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Signs of progress

Retail signage today doesn't stay up as long as it used to. Of course, that's not because signs no longer last as they once did. It's because of the rapid way retail establishments change nowadays. Marketing plans change. Identities need freshening. And mergers and acquisitions make relatively new signage suddenly obsolete. It's an exciting and challenging time for the industry.

A trend toward more

Many of the trends in retail signage today can be summed up in one word: “more.” Retailers are asking for signs to do more than simply identify or point the way. Signs need to convey retailer image and pack a marketing punch.

Dave McCauley, is president of North Canton, Ohio-based LSI Grady McCauley, an integrated manufacturer of custom graphics for retail environments for clients such as Rack Room Shoes, British Petroleum and F.Y.E. entertainment stores. He says, “Trends tend to be more lifestyle-oriented, with more four-color graphics, more tech-looking, more computer-generated art vs. photography or renderings. The images are brought more to life.”

McCauley notes retailers today are also looking for more layering of looks in retail signage. “There's mixing of materials, such as metal, wood and plastic vs. just all metal or all wood fixturing,” he says.

White Plains, N.Y.-based ICON Identity Solutions Senior Vice President, John Noonan, agrees retailers are looking for more from signage companies today. His company specializes in exterior signage, fascia systems and indoor stand-alone kiosks for retailers such as Cingular Wireless, Pep Boys and Walgreens.

Yet, Noonan's take on “more” is a bit different. “Clients are asking companies to do more — not just provide signage,” Noonan says.

“You can't just ship signs anymore. Clients are looking for a program management component. It's critical to do due diligence and survey work, as well as to make recommendations,” Noonan says.

Noonan also points to a growing trend toward greater energy conservation. Companies such as 3M manufacture light-enhancement film for signage, and now paint companies have rolled out light-enhancement paint.

“That way, you can get either a brighter sign, or a sign that's just as bright but requires less energy by using less neon,” Noonan says.

Noonan points to yet another trend toward electronic point-of-purchase message boards at retail sites. His firm's client, Walgreens, realized a 30% sales increase when it advertised specials on reader boards.

Other companies, such as Decals Inc. Graphics of Wheat Ridge, Colo. — a full-service provider of graphics for facilities and retail environments across the United States for clients such as Muvico — find that designers and developers are driving a trend toward bigger and better as a competitive posture.

“It's a reaction to the market and it's forcing designers and developers to attract customers to the Disney experience — where the shopper is immersed in the experience as much as possible,” says Larry Sale, vice president of Decals Inc. Graphics.

“It's really just an extension of the retail environment. The pressure for graphics and the visual experience for shoppers is there — whether it's background or overt,” Sale says. “The integration of graphics and large visuals is used to create an inviting atmosphere, along with the architecture and the facilities themselves.”

Sale also reports that technological advances, in computer-generated art and the freedom such art gives designers, are creating an even greater integrated design trend in retail signage today.

Total Identity Group of Rochester, N.Y. — a full-service identity provider and division of Empire/Forster — reports a trend toward larger graphics. The firm's retail clients include @ Wireless.

“From a marketing standpoint, there's a move toward large-scale format digital graphics as a cost-effective way to market and for signage,” says Laura Fidele, marketing manager for Total Identity Group.

Paul Dudley, the company's architectural division manager, also sees a move toward digital graphics on his end of the business.

“On the product side, we're doing more digital graphic applications inside than outside the building,” Dudley says.

“But now, some of that digital technology is starting to appear on fascia signage, as well as in the retail environment,” he adds.

Dudley notes some retailers are seeking out forms of interactive communication in their signage. “The May Co. recently announced they're addressing the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) in every store. From a signage perspective, that's tactile signage, talking signs, and even infrared signage,” he says.

Associates with Bay Shore, N.Y.-based American Signcrafters, a sign servicer, designer, builder and installer, report that today there is greater planning for signage programs than in the past. Retail clients include Miami's Dolphin Mall and Queens Place shopping center in Rego Park, N.Y.

Jeff Petersen, American Signcrafters' president and owner, says, “As a design/build firm, the earlier we get involved in the planning stages, the greater the success.”

David Goodwin, president of Richmond, Va.-based Ad Vice Inc, architects and general contractors of signage nationwide for clients such as Willow Place Shopping Center in Richmond, Va., says retailers themselves are gravitating toward “more” in signage. He sees this trend not only on his home turf, but also in 90% of his business outside Virginia.

