Retailers and sign vendors discuss how store signage can send important messages to consumers and form invaluable retail identities.

For retailers, signs are paramount to the overall selling experience. They stamp unique signatures on store fronts and entice valuable traffic through the aisles and check-out lines of the nation's stores. Signage often serves as consumers' square one in forming impressions and in making important decisions on where to shop.

Signage variables -- including message, recognition, energy consumption, maintenance and center design rules -- combine to make a thorough sign design plan essential in a retailer's overall design strategy. Shopping Center World associate editor Will Pollock surveyed some of the industry's leading retailers and sign specialists about the ways in which signage can shape retail identity on and off the retail premises.

Participating in the survey are: Liz Cohen, store planning manager for Bayonne, N.J.-based Maidenform; John Brazil, vice president of engineering and construction for Minneapolis-based IDQ Cos. Inc.; Garth Ruchin, marketing director for Seattle-based Federal Sign; and John Hicks, president of Mercersburg, Pa.-based Hicks Signs & Lettering.

Q: How important is store signage to overall retail operations?

Garth Ruchin: A business is not open until the sign is in place. In years past, the sign was the last thing that a retailer thought about. Now, signage is playing a larger role in store design and serves as a part of the overall advertising process. The sign is the beacon, showing the way to the products or services being offered.

Liz Cohen: Store signage is essential to retail operations because it establishes the culture of a given business. Store signage is the first thing that customers see, and it instantly formulates their opinion about that particular company and/or product.

John Hicks: Consider the power retail signs have with the potential to influence people (potential customers) directly outside the business to simply step inside and buy. Once inside, customer interest needs to be sustained with effective point-of-purchase signage. A properly designed store sign package should complement, yet take precedence over, all other forms of advertising that are to be used in the marketing of the establishment.

John Brazil: Store signage is extremely important to overall retail operations. Signage, identification and image are the first communication to potential consumers in a mall setting.

Q: What are the most important characteristics a store sign must have in order to properly convey the retail message?

Ruchin: The image presented [should be] unique enough to separate the store from other businesses; the signage [should be] in sync with the overall marketing approach of the business; and [it should] meet or exceed the clients' desired quality level.

Brazil: Readability to the customer, clarity of identification and overall image.

Cohen: The most important characteristics that a sign must have are high brand recognition, an aesthetically pleasing color and readability. Signage is used for many different reasons (for example, exterior signage vs. interior signage), so it is important to remember that the intended message may change how you design a particular sign.

Hicks: Above all else, a store sign, regardless of where it is installed, should feature a message that is easily and quickly conveyed at a simple glance. We do this by prioritizing copy and designing with architectural and visual appeal.

When appropriate, we usually place emphasis on the name of the actual product or service in the sign design for smaller chains and single location stores. Larger-sized, international, national and regional chains -- where brand name is widely [connected] with the product or service -- are, of course, the exception to this rule.

Q: What energy challenges must be overcome when implementing a signage design? Is it possible to use a unique, elaborate sign while still saving energy?

Hicks: A responsive sign fabricator should consider energy consumption as part of its customers' overall cost and should design toward energy savings. Many products -- such as slim line fluorescent lamps, low-watt incandescent bulbs, fiber optics and light emitting diodes -- have cropped up recently in the sign industry to help the designer/fabricator achieve this goal.

Our experience has proven that practically any sign configuration that can be built by conventional methods could also be designed and built using the newer, energy-efficient components. Slightly higher up-front costs are usually returned in as short a time as a few months in lower energy costs.

Ruchin: As a company, we are constantly looking for innovative ways to provide lighting for signs that works well, while at the same time remaining sensitive to energy guidelines that are becoming increasingly rigid. There are several signage concepts -- in particular, the use of electronic power supplies and energy-saving fluorescent lamps -- that work well. Use of T-10 and T-8 lamps (smaller in diameter than standard T-12 fluorescent lamps) can help save energy, but not in all conditions. One must consider brightness, lamp life and maintenance, and colors when making [energy-related signage] decisions.

New electronic power supplies for neon are available [and they give the user] the ability to set a range of brightness. New fiber optic technology can be used in certain traditional lighting applications, but we would caution that it is not a replacement. Fiber optics have their place -- and some definite advantages -- but today's product still doesn't have the brightness output of neon.

Q: Because store signage often must comply with the design criteria established for the shopping center, what design characteristics are best avoided?

Ruchin: Usually, the design conflicts we see are the sign's height and how far the sign projects into the common area. Too many times signage maintenance is not considered in the design process, and often it is one of the major problems we see.

Many malls do not allow any maintenance on a store front during business hours. Therefore, if an outage occurs on a sign that has front access, the sign only can be repaired after hours, adding premium costs to any needed maintenance. If at all possible, access through the rear of the sign must be a consideration so a sign can be fixed during the day -- to keep costs down, but most importantly, to have a sign that is working the same day.

