Signage — the first shopping center component that meets the customer's eye — is among the most critical tools in successful marketing. As such, it should be a priority when planning property upgrades on any scale. Even the most sophisticated modernizations fall short if the signage has not been updated adequately. And for low-budget improvements, signage can play a central role.

At the 70,000-sq.-ft. Galloping Hill Center in Union Township, N.J., Levin Management Corp. and the owner recently dedicated a commemorative stainless steel sculpture of a galloping horse. Designed by Washington D.C.-based artist Bobbie West, the 14-foot creation adorns a newly installed pylon sign.

The idea for the sculpture originated as we prepared to launch a modestly priced renovation at the property. The owner wanted to do something different from the norm. Because the residents of Union have always taken a great deal of pride in their town's significance during the Revolutionary War (Galloping Hill Road served as a messenger route between Governor Livingston and General Washington), the horse celebrates this legacy while providing a striking artistic display.

The sculpture — an abstract featuring a long neck and small head to balance with its tail — was carefully designed to be maintenance-free. For support, a sign engineer welded two 8-inch thick steel pipes that can withstand winds up to 80 miles per hour to the inside. In addition, dark blue, de-oxidized stainless steel was used to enclose open portions of the sculpture to deter birds from nesting within recesses.

While the Galloping Hill Center sculpture was a hit with local officials and residents right from its conceptual stage, many municipalities have become much stricter about signage in recent years. It is therefore important to be familiar with applicable ordinances before beginning any work.

We typically complete a careful analysis of a center's existing signage for comparison with current code. We also find that it is good practice to review signage and other systems informally with local government. The officials appreciate a pro-active approach and enjoy being consulted, which ultimately enhances future relations between the property owner and the municipality. At times, governmental input has helped us maximize signage size even when the code seems to be against us.

In cases where signage regulations are particularly strict, creativity can work to an owner's benefit. For example, Levin recently completed a renovation at Mayfair Shopping Center in Commack, N.Y., where local government would have required that any new pylon sign be substantially smaller and shorter than the existing one.

Rather than decrease the size of the property's landmark signage, the owner decided to retain the old, grandfathered pylon, and refurbish it completely. With a small addition, the sign now reads New Mayfair Shopping Center.

What works?

Levin's experience and observations lead us to believe that irregular, non-rectangular signage shapes attract the eye more quickly than the more traditional square or rectangle. ShopRite's circular logo and Burger King's recent shift to circular signage provide good examples. Similarly, bright colors against strongly contrasting backgrounds tend to draw the eye and enhance the legibility of the tenant's name and logo.

Font size is also key, and we prefer type set as wide and tall as the panel allows. Eliminating redundant words also works toward increasing legibility at greater distances, while drawing attention to the tenant roster.

The same idea can be used on tenant panels. I have personally noticed one retailer that has at least two versions of a tenant panel in use at different centers. In the first, both words in the name of the store are given equal weight and size, appearing on one line. In the second version, the first part of the name, which is much better known, sits alone on one line in large type, while the second part of the name appears smaller, on a second line. This “B” version of the tenant panel reads much more easily, especially because brand recognition is strong.

The bottom line is that a shopping center's signage must convey a message of modern, well-maintained retail space. Most consumers simply do not look beyond outdated design and peeling paint. Property owners and managers that pay careful attention to making sure that their signage reflects the quality and care that they put into their buildings and tenant mix will maintain an advantage.

David Silver is corporate director of marketing for North Plainfield, N.J.-based Levin Management Corporation, which manages a 10 million-sq.-ft. retail portfolio.