EXCLUSIVE ONLINE ARTICLE: Signs of Success: The Silent Sales Force

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EXCLUSIVE ONLINE ARTICLE: Signs of Success: The Silent Sales Force

By James Mellgren - 08/02/2009
When you use signage, you employ one of the best workers you will ever hire. This silent salesperson stands ready at all times, personally greets every customer, never takes a break, works free and most importantly, motivates customers to buy.

--Wisconsin Cheesecyclopedia “Cheese at Retail,” Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

The quote above is no less true today than when I first saw it more than a dozen years ago. I believe just as fervently now as I did then that effective signage is perhaps the single most important merchandising strategy you can employ. Assuming you have a thoughtful selection of goods and that said goods are arranged in a logical and orderly fashion, informative signage can do more to boost sales than just about anything else you can do. For those who are looking for ways to get through the current economic slump, overhauling your signage program, or introducing one, as the case may be, is a great place to start. Confucius said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I believe that a few carefully chosen words can be worth their weight in gold.

Signing Up
What do we mean when we talk about good signage? We’ve presented this before, but it all bears repeating. First of all, it’s important to remember that a good signage program begins on the outside of your store. Whether your store is alongside a country highway or in a dense urban setting, signage says a lot about you and your establishment, and may prove to be the difference between people coming in or not. Ask yourself: does the outside signage look clean, inviting and up to date? If your sign and logo are meant to look old-fashioned, does it look intentionally so or is it merely old-fashioned out of neglect? Is it immediately clear that it’s a food store, and if so, that it’s run by knowledgeable and serious-minded professionals? Whimsy in signage is OK as long as it is clean and professional-looking.

Inside the store, there is opportunity for good, effective signage throughout. The first type of signage to consider is permanent signage, or signs that are used to mark specific areas that are fixed in place, either because they are built in -- restrooms, café, receiving department -- or because of situational requirements such as in departments that rely on refrigeration, plumbing or venting -- deli, cheese, fresh meat and seafood sections, or the kitchen. More than simply marking a spot, however, this type of signage should also help direct traffic flow, and because it tells everyone exactly where everything is located, it allows the shopper to explore in an unfettered mannwe by trying to locate a specific department. Permanent or architectural signage is typically hung on the walls or suspended from the ceiling. Effort should be made to ensure it has a cohesive design with a logo, color scheme or other graphic aid to tie it together with the entire store and other levels of signage.

The next type of signage to think about is temporary or moveable signs to mark demo areas, special promotions, book signings and cooking classes. These are best on stands so they can easily be moved about from the special cheese tasting one day to salsa demos the next. Customers can come to look for these special event signs so as to be on the lookout for new and interesting products.

Another type of signage is one that more and more stores are finding benefit in, that of what I call “about us” signs. In other words, these are signs, usually fixed in place in prominent locations, that convey your story, philosophy or mission statement. Stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have used this type of signage effectively to explain their modus operandi. The sign could speak to your views on customer service, how and from where you buy your meats and produce, or whatever you feel needs to be communicated to your clientele about you. It doesn’t have to be one sign -- there can be several throughout the store that talk about different aspects of your store mission in different departments.

Finally, there are the individual product information signs. These are arguably the most important signs and can be the most fun to compose. Here is your chance to wax poetic about the specialty products you have sought out and brought to your store, and an opportunity to show off your knowledge and expertise. While the other forms of signage are fixed for the most part, and in some cases are part of the overall design of the store, informational signs change, move around, may hang from shelves or stick directly into a product. While they are generally thought of for perishables -- cheese, deli meats, etc. -- they can be just as effective as shelf hangers, and in most cases more effective, as you won’t have a clerk there always to answer questions as you do in the deli.

Here, briefly, is some of the information that should be on the signs:

--Name of product (Manchego, Raspberry preserves)
--Brand name if applicable (Garcia Baquero, Bonne Maman)
--Country or region of origin (Spain, California, Lower Sandusky)
--Milk or meat type. (Cow’s milk cheese or pork sausage)
--Name-protection status, if any, that the product may have garnered by a governing consortium
--Description of the product that includes anything interesting or different about the way it is produced or harvested. In some cases, you could describe how the product tastes or how the flavor can change with age, as in the case of some cheeses

Suggested uses:
--Beverage pairings and serving suggestions
--Price (per pound, quarter-pound, piece, dozen, etc.)
--Variables like fat content and relevant nutritional information
--On the back of signs in the case can be the SKU or PLU number, pronunciation tips, quick facts and anything else that will aid the associate working at the counter

These informational signs can be as terse or as poetic as you like, and they don’t all have to have the same amount of information or enthusiasm. For example, there is likely more to be said about an English farmhouse cheddar than a jar of salsa. They can be whimsical or serious, colorful and picturesque or stylishly minimal, depending on the style of your store and the person making the signs. It is my belief, however, that whatever your style is -- graphically and stylistically -- your signage should have a consistency throughout the store. This means consistency in the overall look of the signs as well as in how the information is arranged on the sign. You don’t want shoppers to have to hunt for what they want to know in every sign.

