Like many a natural foods retailer, Chris Coen, produce manager and assistant manager at Fort Collins Food Co-op in Fort Collins, Colo., is a multitasker. When she's not receiving a produce order, she's managing the store. When she's not managing the store, she's tending to any number of other day-to-day tasks at the co-op. "When you are doing all those things, even though you realize the importance of signage, you don't have time to do it," she says.
Signage—where to put it, what to put on it, and whether to buy it or do it yourself—is becoming more important to natural foods retailers as the Wal-Marts of the world continue to add ever more SKUs of natural and organic foods. Coen's lament doubtless falls on sympathetic ears throughout the industry; nevertheless, finding the time or money to put up good signage is critical—at least according to supermarket and natural products industry consultants.
Signs Can Teach
Indeed, the right kind and amount of signage can be a key ingredient in preventing lost sales to conventional foods retailers. That's because signs are vital to what most distinguishes successful naturals retailing: "Educating [and informing] our consumers is pretty much the defining point right now," says organic industry consultant and NFM columnist Mark Mulcahy. "At every conference, at every place you go, the question is, 'What's going to separate you in the marketplace?' And one of those things is information."
But making and using signage effectively presents formidable challenges for natural foods retailers. Consumers of natural products and specialty foods are information junkies. They want to know where a product is sourced, whether it's free from genetically modified organisms, whether it's organic, whether it's fair-trade—the list goes on. But putting all that information on a sign can render it confusing and, retailers and consultants say, that's not a good thing—especially in a smaller store.
"Clarity is paramount," says Wade Van Orman, produce buyer at Blooming Foods in Bloomington, Ind. "There has to be a balance between what's informative and what's wordy."
Don't Take All Day
Another issue with signage that causes retailers consternation is the time and trouble involved in changing prices—especially in the produce aisle. As a result, speeding up the price-changing process is top of mind for many produce managers.
Several sign makers say the first step is getting rid of paper signs. Centralia, Wash.-based W.P. Sign Systems, for example, says plastic signs with interchangeable parts are longer-lasting, provide for faster price changes and are more environmentally responsible.
"We fight against paper signs," says Bethel Blakesley, W.P. Sign's creative director. "Especially for small natural foods stores, to be throwing away reams of paper every time you do a price change is crazy."
Blakesley also says paper signs add clutter. "They look like an afterthought rather than part of a store's identity."
W.P. has devised a way to speed up price changing. The company's research determined that most prices end with the number 9, so it created a system of plastic signs that use so-called combo digits. Instead of inserting a 5 and then a 9, for instance, whoever is changing prices only needs to insert a single 59.
The company also makes magnetic chalkboard-style signs with preprinted product information and inserts for country of origin.
For folks like Van Orman, however, paper signage is the only current option. While it used to be entirely handwritten, the paper signage he now uses in Blooming Foods' 5,000-square-foot downtown Bloomington location is printed, with the price handwritten in. "That's done a heck of a lot for presentation," he says.
Mulcahy says if paper signage is the only option, printing via computer rather than hand lettering the sign is a readily available way to make the signs less funky and more professional looking. Furthermore, "With the programs on any PC or Mac you can make a basic sign template. All you have to do is type the price in and then laminate the paper," he says.
Mulcahy also suggests that, in the deli case, using the reverse side of a sign for listing ingredients can reduce information overload and the perception of clutter. If a customer is interested in an item, whoever is working behind the counter can look at the back of the sign and inform the customer about the ingredients in the item. "Or just put 'dairy free' or 'organic' on the front and the rest on the back," he says. "Don't overwhelm people."
In the interest of full disclosure, Mulcahy notes that his consulting company, Organic Options, also produces signs for natural products retailers. "We do signs that help customers get a better idea of how food affects the world around them. We do information on folklore, pesticides, GMOs, when produce is in season and how to choose it," he says.
The downside to paper signs is, of course, time. "I was working with a store the other day where they spent two hours every day making signs," Mulcahy says.
Think Like Your Shoppers
The downside to preprinted, plastic and magnetic signage is that it costs money. How much a store might spend depends on the size of store and the components of the system.
Perhaps the best way to determine which way to go with signage is to think about it from the shopper's perspective, consultants say. And that shopper, according to research by Willard Bishop Consulting in Barrington, Ill., is more time-crunched than ever. While consumers used to stock up at the grocery store or supermarket once a week, today they may shop specialty and natural foods stores two to three times a week or even every day, says Paul Weitzel, vice president of Willard Bishop. Instead of trying to get shoppers to spend more money on each trip, "Retailers are trying to find a way to get consumers in and out faster," he says.
Toward that end, Weitzel says, retailers need to ask themselves the following questions: "Can you see departments from the front of the store? Can you see large categories down the aisle and within the aisle? Can you find categories easily?"
Mulcahy adds another question: "How much do you want to see?" The shopper's answer might simply be the color green, he says, which denotes organic, or the color red, which denotes conventional. Coen, at the Fort Collins Food Co-op, says she uses purple to denote locally grown items.
In addition, shoppers want new or interesting items clearly flagged. Weitzel says natural and specialty foods stores can take a lesson in this regard from wine merchants. "Wine stores usually have a wine of the month and they have a little write-up on it. It's something to do to create a little excitement in the aisle, but not create a lot of clutter."
As is regularly the case in wine stores, these shelf talkers can be handwritten, Weitzel argues. Interestingly, he believes there is a place for handwritten signage in natural and specialty foods stores. "It's more personal," he says.
Weitzel also has another suggestion: a floor map. "I just went to the new H.E.B. Central Market in Houston. In that store a consumer can walk in and get handed (or pick up at the information desk) a store map—all color coded.
"If organic chips are what you want," he says, "you simply find them on the map."
Nancy Nachman-Hunt is a freelance writer in Boulder, Colo. Reach her at [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 9/p. 46-47