shop on Saturday mornings, seniors on weekday afternoons, and singles on midweek evenings, Nesbit says. It would be impossible for a retailer to continuously swap demographically targeted static signage but simplicity itself to do so with digital signs.

Lift from properly placed digital signs ranges from 10% to 20%, Nesbit says. But the lift from poorly placed digital signs is negligible — less than 1%. An appropriate place for a digital sign is in proximity with the products being promoted; poor locations for digital signs include store entrances and checkout counters.

Digital signs are perceived as expensive. The cost of the hardware itself, including the screens, “is not an issue,” according to Nesbit. “If you’re little, you use a few screens; if you’re big, you use a lot.”

The real cost, he says, is in the development of content, and that’s where the big chain stores have a real advantage. Say you spend $5,000 to develop content. Spread that over five stores, it costs $1,000 per store. “But spread it over 300 stores,” Nesbit says, “and that’s peanuts.”