Cohen: It is best to avoid characteristics such as custom typefaces, inflexible color requirements, and multi-line signage. Since design criteria are dictated by the center, it is best to stay with a signage package that has a proven track record and does not require any of the items listed above.

Brazil: Design criteria are established to maintain continuity in the shopping center. They also are intended to present each retailer in the best manner to the consumer. When the retailer's sign and the design criteria are not in concert, it is in the best interest of both parties to find a suitable common ground. It is not in the retailer's best interest, nor the consumers', to muddy [a store's] image to satisfy the design criteria.

Q: How much of the total design budget is assigned to signs? Has this cost increased or decreased over the past few years?

Brazil: On average, the budget should reflect 8 to 10 percent of the store's lease hold expense. We have found that the cost is increasing because of the need to increase the retailer's visibility, as well as the need to provide a more exciting and visually stimulating environment for the consumer.

Cohen: The budget assigned to the sign package for new stores is about 5 percent. Because signage does not change frequently, our sign costs have been relatively the same of the past few years.

Q: Will signage remain a focal point in pulling traffic into the shopping center stores of the future? Why or why not?

Brazil: Absolutely. It is the primary mode of communication to tell potential consumers about what the store has to offer.

Hicks: Most certainly. The one element of store signage that will probably never change is that it creates (and reinforces) that ever-important impression made upon a perspective customer. The visual appeal of the signage and store front peaks the perspective customer's interest and, in the future, will probably be designed with a more seamless blend of architectural and sign elements.

Cohen: Signage will absolutely remain a focal point in pulling traffic to shopping centers in the future. Because Maidenform has such high brand recognition, our customer looks for our sign when visiting a given center. The customer has been educated to look for her "stores of choice," and recognizing our sign and seeing our store front brings her through the front door and makes her a customer for life.

Ruchin: Signage, as part of the imaging process, will become an even greater focal point in the future. New technology -- including video capability, new materials and great design execution -- will cause signage to have a different look in the future. As retail complexes continue to design around themes and evolve into retail/entertainment centers, the importance of signage will only continue to grow. Future signage will add to the excitement of the complex and perhaps add to the entertainment of the consumer.

Federal Sign - Graphic communications products and services from Seattle-based Federal Sign include retail sign design, manufacturing and maintenance. Customized progress reports provide status updates on current projects.

ARTeffects Inc. - Signage products and services from Bloomfield, Conn.-based ARTeffects Inc. include glass, metal, wood and neon signs; wood awnings; channel letters; directories and menus; vinyl window lettering; and installation, site surveys, and repairs.

AstraLite - The AstraLite 3000 ALS series of emergency exit signs from Annandale, N.J.-based AstraLite uses light-emitting diodes, in red or green, housed in either composite or traditional steel casing. The product is UL 924-listed and EPA Energy Star-compliant.

Sungraf Inc. - Digitally reproduced, large-scale banners from Hallandale, Fla.-based Sungraf Inc. are manufactured on flexible sign face materials. Heat transfer or vinyl-applied graphics also are available.

AFEGE S.A. - The Leadercom electronic information panel from Rillieux La Pape, France-based AFEGE S.A. is mounted on a methacrylate base and can display 16-character lines in blue, green, yellow or red. The unit can be programmed with a Macintosh or IBM-compatible computer and can store more than 90,000 characters.

Ray-A-Lite Products Inc. - The Low Voltage Installation System(TM) from Ray-A-Lite Products Inc., Phoenix, comprises neon drivers encased within channel letters, thereby eliminating the need for P.K. housings and high-voltage penetration of structural walls. A class 2 line carries the 16V current to a remote bulk power supply and will power multiple neon drivers.

Electrodynamics Inc. - Reflec-Tek Electronics Readerboards from Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based Electrodynamics Inc. provide advertising space for shopping center tenants. They include programmable messages and menu-driven software.

Highflying Banners - Sewn applique; and silkscreened banners and flags from Seattle-based Highflying Banners are made with warranted materials. In addition to a pre-designed series of banners, custom design services are available.

Allied Retail Services Inc. - Signage services from Mobile, Ala.-based Allied Retail Services Inc. include neon repair, electronic message center installation and maintenance, sign change-outs and preventive maintenance.

ASI Sign Systems - The i:Panel interactive touchscreen and keyboard from Culver City, Calif.-based ASI Sign Systems uses Compass(TM) presentation software to provide facility information. The product is Internet-capable and can operate independently or as part of a network.

Prescolite Emergency - Compass(TM) diecast exit signage from San Leandro, Calif.-based Prescolite Emergency is housed in a cast aluminum canopy and enclosure. It includes light-emitting diodes and has circuitry that self-tests the battery, charger and transfer circuit.