Retail signage has come a long way. Once used merely to provide basic information, it is now considered by many industry leaders to be an integral part of the retail environment. It is playing a growing role in creating the unique image and atmosphere so necessary in a market teeming with both retailers and retail venues. And in a new twist, it is being used to generate extra revenue streams - much to the delight of shopping center owners and managers.

The role of signage Signage has long been a key component of a retailer's visual image, according to Kenneth W. Galloway, president of Vacuform Industries Inc. The Columbus, Ohio-based company began business as a custom molder of large-format facings for retail sign companies in 1962. Since then, it has expanded its product and service line to include custom molding of polyurethane foam, sheet metal fabrication, painting, silk screening, electrical wiring, lighting and neon packages. Its client base includes Wendy's, Toys 'R' Us, CVS/Pharmacy, Rally's, Holiday Inn and Agway Stores.

Establishing a visual image serves two important purposes. As Galloway says, "The first, and easiest, function of a retailer's visual image is to establish a unique impression of the business. This impression should be positive - but poor design or execution often has the opposite effect.

"Visual image needs to instantly communicate benefits to customers," he continues, "about everything from the quality of the shopping environment to merchandise features." Signage has assumed an even larger role in establishing visual image in today's market, he adds, with "signage now encompassing the total exterior image of a store, not just the sign box itself."

"Signage has to draw shoppers into a center and help create a festive atmosphere," says Eric Sekeres, executive vice president of International Sign and Design, a Largo, Fla.-based sign company whose clients include Stein Mart, Discount Auto Parts and Applebee's. "It has to be thematic, using color, shape and texture to define the center or the retailer and the message they want to get across."

Wendy Ripley, marketing director for Salt Lake City-based Creative Color, says signage helps create an environment for productive retailing. Creative Color is a custom photo lab and digital-imaging center that creates banners, graphics and signage for a variety of commercial clients.

"Mall marketing departments are continually challenged to come up with new ways to set the stage for sales, promotions and special events," Ripley says, "and get both shoppers and store employees in the right frame of mind." People spend more, and salespeople sell more, when they are in the right mood. "We have found that signage can help create this mood by utilizing exciting graphics and props."

Demand for individualized signage designed for use in a specific project is increasing, according to Michael Palesny, president of Charleston Industries Inc., an Elk Grove, Ill.-based manufacturer of architectural signage. "We are doing a lot more custom designing for environmental designers that want to leave their thumbprints on projects through the use of unique signage," he says.

Creating an experience As retailers and owners/managers have made increasing efforts to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace, signage has become a much more important element of the mall environment.

"Our clients are now asking us to help create an experience that will bring some individuality to their malls," says Jim Burch, principal of Scott Architectural Graphics, a Santa Rosa, Calif.-based signage design/build company serving a shopping center and mixed-use clientele.

"Twenty or 25 years ago, you built a mall and put a name on it," recounts Burch. "It may have been a bit different architecturally from the mall down the road, but when you got right down to it, malls didn't have a whole lot of individual personality back then."

The situation has turned 180 degrees since those days. "Now, creating an individual, unified, complete persona and applying it to a built mall environment is the name of the game," Burch continues. "The object is to make going to a mall a memorable experience, from the time someone first drives by the mall to when he or she actually shops there."

On doing business The push toward creating a total shopping environment within the retail venue has changed the way the signage business operates. "There is now a higher level of involvement of design professionals participating in creating signage," Burch says.

"There is a more unified approach to retail venue design now," he continues. "Signs aren't just applied to a surface or a structure, but instead are treated as an integral part of the overall design scheme - and as an integral part of the shopping experience." The development of signage is now an integrated process, "where architectural, marketing, design and graphic issues all come together."

In addition to wanting signage that both fits in with and creates distinctive retail environments, clients seek a full-service approach to installation and other issues.

"You can buy a sign anywhere," asserts Sekeres, "but what today's customer wants is a turnkey approach to service." Along with design and manufacturing, turnkey service typically includes obtaining landlord approvals, fighting permitting battles with local government zoning authorities where necessary, and engineering, shipping and installation.

Michael Cook, marketing specialist at the Troy, Mich., headquarters of Cadillac Plastic, makes the following recommendation before choosing a designer, "When looking for sign ideas, talk to a sign materials distributor before making design decisions. A good, experienced distributor will have seen thousands of projects and can offer unbiased advice based on your particular situation."

Technology corner Companies in the signage industry often find themselves caught between the demands of clients and the technology that is available today, reports Jennifer Steiner, director of marketing for Tampa, Fla.-based Universal Sign Corp.

Projects undertaken by this manufacturer of interior and exterior illuminated signs include the large-scale exterior signage at The Block at Orange, an 800,000 sq. ft., Orange County, Calif., open-air shopping, dining and entertainment facility developed by Arlington, Va.-based Mills Corp.

"We are continuing to see clients push us more in terms of production, challenging us to increase the speed with which we turn out product - but the technology the industry has to work with just isn't there yet," says Steiner.

