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RETAIL VIEW: Produce signage is an important decision with little empirical data to guide process

A good-sized U.S. grocery chain redid its produce signage a couple of years ago at a cost that probably came close to a half-million dollars -- if not more.

"We did our research, got numerous bids and made our choice," said this chain's vice president of produce, who requested anonymity because going through the channels to get approval for public comments is a time- consuming process.

And it was a very important decision. "We were redoing our departments, and the signage didn't convey the message we wanted to convey to our customers. Frankly, they were a little tired," he said of the plastic signs that were fairly small and had been part of the store landscape for many years.

Now all the company's produce departments are equipped with the chalk board-type appearance that is larger, easier to read and looks much better. Each produce department gets a kit with dozens of chalk board and scores of magnetic prices to be attached to the price card. The board's chalky look makes it appear as if it is a hand-written sign, but that look is combined with machine-generated clarity.

"We are very pleased," the produce executive said. "In the first place, we've had a lot of customers tell us how good it looks."

But this same executive is the first to admit that the decision was not based on any scientific data. "Frankly, I have never seen any information that indicates one type of sign does a better job selling produce than another."

He admitted that the decision was an aesthetic one. It merely came down to what most people involved in the decision process wanted.

Dave Lyons, marketing and creative director for Blanc Industries in Dover, NJ, which sells all types of retail signs, with produce signage being one of its main items, said that the decision to pick a particular style of signage typically is not rooted in any scientific data.

"Most companies want to pick something that is consistent with what they already have," Mr. Lyons said. "The main thing is to make the signage fit with the decor of the store."

What seems to be most important is color. Mr. Lyons said that firms such as Wild Oats tend to use earth tones, while Florida-based Publix uses mauve and aqua, which are colors well-suited to Florida's fun-in-the-sun image. "We've had projects delayed six weeks because a secretary didn't like the color," he said.

Mr. Lyons said that the idea of picking a specific color, size or shape because research shows that it conjures up a positive image occasionally enters the equation, but not very often. And even then, that research might be one factor but not the deciding factor.

Mr. Lyons said that to redo an entire produce department can easily cost $5,000, depending upon the size of the department and the amount of custom work that the chain wants. Some stores need a new system entirely, while others might just need new price cards but will use existing stands.

The size of a chain is also an important cost factor. Mr. Lyons said there is a certain amount of creative and design work done for each order, so the cost per store can fall rather significantly as the number of individual stores increases. A chain of 1,500 stores is going to pay less per store than a chain of 100 stores.

Sarah Andersen of WP Sign Systems in Centralia, WA, said that her company's experiences have found that when a grocery store switches from a paper sign system to permanent signage, such as the magnetic chalk board, the store can anticipate an increase in sales.

"Retailers have told us that they have registered a 2-6 percent jump in sales after switching to our signs," said Ms. Andersen.

She believes that the sales gains are related to the look of the store. People like to shop in pretty places that have a clean look, she said, and new signage helps accomplish that.

While that jump in sales is anecdotal in its proof, Ms. Andersen does point to other research data to help her sales effort. She said that the top selling point for a permanent sign system is that it is a cost-saving measure. With the help of a spread sheet, Ms. Andersen compared permanent signage to store- generated paper signs. She said when the various components of creating a paper sign are considered, including computer time and the cost of paper, toner and a computer operator, it can easily cost more than $1,000 per store per year to make weekly changes. And those costs recur every year.

She said that the average market can get a signage kit from her company for $1,000 to $1,500 per store, and it will last 10-15 years.

Because of this tremendous costs savings and the look of the permanent signs, Ms. Andersen said that convincing retailers to switch from paper to permanent is "not a tough sell. Sometimes a company goes back to paper to try a different look, but they always come back."

Ms. Andersen said that a paper system is difficult to manage because of the many people in the store who have to be involved. A permanent produce- specific system puts the management directly in the hands of the produce manager.

Mr. Lyons said that another drawback of store-created signage is that it tends to generate more errors. Typically, a clerk sitting at a computer terminal without any knowledge of produce pricing is typing in the prices. As long as he or she doesn't make a mistake, the system can work. A mistake, however, can be very costly.

As far as style goes, Ms. Andersen said that most chains want something unique, but the chalk-board look is very popular.

Mr. Lyons said that he is seeing a trend toward including photos or illustrations of the various produce items on the individual price board. He said companies are also asking for more nutritional information. Many stores, he said, use a color-coded system to identify which items are high in which nutrients.

For those companies still looking for a paper system, Wheeler Arts in Champaign, IL, has created a package of produce price cards available in a printable format.

Paula Wheeler of Wheeler Arts said that most of her customers are farmers markets or one- or two-store chains that want a very simple and economical system that is also attractive. The price cards are available in color in both high- and low-resolution formats.

Owning the set, a store owner can then print his or her own prices anytime. Ms. Wheeler said most of her customers print the cards on a heavy stock and then laminate them creating their own personal set of price cards.