“Retailers are tending toward brighter colors that are more attractive, more noticeable, more recognizable,” Goodwin says.

Goodwin also notes that in the past three years or so, developers have realized a greater need to emphasize individual tenant retailers as being part of an overall center, with greater venue identification on individual signage.

“Getting that identification with the center makes lots of sense because all the retailers are paying a premium to be a part of the center. So why not emphasize the name of the center and have the tenants play off that?” Goodwin asks.

Signage materials manufacturer Cooley Sign and Digital Products of Providence, R.I., a Cooley Group company, is experiencing more demand for its varied materials. The company makes polyester reinforced polymer substrate material that's used in a number of advertising applications, such as illuminated signs, awnings, billboards and point-of-purchase.

Edward J. Silva, Cooley's vice president and general manager, says, “We are seeing the demand for wide materials for signage and advertising applications increasing,” as well as the demand for both specialty awning materials and digital printing applications materials. Retail clients include Exxon/Mobil, KFC and Dunkin Donuts.

Signage evolution

Signage company professionals report that signage today is changing — not so much the materials themselves, but the manufacturing techniques.

Craig White, president of Birmingham, Ala.-based Priority Sign Inc. — a full-service, turn key sign company that operates throughout the United States for retailers such as VoiceStream Wireless — sees vinyl film being used for illuminated channel letters in retail signage.

Instead of neon going inside the letter itself, and shining out through the face of the sign through various colors of Plexiglas, companies such as 3M are offering vinyl film options.

While Plexiglas will always be an important material in the industry, White says vinyl films can sometimes give a more consistent color, with more color options.

“There must be 50 to 100 different colors available in vinyl films, so you can get away with smaller runs that are less expensive,” White says.

White also points out that no matter which material is chosen, Plexiglas or vinyl film, a good deal of experimentation is needed to get the correct, consistently desired color.

When it comes to neon signage in general, the experts at Total Identity Group report a move toward LED technology (or light emitting diode) over neon illumination. The company is just beginning a large international rollout program using LED for illumination, instead of the traditional methods of neon or fluorescent lighting.

Dudley reports that there are three basic benefits of the move toward LEDs for retail signage.

“One benefit is cost savings over time, in terms of power usage,” Dudley says.

“LED is basically a 12-volt system. So you're going from a very high power-consuming light source to a very low power-consuming light source,” he says.

Dudley says while LEDs are slightly more expensive in initial setup, they create savings over time through energy savings.

Noonan with ICON Identity Solutions agrees LEDs are the hot-button material in the industry today.

“We're getting more inquiries about LEDs and light-enhancement products, as opposed to neon,” Noonan says.

“The sign manufacturing process hasn't changed much in many years, it's actually the lighting components that are changing,” he adds.

Goodwin of Ad Vice Inc, concurs, LED is a signage component that's making strides in the industry. He also notes other materials are basically the same as they've always been.

“The materials themselves are absolutely identical to the way they've always been. Neon, for instance, hasn't changed one iota since the 1920s,” Goodwin says.

What has changed, says Goodwin, is how signage materials are creatively used. “It's the design that is evolving — and getting better in my opinion,” he says.

American Signcrafters' Petersen finds that while some of the basic sign materials remain constant, such as sheet metal, structural steel and plastic sheeting, others are indeed changing.

“Components such as solid state transformers, LED, fiber optic lighting and more sophisticated aluminum extrusions have all become common in the signage industry,” he says.

Cooley's Silva finds his company's manufactured materials have certainly evolved. “We are currently selling our fifth generation signage material — the first generation was developed in 1978,” he says.

“We are now able to extend warranties to 10 years as compared to five years in 1990,” Silva adds.

Decals Inc. Graphics' Sale contends the computer is probably the biggest tool for change in the signage industry today. “A lot of it is marrying old technology with new technology,” he contends.

Sale also says how one views the evolution of signage materials depends on what one considers to be a sign. “If you go to Las Vegas, a sign is one thing. If you go downtown on the street there, that's really a horizontal sign. It may be three blocks long, but it's run by computers,” he says.

Going forward, Sale foresees an increase in the use of soft signage, or backlit signs with a soft facing, in the industry. Banners, too, he says have become more sophisticated and are now able to serve as temporary signs.

