Melanie McIntosh

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Effective Retail Signage

In this day and age of modern computers, ink jet printers and desktop publishing programs, I am still amazed to see store owners that put little effort in to producing quality signage for their stores.

Signage is one of the most important ways to convey your message to your customers. Your store name, promotions, pricing, and product information may all be conveyed through signage. Are you getting these messages across effectively?

As a customer walks by your store, you have about 3 seconds to let them know what they will find inside. What message are you sending? Professional signage will attract the customer, provide just the right amount of information and invite the customer to enter your store or try your product.

Unprofessional signage is confusing to the customer and sends a negative message about your store and product. Common problems include too many signs, ambiguous or misleading messages, spelling errors or signs that are difficult to read. I don't know about you, but I avoid stores that have have signs littered throughout the store that scream, "SALE! 9.99" and in small print at the bottom they add, "and up."

Effective retail signage has the following qualities:

You don't have to spend big bucks to get signs that look professional. Having said that, you still need to be willing to spend a few dollars to create the image that you want to represent your business.

Consider the lifespan of the sign. Exterior signage that needs to last several years requires a fairly large investment. The shorter the lifespan of the sign, the less it should cost. If you are running a small boutique, producing your own short term promotional or informational signage is perfectly acceptable, provided you have the tools and skills to do it well. If you are producing signs on your own, they should be produced on a computer, not handwritten. This might seem too obvious to mention, but I still see stores using signs that have been written in black felt marker. Use a desktop publishing or word processing program and quality printer and paper.

If your printer and paper are not good quality, take your computer file to a print shop to produce your image. Mount your final images on a heavy card, illustration board or foam core.

Don't go crazy with color. Pick a simple, two or three color scheme and stick with it throughout the store. Pick a background color, text color and highlight color.

Make sure that the colors have enough contrast to be easily read. Red on black, while a dynamic and high power combination, does not have enough contrast to be easily viewed. However, if the text is very large, bold and only one or two short words, you might be able to get away with it. Outlining the text with a thin white line will also improve the contrast.

Also be careful with combinations such as yellow/green or orange/pink/red or green/blue. These combinations can be powerful and trendy, but require more work with design to make them legible. Strong contrasts such as white/black, yellow/black, red/white, white/blue increase visibility and legibility.

Make your signage easy to read. Don't try to put too much on one sign. Some signs are so full of tiny images, starbursts, exclamation marks, and small print, that you can't take it all in. One main image, a headline and a few bullet points are all you need on an informational sign.

A sign in a store window should be even simpler. You need to get your message across immediately as the customer walks, or drives by. This means you can only use a strong image on your sign, a headline, or a simple combination of both. Some stores only use one word, such as 'SALE' or 'HOLIDAY' in the window, and provide more information inside the store.

The more time the customer will be spending looking at the sign, the more information you can include. For example, a sign near your cash register, where your customer will be waiting for a transaction to be processed, can provide details of a contest or return policy.

Keep your message simple. Avoid trying to say too much. Choose one main message that you want to convey. Do you want to tell about a sale, a price, product info, return policy? Rather than say this all at once, try a sale sign on the top of the rack, price and product info on the tag, and return policy at the cash register. When you craft your sign, write down the message you want to get across, then rewrite it in as few words as possible. Keep reducing until you have one to five words for your headline. If necessary, write a small amount of supporting information below.

Be careful where you place your signage. Place it where it will catch your customers' attention, but will not block essential elements of your store.

Think about how customers approach your store. If customers walk by your store, but your store name is only placed high up on your store front, facing the street, how will they see it? You also need to repeat the name on the door or window, and perhaps hanging from an awning or on a sandwich board on the sidewalk.

Make sure signs don't block traffic flow, displays, or the view of the interior of your store.

Window signage may not be visible to customers for other reasons that you do not realize. Is there a parking meter blocking the view of your window? What about a loading zone where delivery trucks park for a large part of the day, obscuring part of your store from view?

Check for reflections on the window that make your interior signage invisible during the day. You'll need to check this at various times of the day to find out what happens to the light and reflections depending on the position of the sun. You can improve the visibility of your signage by improving the display lighting inside, and by using light colors in your windows. Light colored signage will stand out, while dark colors will recede and virtually disappear behind reflections on the glass.

After placing your signs, double check how they look from a customers point of view. Step back and approach the store as a visitor. Walk from front to back and look at all your signage critically and reposition as necessary.


The simpler you keep your signage the better. Reduce visual clutter, and focus on getting your most important message across to your customer. You will attract more walk-by traffic, and avoid confusing your customer. Your sales should increase as a result.

Melanie McIntosh is a Retail Consultant and the founder of Inspire Retail Solutions, a British Columbia firm that helps retailers create strong, professional business images that attract customers.

Melanie is currently offering a free consultation for interested retailers. She can be reached by email.

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