Whereas permanent and secondary signage can virtually disappear in the store while doing its job of directing traffic, identifying departments and generally facilitating the flow of customers around the store, informational signage has the power to directly affect sales. For these signs to have full effect they should be well written and concise (which doesn’t necessarily mean short), and should relate to the rest of the signage and graphics of the company. You may opt for hand-lettered signs, in which case you should have someone whose job it is to make them. This can be labor-intensive but often worth the extra trouble. Hand-lettered signs can be simplified by having pre-cut signs that are already printed with the company name and logo, and even include spaces for the information. Make sure to have a few different sizes of signs. You can also do the whole thing on the computer, and with the right fonts you can even them look hand-done.

Remember that signs should be the voice of authority. They should be carefully composed by someone who knows what they are talking about. Keep a library of reference works handy (or the Internet, of course) to be sure the information as well as the spelling is correct. Again, keep the structure of the signs consistent with one another so as not to confuse your customers. As to the actual writing of informational signs, find the right person, not whoever is available, because for some this comes easy, while for others it will be as daunting as that college term paper on the works of Henry James (or reading Henry James for that matter).

A good way to think of writing signs is to imagine what you would want to tell a customer about a specific product and how you would tell them. Pretend you are talking to a customer while composing the sign. What does the product taste like, and can it be compared to anything else? Is there something about the product that truly makes it special or superior to similar products? Are there similar products? Is there a good story behind the product, the producer or the place of origin? Does the product figure into the particular history of a place? Is it a centuries-old tradition or a modern innovation? Naturally, there will be more to say about some products than others. As Sigmund Freud once said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And while everything in a cheese or deli case should bear a sign, you run the risk of overwhelming shoppers by having a detailed sign hanging in front of every single product in the store, so choose the items you wish to highlight.

Even in the perishable cases, you don’t need to tell a long story for every cheese. If you carry 15 goat cheeses, select two or three that will get extensive signage and rotate throughout the month. This will give the customer a break and will set those two or three cheeses apart as notable varieties that are worth reading about and hopefully trying. By selecting which items in the case to focus attention on each week, you can, in effect, lead your consumers through an array of foods, educating them gradually along the way.

Parting Thoughts and Bon Mots
In review, here are a few things to remember when planning your informational signage program:

--Have a cohesive look to your signage. In other words, the sign blanks should all look alike, although you will need two or three sizes
--Use colors or icons to differentiate departments
--Make sure the basic information -- name, place of origin, price, etc. -- is always in the same position on the signs so customers don’t have to search
--Make sure they are neat, legible and professional-looking. Remember, whimsical can still be professional
--Don’t write too much. Be concise and don’t overwhelm customers with too many signs
--Include personal experiences. Note when you have visited a place of origin, such as the caves of Roquefort or a vinegar maker in Modena, and mention anything interesting about the producer (“After retiring from his investigations, Mr. Holmes now tends bees outside his cottage in the Cotswolds”)
--When there are similar products, such as air-cured hams or cheddar, note why one may be better or priced higher
--Check and recheck your information. Never guess or make up stories. Nothing is more embarrassing or damaging to your reputation than getting caught up in what the government calls “misinformation”

Consider the Source
To make sure your signs are interesting and correct, keep a good reference library on hand, as well as Internet access. The following, in no particular order, is a list of some of my personal favorites, which sit beside my desk (right next to Shakespeare and Raymond Chandler):

--“The Oxford Companion to Food” (Oxford University Press)
--“Culinaria” series (Könemann) including France, Spain, Italy, United States
--“Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating” (Houghton Mifflin) by Ari Weinzweig
--“Steven Jenkins’ Cheese Primer” (Workman)
--“Murray’s Cheese Handbook” (Broadway Books) by Rob Kaufelt
--“The Cheese Lover’s Cookbook & Guide” (Simon & Schuster) by Paula Lambert
--“Salumi” (Chronicle Books) by Joyce Goldstein
--“Prosciutto, Pancetta and Salame” (Ten Speed Press) by Pamela Sheldon Johns
--Foreign-language dictionaries such as French, Italian and German

Information, Please
Here a few examples of informational signage that I have made up out my fertile imagination and years spent in the food business. First, there are two signs that help differentiate between two seemingly identical products:

Gruyère. Switzerland (cow)
A classic unpasteurized cheese made from milk produced in lush Alpine pastures. Outstanding for snacks and one of the world’s greatest cooking cheeses. Great for gratins or grilled cheese sandwiches. One of the triad of Swiss cheeses in a traditional fondue.

Cave-Aged Gruyère. Switzerland (cow)
This is über-Gruyère. Unpasteurized. Aged in real mountain caves as they have been for centuries to reveal a deep, nutty taste and creamy texture like no other. Great for cooking, but because of its arresting flavor, you may want to keep this one for the cheese board.

Here’s one for a shelf-stable item:
Walker’s Shortbread. Plain. Scotland

These sweet and buttery treats are likely based on Scottish shortcakes from the 16th century. Baked in small batches as they have been for centuries, they are made with only pure creamery butter, flour, sugar and salt. Great for snacks or as accompaniments to all kinds of desserts, they go well with tea, coffee or even a wee dram of whisky.