Natural products retailers can offer salmon caught in the wilds of Alaska, organic lettuce grown by a farmer 50 miles down the road, muffins baked with spelt, and calcium supplements free of sugar and starch. But if their aisles and counters don't have signs saying so?and saying why?their customers won't have a clue.
Shoppers, either new or returning, expect information when they visit natural products stores, say the experts. One of the best ways to deliver that information is through signage, which can educate in attractive, even entertaining, ways while helping promote the retailer's mission."
"The natural consumers tend to be readers and early adopters," says Ray Wolfson, president of Matrix Marketing Group in Bloomfield, N.J., and a member of the Consultants Association for the Natural Products Industry. "They are aware and looking for information. By providing information you can be a resource and develop loyalty.
"We know education is what makes a difference," adds Debby Swoboda of Stu?art, Fla.-based Debby Swoboda Marketing Solutions and co-founder of HealthERetailers.com. "Someone comes into a store for the very first time. They want information. But they might be a little intimidated. They go to the aisles with vitamins and supplements, and there are what?maybe 7,000 bottles? Signage can bring people to a certain category."
Tim Sperry, president and owner of the Wellesley, Mass.-based Tim Sperry Group, says signage can guide customers to the products they're interested in. "Gluten-free is a huge issue now. It's the same with vegan and organic. People want to know where the products come from," he says. "You've got to help consumers identify what they're looking for."
To make sure you are getting the most from your store's signage program, take some hints from the experts.Address consumer confusion
Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights in Brattleboro, Vt., calls it Nutrition 101. "When you're thinking about signage as an independent retailer, don't assume your customers know more than they actually do." Signs can address topics as simple as,"Why is whole wheat better? Why choose organic?" he says. The fish department is another prime example of where signage can be useful "because there's so much confusion out there," he says.
Keep in mind that different display approaches can work for different departments. Sperry suggests, for example, putting all the organic chicken in one section of the meat department and using signs to alert customers.Embrace change
Seasonal items, particularly produce, offer an obvious opportunity for signage. "During certain times of year, you can make consumers aware of organic local produce," Sperry says. "Use signs that make the most sense for the time of year. Make sure they tie in."
Whether it's done seasonally or otherwise, rotating signage is important, too. "Have a six-month or three-month cycle where you're repeating the message," Jacobowitz says. You don't want people to get tired of the signs, but there are always new people coming in."Design matters
Consistency. Creativity. Brevity. Simplicity. The best and most effective signs incorporate all of these characteristics because shoppers moving up and down aisles won't stop to read long, involved dissertations on a subject.
Store signage should be consistent not only in design and placement in the store, but in how the retailer delivers the message. Signs should use a uniform template that includes the store logo, similar vocabulary and content, typefaces and material. Sign sizes should also be standard for all departments. "Create uniform visual effects so customers know this is the store's message," Jacobowitz says.Perfecting placement
Retailers should also beware of clutter. "You need the right kind of signage that fits with your cases or shelves," Sperry says. "In the meat case, you want customers to see the meat. You don't want a huge sign covering it up. Sometimes less is more."
Swoboda recalls walking into a store that wanted to make a point of marking all the items that were gluten-free and wheat-free. "Every single item in the store that was gluten- and wheat-free had an orange tag on it. You look down an aisle and see a million orange tags. You can't even see the product.
"You have to tone down the quantity of the signs." Rather than tags, she suggests small dots or even color-tinted plastic strips over bar codes. Stores could provide fliers telling shoppers what the different colors indicate.
"Creating a section in the store where fliers, booklets and other information can be found can be a valuable tool," Matrix's Wolfson says.
Jacobowitz suggests using different symbols. "You could have a store map and guide with an icon, a symbol or a letter indicating when it's organic or wheat-free." It's a good way for retailers to help customers learn to shop their stores and what to look for in their signage, he says.Get creative
Following these guidelines doesn't mean naturals retailers can't be creative. Sperry recalls working as a produce manager when his store was out of strawberries because a freeze in California wiped out the crop. He wanted to let customers know the reason there were no strawberries. His solution: "I had the graphic artist make a sign of somebody surfing in a winter jacket."
With some creativity, signs can be an effective way of setting a store's tone and conveying its purpose. Jacobowitz points to the signage in the Trader Joe's chain as an example. "It has a character that is unmistakable," he says. "The signs tell a story and create a personality. In fish, candy, produce or nuts, they have a storytelling voice that's familiar."
Sperry says effective signage captures the retailer's mission. "It has to do with what you are trying to achieve. Small independent stores are trying to differentiate themselves. What's your hook? Why should I go to you?"
He points to Natural Grocer, a small store in Portland, Maine, that was going to be hurt by a larger Wild Oats moving in. Natural Grocer was committed to carrying products from Maine. "All that Maine had to offer?Maine growers, Maine producers. The message was, if you wanted to support Maine agriculture, then come to Natural Grocer," Sperry recalls.
"Whatever your mission is, your signage needs to reflect that to the consumer."
Signage doesn't have to be expensive. Hiring part-time graphic artists to develop signs, using software, even asking manufacturers' vendors for signs are good ways to cut expenses, experts say.
Jane Hoback is a Denver-based writer and editor.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 2/p. 22