Most clients don't realize that manufacturing signage is still very much a hands-on industry. As Steiner relates, "We don't have dies, facilities, the mechanical processes or the automation that a lot of other manufacturing industries have. We still have people bending letters by hand - and a lot of the clients that tour our facilities are shocked when they see the fairly archaic way in which a lot of lettering has to be created."

The gap between client demands and the technology needed to meet them is constantly in danger of expanding. "Unfortunately, the current lack of manufacturing technology is coupled with a push for bigger and better signage," Steiner notes. There are some products that show promise in helping the sign industry advance technologically, but they are largely in the developmental stages.

Digital photo-imaging from Brixen, Italy-based Durst Phototechnik AG is one example of new technology affecting the world of signage, according to Ripley. The Durst Lambda digital photo printer enables large-format, extremely high-resolution printing of images to photographic media.

"Up until now, malls have been stuck with using inkjets or screen printing for most of their imaging needs, and there are disadvantages to both of these," she says. "The Durst Lambda allows for cost-effective short runs of large-format graphics, giving mall owners and managers the ability to create customized knock-em-dead signage for their malls."

Advances in light-emitting diode (LED) technology are having a positive impact on the use of electronic message centers, reports David Goodwin, president of Ad Vice Sign Consultants. This Mechanicsville, Va.-based company designs and manufactures signage for clients such as CBL & Associates Properties and AMF bowling alleys.

"Incandescent light-based message centers were never popular with shopping centers and malls. They cost too much to operate and they suffered from what was perceived as a tacked-on look," says Goodwin. With LED technology, start-up costs for electronic message centers have been reduced, he says, while operational costs are one-tenth or even one-fiftieth those of incandescent systems.

"Now you can buy an LED-based electronic message center unit, and instead of it costing $1,000 or $2,000 annually to operate, you pay only pennies," he continues. "We are also designing them to be more integrated with structures, avoiding the nailed-on look that has marked them in the past."

Materials With signs now considered a more strategic part of the built retail environment, the materials used in their construction have evolved, according to Dane Cardone, president of Signalville, Calif.-based Sign Methods, an electrical sign manufacturer catering specifically to retail developers and chain stores.

"Signs are more and more architecturally coordinated with the shopping centers themselves," says Cardone. "As opposed to the sheet metal and Plexiglas that typified signage in the past, we're seeing more use of polished materials, a lot of aluminum, perforation and backlighting, as well as a lot more attention to architectural textures to match the way centers are designed these days."

Neon vs. fiber optic lighting New technologies are adding some interesting choices in the way signs are manufactured.

"The people who sell only fiber will tell you that it's replacing neon," says Goodwin. "But it is still not heavily used. Fiber is getting brighter and better, but it is still not, in my opinion, a good replacement for neon.

"The saturation is much less than it is for neon," he continues. "If you stand 300 yards back from a stick of red neon and look at it, you will see a red strip, while the same red color in a strand of fiber optic will look white from the same distance."

"Exposed neon is back, and it is hotter than ever," says Steve Weiler, executive vice president of East Coast Sign Advertising, a Bristol, Pa.-based sign company whose client base includes Regal Cinemas, Pep Boys and Staples. "It was big in the 1950s and 1960s, and then it went away for a while, because it can be labor-intensive to service and maintain."

But a lot of retailers are coming back to neon these days because, as he adds, "It is bold - it just jumps out at you. And that's what people want when they're trying to be different from the next guy."

Meanwhile, manufacturers have been trying to devise a fiber optic-based product that can compete with neon. "The brilliancies are just not there yet. But when they get there, then fiber will be a great product," Weiler adds. "Dollars-and-cents wise, fiber is pretty close to neon. Lower electrical consumption is a big benefit of fiber, and it competes well in terms of maintenance."

All in all, he adds, when lighted-sign lettering is enclosed, it requires neon, but in exposed situations, fiber is getting closer.

"At this point, I don't think fiber optic will ever replace neon," says Cardone. "Fiber just doesn't have the punch of neon. Neon is a lot brighter, it's been around for a long time, and people like the way it looks."

Fiber optic does have its benefits, though. As Cardone notes, "It can be used in applications where neon can't, such as in water fountains, landscaping and other places that are accessible to the public where you don't have to worry about breakage. But as far as outlining a building or doing accents, it doesn't compare with neon."

A trend under way One new signage trend is the integration of advertising with sign-based graphics and built environments. With its 91-foot-high monument pylons featuring retailer ads, The Block at Orange is a good example of this integration, according to Burch. The idea is also being incorporated into Scott Architectural Graphic's design work at a new mall in Emeryville, Calif.

"A lot of developers and mall owners are realizing that they can use this kind of signage to create fun and excitement as part of the experience of the shopping center - and set up a new revenue stream at the same time by selling advertising," says Burch.

Yet, the use of signage in such a fashion can be challenging in some respects. As Burch notes, "When a sign like this faces a public right-of-way, you can wind up with the local planning department saying that it is really a billboard, and it isn't allowed."

But overall, he adds, "This kind of signage program really presents an opportunity for partnering between the design professional, the sign professional and the outdoor advertising company - all coming together to create excitement and fun within the retail environment."