“Designers and architects deserve a lot of credit for getting signage to be more interesting,” Sale adds.

One queried professional, McCauley of LSI Grady McCauley, finds signage materials have definitely evolved over time, particularly in terms of interior signage.

“The introduction of fabrics and materials that look like metals, but aren't, painting techniques, the ability to print from what you can create on the screen to a fabric — materials have certainly changed,” McCauley says.

He says when one used to pick a Formica material, there were 41 colors to choose from. Today, that number stands at approximately 520 colors.

Technology changes have allowed for a plethora of different materials.

“When technology changes, it allows for a lot of different materials, including composite materials. Even new technologies in other industries help expand graphic construction materials,” McCauley says.

Life span of a sign

As times, technologies, and materials change, so do retail marketing plans, corporate identities, and how long retail establishments will keep an existing sign. Today, signage turnaround is greater than ever before.

Emory Clotfelter, president of Ashland, Va.-based Image Works Inc. — a creative sign designer, manufacturer, installer and project management specialist — acknowledges the duration of retail signage varies greatly today.

One group of retail establishments, however, still sticks with signage for quite some time. “Larger chain accounts tend to change every eight to 10 years,” Clotfelter says.

Still others find all retail establishments, in general, are changing their signage as often as a teenager changes his or her shoes.

“Retailers don't keep signs up as long as they once did — more and more so because of mergers and acquisitions. It used to be five to 10 years, but today it's five years or less, on average,” Noonan says.

Banks that often reside as service tenants in retail developments and grocery stores are among ICON Identity Solutions' clients. Whereas banks often kept signage upwards of 10 years, they now have a much shorter turnaround on replacement.

“Now if it's three or four years before somebody gobbles them up, they're lucky,” Noonan says.

White concurs the average life of retail signage is shortening due to corporate business maneuvers. “We've run into situations where a company just got their signage up and an acquisition came through that changed everything,” he says.

Goodwin finds the time between signage updates is shortening because of rebranding, logo updates and the current need to constantly freshen image.

He says in contrast to retailers' constant needs to change and update, signage regulations are getting more prohibitive. “The regulations lend more credence to the idea of having a signage vendor who's sensitive to design issues because as things get more restrictive, you have to be more creative,” Goodwin explains.

McCauley agrees the life span of retail signage is fickle. “The period shortens all the time. That life span that used to go almost three years is now maybe a year and a half — it gets old fast,” he says.

He credits lightening-speed marketing and technological advances with helping decrease the life span pace.

“Retailers are always striving to expand and reach a new market. Then, there's the trend toward growing customization to stand out. With the advent of digital printing, retailers can get more customized looks at a more reasonable price,” McCauley says.

Fidele concurs marketing greatly affects retail signage life span. “A lot of the retail environments are re-inventing themselves. They follow the big giants, like Nike and Pepsi, who are constantly re-inventing themselves. All that change calls for changes in exterior and interior appearance,” she says.

Sale says that graphics supporting a TV advertising schedule, for example, will change even more rapidly by necessity.

“If the sign is selling something, the turnaround can be anywhere from hours to a few weeks. But when it comes to corporate image, you're dealing with about a year to five years, on average,” Sale says.

In retail signage today, one trend is imminent: change will continue. From electronic messaging to static signs, whether exterior or interior, sign products and the companies that make them will remain on the move.

Signage in real-time

Bainbridge, Wash.-based Mercury Online Solutions Inc. is one company that has harnessed the Internet as a delivery tool for retail signage.

The company began delivering its technology in 1996. Today, it delivers messages all over the United States — with about 2,800 Internet-based devices running across seven time zones.

President John A. Eisenhauer says, “We are a full-service organization for retailers and retail shopping malls.”

The Internet-based visual merchandising products offered range from point-of-purchase content to digital signs and interactive kiosks.

Mercury's signage devices can provide full-motion graphics with both audio and visual components. “You can have the same message in a variety of languages,” Eisenhauer says.

Up time, or the total time Mercury's equipment is fully functional, is more than 99.2%.

Mercury monitors all its devices in real-time, over the Internet. If a device isn't running, the company notifies the retailer immediately so it can be fixed and, in most cases, depending on its relationship with the retailer, Mercury serves as the maintenance contractor and makes needed repairs.

— Carol Badaracco Padgett

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