Greenhouse Canada

Features Business Retail
Seeing Signs

February 26, 2008  By Andrew Hind

We’ve all had the experience of being unable to find what we want in a
store due to inadequate or confusing signage. It’s frustrating, and it
makes for an unpleasant shopping experience. Negative experiences leave
lasting impressions, and sometimes affect our decision to patronize a
particular store.

12We’ve all had the experience of being unable to find what we want in a store due to inadequate or confusing signage. It’s frustrating, and it makes for an unpleasant shopping experience. Negative experiences leave lasting impressions, and sometimes affect our decision to patronize a particular store.

That’s the last thing you want.  So you need to consider the message your signage is giving your shoppers. Signage is a basic customer comfort issue that has a direct relationship to profitability. Yet stunningly, many retailers ignore the importance of quality signs.


Good signs make navigating a store or nursery easier and as a result make shopping more efficient and pleasurable. Time-pressed consumers like to be able to find what they’re looking for quickly, rather than searching up and down each aisle. As much as you might like them to browse through your entire yard, if a shopper has to do so while searching for a particular item, they’re unlikely to be happy.

Wal-Mart recently conducted an extensive survey regarding their signage, and the results were revealing. Wal-Mart’s unbeatable prices became all but irrelevant when customers grew frustrated by their inability to clearly see aisle signs. This aptly demonstrated the value of well-placed signage.

Consider your own operation. Can shoppers, at a glance and from a distance, see what’s down every aisle or in every section? If not, you might want to think about banner signs or gooseneck aisle signs.

The value in good signage isn’t just found in happy customers. There’ll also be very real savings in manpower costs as shoppers become less reliant on staff. And remember, signs are called the “silent salesperson” for a reason – if utilized well, and if they convey the right message, they can sell product for you.

The question is, what information do you convey on a sign? Rebecca Vanderzalm, of Art’s Nursery in Surrey, B. C., has put a lot of thought into that matter. “Customers want to quickly scan a sign and soak up its contents in a glance. They don’t want to read a lot, so signs need to be brief, almost bullet-point,” she says.  “Signs should have information relevant to the area, not just information that comes from a general database. As well, signs should speak in the vernacular of the customers – simple and straight to the point.”

Vanderzalm recommends that whoever designs information signs have both horticultural knowledge and marketing background. This blend is important because while signs obviously need to be factual, they also must be designed with an eye towards selling the product and making it accessible to the casual gardener that generally makes up the bulk of one’s business. 

With a yard 10 acres in size, signage is vitally important at Art’s Nursery. What have they done to improve signage and reduce customer frustration? 

“Our aisles are long, so to save our customers time, we built row talkers that describe what’s down each aisle. We learned that the information on these needs to be limited to just common names, a picture of the plant, and perhaps one important benefit of the plant. Less is more,” explains Vanderzalm. “We also made area signage and banners, which were erected so they could clearly be seen from a distance. This helped reduce questions of our staff, such as where the lilacs are located. Signs that help reduce the workload of our staff and provide information to customers are vital in today’s market because, the way it is, you can’t find enough people with horticultural knowledge to staff a centre.”

There’s a natural temptation to want to sign everything, but one thing I learned years ago when working at White Rose Home and Garden Centres is never to use hand-made signs. Home Depot gets away with it, but you can’t. It looks amateurish and cheap, and conveys a negative message about you and your centre. Handwritten signs are acceptable in only the most extenuating circumstances.

If you’re going to do it, do it right. Invest some time, thought, and money into your signage and the message you want it to convey.
One nursery retailer stands out far and above the rest because they did just that – Swanson’s Nursery, in Seattle, Wash. Tired of boring signage, owner Wally Kerwin and general manager Brad Siebe have created a brand new direction in area signage for others to follow. In the process, they’ve carved an identity for themselves and set the business at the forefront of garden centre innovation.

“We were looking at freshening up our visual look, and of course signage is a big part of that,” explains Siebe. “The gardening industry is traditionally very conservative, but we looked at what was going on in other retail experiences and saw some very interesting things that inspired us. We broke away from the traditional look, creating signs that we think draw interest while still being informative.”

The idea is to use bright colours and fun fonts to create a little playfulness and whimsy to the already beautiful, modern garden centre. This in turn helps attracts attention and customer traffic to different parts of the garden centre. Colours that are currently popular in decorating, such as blues, browns, and yellows, are used extensively in the signs.

“Signs have to speak to three groups – the boomers, generation X, and the next generation,” Siebe asserts. “We don’t want to alienate anyone, but we realized we had to work harder to appeal to younger people. That meant we had to ask ourselves what a garden centre will look like 10 years from now, and then reflect that in our signs. We pushed the limits a bit, but it seems to work.”

The signs are a work in progress and their final designs have yet to be determined. Yet, based on the feedback from participants in a recent industry tour of Swanson’s, the signs are a success. “The reaction was very positive, especially among younger people,” says Siebe proudly, “but changing trends mean signs tend to have a five-year lifespan, so we can’t get too comfortable.”

When it comes to signage, don’t get left behind. Take the time to critically look at your signs and see how they can work better for you. Any investment in effort and money will be more than made up for by savings in staffing and the customer loyalty that is sure to follow as a result.

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