STORE DESIGN: Sign of the Times

Say, it's only a paper moon sailing over the 24-hour pharmacy. But it doesn't look make-believe, thanks to modern technowizardry.

In retail's Barnum & Bailey world, stores have to entertain shoppers to survive, while cutting costs and improving service. Today, more of that is being accomplished with signage, which mimic everything from brick walls and awnings to drive-in theaters. Billboards that rotate messages every three seconds have been brought indoors. Changeable signs housed in a flat-screen TV monitor are popping up in supermarkets, and "SmartPaper" signs that allow prices to be electronically changed from a central location are being tested in Macy's.

"In the last two years we have seen tremendous changes in signage," says Alan Katz, vice president, Display Technologies, College Point, N.Y. "Customers are looking for signs to do more than put their product name out there. The retailer has become much more involved in what the signs look like. They want signs to dress up their store, and are becoming increasingly critical of

the pieces in their store," he says.

"As consumers walk in the store, they often look up to find an icon to point them in the direction of what they want to buy. Hanging in-store signage is becoming more prevalent, and it's adding to the bottom line. Signage programs are becoming a profit center, much like front-end merchandisers. Retailers are also getting smart and leasing space on shopping carts for signs," Katz says.

"A big trend in signage is boutique-style décor where each department is personalized with its own logo. It's almost like walking along a city street," says Nadine McClearon, design director, Design Fabrications Inc. (DFI), Madison Heights, Mich. "You are adding entertainment value to the shopping experience," she says.

"Everybody is competing with the Internet,

so it is important for supermarkets to provide information that is fun and entertaining," notes Kevin F. Armata, president and CEO, Windsor Marketing, Windsor Locks, Conn. "Signs help you identify what you are looking for

and shorten the shopping trip," he says. Supermarkets have traditionally overlooked the importance of in-store signage to communicate with customers, says Joseph Casper, vice president, corporate communications, Point of Purchase Advertising International (POPAI), Washington, D.C. "With today's innovations, signs can communicate not only brand information, but product and category information."

One innovative program is now being tested in the children's department at the Macy's in Bridgewater, N.J. Developed by Gyricon Media Inc., Palo Alto, Calif., a spinoff of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, the SmartPaper countertop signs can change prices throughout the day. They have replaced the traditional paper sales signs atop the clothing racks. The toppers on the signs can be changed to phrases like "clearance" or "new arrivals."

Operating on three AAA batteries, the SmartPaper signs are made of sheets of thin plastic embedded with millions of tiny bi-chromal (dual color) balls, about the diameter of a human hair. The signs in Macy's are 11 inches by 14 inches, and cost about $100 each, but an 18-inch-by-22-inch size is also available.

Each sign has a tiny radio frequency transmitter and receiver that "talks" with a central computer in the store, along with its own Internet (IT) address. The store simply sends a message out of its software that it wants the sign to read "X" price and display "Y" message. The signal turns the balls to spell out the price, and the balls stay in that position until they get a message to change.

"The software in the central computer links all of the signs in your store to the point-of-sale database so that you always have the price on the sign that agrees with the price in your point-of-sale database," says Bob Sprague, vice president and chief technical officer.

"Signs were always a big problem because it takes a lot of labor and time to change all of them. Historically, for a sale, signs would have to be printed and shipped to the store. This could take a couple of weeks. Then you can never be sure that the employees put all the signs up and took them all down when the sale was over," Sprague says.

With SmartPaper, retailers can literally change signs according to the wind. "You can have a sale on umbrellas if it's raining," he says. "Because you can change prices whenever you want, you can have a one-day sale, evening sale, or even one-hour sale," Sprague adds.

ome supermarkets are banking on using the same magnetic signs used to post interest rates in banks to increase sales on market-price items in their perishables departments. The signs have a metal back and changeable magnetic characters, letters and numerals that look permanent and solid. Colors can be customized to the store's color scheme, and a permanent logo or tagline can be incorporated. "Instead of a write-on or blackboard, this looks more professional," says Jonathan Kane, vice president, Kane Graphical Corporation, Chicago. "These signs are also ideal for higher-end supermarkets that have demonstrations and cooking schools to announce programs and guest chefs," he adds.

