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Signs Sell: The Magic Formula That Simplifies It All

To say we’re thrilled about today’s guest post is an understatement. Retail Experience Engineers Rick Segel and Matthew Hudson from Rick Segel & Associates are the authors of a new book called Signs Sell: Harnessing the Power of Your Interior Advertising. Though it’s not scheduled for publication in the USA until February 2014, they’ve generously shared an excerpt with SignIQ. –Ed.

We're often asked if there’s a set of rules or guidelines for creating the perfect sign. What are the essential elements a sign has to have to be effective? What criteria can be used to differentiate a good sign from a bad one? In attempting to answer these questions, we’ve developed The I.S.E.E. Formula.

The I.S.E.E. Formula spells out the four functions a sign can have. To be successful, a sign must fulfill one of these functions. For the ultimate, you’ll want to have a sign that combines two, three, or even all four functions.

Additionally, you need a balance of signs within your store. So many times we hear retailers say, “But I have lots of signs in my store, and they’re not doing anything for me.” Yet when we look at their stores, all they have are sell signs. That’s only one of the four types – by forgoing the other three types, not only are these retailers selling themselves short, they’re depriving their customers of a great shopping experience.

What are the four functions and types of signs? Let’s take a look:

The I.S.E.E. Formula

For maximum effect, a retailer needs signs that:

I: Inform

S: Sell

E: Educate

E: Entertain

Every one of these categories serves a specific purpose, and communicates a different type of message to the customer. Let’s look at each one individually:

I is for Inform

Signs can inform the public. They can identify sale merchandise, pinpoint new items, and provide direction to the bathroom. The majority of signs should be informational: spelling out product benefits and the difference between lookalike merchandise is one way to help customers; detailing store policies, hours of operation, and payment options is another.

Way-finding signs are the most common example of Inform signs. They show the direction or location of a specific product or service area in the store. 

S is for Sell 

Sell signs are far and away the signs you’re most familiar with. If you have only a handful of signs in your store, bet you dollars to donuts that they’re sale signs.

Sell signs come in three varieties—one with words, one with numbers or price propositions, and the third is the combination of words and price propositions.  These are the signs that act to make the sale on your behalf. They pique interest, capture the imagination, and persuade the customer to buy. 

Word signs can be done using the following words:

  • New
  • Exciting
  • Must Have
  • Hot
  • Two for One
  • Did You See This?
  • You’ll Also Need…

The other type of word sign is when we state a clear benefit of the product, such as this product will save you time, money or stress. 

Numbers or price proposition signs, aka price only signs, such as: 

  • 20% off 
  • $9.99
  • Half off
  • Buy one, second one half price
  • Two for _____________________
  • Buy 1 at Regular Price and the Second is Free
  • Half of Half

Combination of words and numbers, such as:

  • New arrivals—20% off today
  • New Manufacturer at $49
  • Cashmere for only $99
  • Priced to sell! Everything on Rack $10
  • 2 for 1 Selling Fast
  • 50% off while quantities last
  • $9.99 Better Hurray
  • Best in the Market—Under $100 

The Benefit Sign Over the Price Only Sign

Brigham Young University conducted a study focused on what types of signs are most effective in the retail environment. Not all signs are created equal, and not all signs perform equally well in all conditions.

Here’s what we learned from their research:

Price only signs – a sign that says “$9.99!” with no additional information – beat no signs at all by 24%. That’s a substantial increase, just by posting the price of a given item.

However, a greater increase in sales is possible. A benefits sign – a sign that points out facts about the merchandise in question, whether it has to do with construction, performance, or so on - hung on full-price merchandise will outperform the price only sign by 41%.

A word of caution about Price Signs. Be careful claiming you are the cheapest in the county. I say that because you want customers to come to you for more than just the lowest price. Why make a customer loyal to the price? That means if someone is cheaper they should shop there.  It just makes a lot of sense.

When I’m on the road, doing seminars with people from all around the world, I always ask them, “What is the one thing about a store that aggravates you so much that you’d never, ever go back to that store again?”

The answers are fascinating. Here are some of the most common ones:

  • The store was messy.
  • The store was dirty.
  • The store wasn’t well organized – I couldn’t find anything.
  • The sales people are pushy, and they won’t leave you alone.
  • You can never get help if you need it.

The list goes on and on – and we’ll always get at least a dozen answers before someone says “The prices are too high.” All of these other factors that affect the shopping experience are more important than price. Price is way down on the list. The same theory holds true for signs as well. Other information: benefits, features, manufacturing techniques, and more are all more important to the customer than the price. Of course, you can include the price on the sign, but the main attraction for the customer is the benefits. Spell out why they should buy the product: Brigham Young’s study tells us this is far more effective than price alone signs.

E is for Educate

The best signs can educate the customer, telling them something about the merchandise you’re offering. You can highlight benefits this way – for example, an apparel retailer could explain that the way a given fabric is woven means that any clothes made out of that fabric would never wrinkle and would be easy to care for. 

Another way to use this technique is to explain how a product can be used. This is done very well at stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s, where the customers may be familiar with a circular saw on the conceptual level but have less than no idea how to use one in real life. Basic information is very effective at reducing the intimidation factor an uncertain customer faces.