Specials might also be printed on plasma screens, similar to high-definition TV screens. "Our screens are flat and hang like a picture, so they can be incorporated into endcaps, on floor stands or incorporated into displays," says Sam Rogers, president, AlivePromo, Minneapolis. "Custom-printed posters are very expensive, but with our signs retailers can change content pretty much on the fly, and have motion, which attracts attention," he adds. A package with several 42-inch signs and a processor that plugs into a phone line to control the messages rents for around $500 a month. But the price can be offset by manufacturer participation.

"Our signs give grocers the flexibility to react to merchandising situations, the weather, local marketing issues, and to build goodwill by tying in with the local sports teams," he says.

AlivePromo has tested its sign in a Taco John's restaurant, and is installing them in Verizon Wireless stores, Perkins Pancake Houses and Mia Maxx hair salons.

The sign has been a hit at the Taco John's in Marshalltown, Iowa, where it touted a dessert item. The promotion offered a slight discount if customers mentioned they saw the sign, which was placed to the left of the counter. "Our sales doubled on the dessert item immediately, and held steady for the whole four-week promotion," says Gary Gimbel, manager. "It just grabs your attention. It's bright, moving and changing, morphing into the next message. You cannot help but look at it," he says. Mall shoppers cannot help but look at those large In-Boards Indoor Motion Billboards that carry ads from mall tenants and other area merchants. A smaller version is now making its way to supermarkets. Imported from Germany, the backlit, reel-to-reel signs are placed in supermarkets by promotions/ advertising agencies that sell the ad space to brand marketers and local retailers. Measuring 24 inches by 36 inches, the signs hold up to 15 images rotating at speeds from 3 to 30 seconds. "These signs have really taken off with supermarkets in the Bahamas, Caribbean and Puerto Rico," says Cindy Dunahoo,

co-owner, Endless Edge, the Franklin, Tenn., U.S. distributor of In-Boards.

With its Sunspots signs, which operate on a principle like a Lite Brite toy, Display Technologies has created a sign it bills as a better replacement for neon. "A Sunspot is much brighter than neon, much more flexible, doesn't require a heavy ballast, and is cool to the touch," says Katz. "It is perfect for windows and in-store usage," he says.

"With neon you can only bend the tube, but we can incorporate logos, words and other things into the sign. Neon has to be mounted to aluminum, whereas Sunspots can be mounted to plastic for a more upscale look," he adds. Wall murals and floor graphics are also improving. "Lambda-C prints–done by laser and digitally printed–are the latest thing with the potential to be used in grocery stores," notes Gustav Puchmuller, director, marketing & business development, Millennium Display Group, Hempstead, N.Y. Because Lamba-C prints use pixels per inch instead of dots per inch (DPI), they offer sharper images—the equivalent of 4,000 DPI, he says.

As graphics improve, manufacturers are making them larger. "There is a trend toward really large, in your face, graphic representations for foods, products, logos or for something that is going on in the store," says DFI's McClearon. "You can't tell a digital print from a photo, and it's getting that you can't tell real bricks from printed digital bricks being used as wallcovering. We are reducing the retailer's cost by replacing architectural elements, like bricks and windows, with digitally printed images that look three-dimensional," she says.

DFI recently completed a project for a large Southern supermarket chain that placed 6-foot-high, 24-foot-long murals throughout the store to replicate wall decorations. The murals have a track system on top and weights on the bottom, like a banner. "The chain says they can retrofit their stores very quickly," says Bruce Dych, DFI president. "They can change departments on a seasonal basis in a couple of hours."

his is a brand new take on how to sign the walls in the stores," notes McClearon. "In produce, when it is strawberry season they can change the banners to show fields of strawberries, and do the same thing in the fall with pumpkins. It gives their customers a fresh look," she says.

"This year we've received more requests for improved signage in the international foods areas," says McClearon. "We're now doing a lot of dual-language aisle directories."

In general, signs are doing a better job at informing. "The customer wants to know more than if there is bread in that aisle. She wants to know what bread has whole grain in it. She doesn't want to just know if a wine is a Merlot, but at what temperature it should be served and with what foods," she says.

But retailers must draw the line between descriptive sign-age and sensory overload. "We suggest that, as much as possible, in-store advertising be used in a strategic manner to communicate effectively to the customers to facilitate a good shopping experience," says POPAI's Casper.

"These changes that we are seeing in the signage segment of the in-store advertising industry are helping to facilitate that, and that is a very good thing," he says