Additionally, educational signs can be very effective when they detail how the products you’re offering were made. One of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this was at a glass blower’s shop. To enter this shop, you literally walked through the artists’ studios, where the artisans worked behind protective glass windows.

When you reached the shops, many of the items were signed with photos of the artists who made the piece – often the same individuals you’d seen at work while making your way to the shop. Each sign carried a story – a small piece might be the work of an apprentice, and carry a small price tag. 

Another, more sophisticated perhaps, carried a sign revealing it was the work of the same artist, with some more experience under their belt. Other signs talked about the techniques used to make a certain item. It was all very illuminating – and allowed the customer to feel like they ‘knew’ the artists and a little about how they created their work. This was integral in developing a relationship with the public – and driving the strong sales this glassblower enjoyed.

One of the best educational signs was from a Garden Center that simply listed the TOP TEN CLEAN AIR PLANTS. All the sign had on it was a picture of the plant, The Name, and how to care for it

E is for Entertain 

Retailing has changed fundamentally. Nobody needs to go shopping anymore – anything and everything in the world can be found online. Going into a store is now just as much about the experience as it is about actually purchasing an item: shoppers want to be entertained. No longer is it enough for a retailer to have a clean, well-lit store and offer good merchandise at good prices. You have to do more. You have to offer an entertaining, engaging, fun time to your customers.

One way to offer that fun time is to make your customers laugh. Laughter is the great social lubricant: it breaks down barriers and makes people feel good. However, you can’t hire a full time comedian to stand in the store telling jokes, and clowns scare off small children – and their mothers! How can you get your customers laughing? That’s where signage comes in, offering a way to be entertaining. Consider these examples:

  • If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you! (In a sporting goods store)
  • No appointment necessary – we hear you coming! (A muffler shop)
  • Push! Push! Push! (On the door at the obstetricians)
  • We really know our stuff! (A taxidermy studio)
  • Children left unattended with be given candy, a double shot of espresso, and a puppy. (At a small café)

As you can see, the best humorous signs are related in some way to the products and services the business offers. Change humorous signs often – half the fun is from customers coming in to see what you’re saying NOW.

Of course, Entertain signs don’t have to have clever copy; In fact they can simply be an image. The use of lifestyle images is becoming more and more popular in retail today. 

Formula Combination – Mixing the Categories into 1 Sign

One of the biggest pushbacks we get from retailers is ‘My store is too small for signs.’ To this we say, nonsense! Every store needs signage, the Customer expects it and demands it. It has a direct impact on the experience you are engineering for the Customer. While we agree that a smaller store has to be careful about creating sign clutter, the biggest mistake we see when visiting retail stores is that the store owner has gone too far to one side and removed all but the “pay here” sign.

We faced this exact problem in my first shoe store. It was 1200 square feet including the stockroom. Knowing the value of signs, I could either: a - focus on one type and remove the rest or b – combine the sign formula and try to achieve multiple parts of the formula on the same sign. So, we decided to make our Inform store policy signs Entertaining. Our brand was a bit kitschy and the store décor reflected that. And if we were to be true to the brand, then our signs should align with our brand. So, we took a sign that every store needs, the return policy, and decided to make it I and E (Inform and Entertain)

Here is the result in a couple of our signs. 

In both of these examples, you can see our brand of humor and how we made the signage both I (informative) and E (entertaining.) The best part about this formula was the reaction from the Customers. Normally, discussions with Customers about returns are uncomfortable and rarely fun. But, I can’t tell you the number of people who commented and chuckled after reading the sign. You could often see the wife motion to her husband to read it. Honestly, never thought a return policy would be a “front and center” part of the business, but the sign made it that way. And that way was a real plus for the store. 

We have seen great examples of stores combining the formula to achieve maximum results. Remember, your store needs to have signs from every category. But you can achieve this by combining the formula on a sign. Make your sign Inform and Entertain or Educate and Entertain. 

Sign Mixology

But don’t try to become a sign “mixologist” and try to meet everything on one sign. Or make every sign have every part of the formula. Notice how the examples we gave you combined two elements and not all of them. If you are not careful, you can overdo a sign. While it could be argued that one sign could accomplish all four of the formula categories, its effectiveness will be impacted. When you try to do too much, you get little. Keep your signs clean and focused. If you combine, try to keep it to two of the categories on one sign.

How can The I.S.E.E. Formula change your signs?

About the Authors

Rick Segel & Associates is a twenty-year-old Kissimmee, Florida-based training, writing, publishing consortium with affiliate partners throughout the United States. Rick Segel, a Certified Speaking Professional, and Matthew Hudson, PhD have spoken in 49 states, on five continents, and delivered over 2,600 professional presentations. The most common words used by audiences are “we have never learned so much and laughed so much.”The philosophy that integrates fun, humor and playful behavior is critical in today’s highly stressful business environment. Because of that, we strive to incorporate a fun factor in almost everything we do.

Rick Segel is the author of 18 books, including two editions of the best selling Retail Business Kit for Dummies which has sold over 100,00 copies and translated into 7 languages. Rick’s number-one selling book, that is in its seventh printing, is Laugh & Get Rich, co-authored with Darren LeCroix, a past International Toastmaster’s Speaker of the Year award winner. 

Matthew Hudson is the author of 2 books, including The Retail Sales Bible co-authored with Rick. 

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