What's in a Sign?

Pamela Alton Comments
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SIGNS of the TIMES
Proper signage key to facility's marketing plan

Most experts will agree that a business isn't worth a dime without the right kind of sign. How else can a customer find your business?

Self-storage is no different. In fact, because storage is a micro market in which a majority of customers come from within a five-mile radius of the facility, an effective sign can play a major role in attracting tenants. It's true that not everyone driving by your facility is looking for storage space. But when the time comes for that person to rent a space, a good, properly placed sign at your facility may have made the right impact on his memory, and your facility may just top his list of storage possibilities.

The elements of signage may not be as simple as one might imagine. However, if you could place a sign of any size, any color, any place on the facility, it would be simple. Unfortunately, there are the inevitable wrestling matches with zoning boards; decisions over color, lettering and lighting; and problems of placement. Let's begin with the basics.

Name-Calling

Careful thought should be given to the name of a facility. An easy-to-remember name is the safest solution. Make it easy for customers by using logic. For example, if your facility is on Maple Street, how about Maple Street Storage?

Jim Chiswell of Buffalo, N.Y.-based Chiswell & Associates, says he's surprised at the lack of savvy marketing some owners use when naming a facility. Choosing a name that ties into the community some way is an effective tool for attraction and advertising, he says. "The sign is the final part of the directions to your facility," explains Chiswell. "If you have a unique facility name, such as 'Speedway Self-Storage,'--the name of the street the facility is on--you could put a checkered flag on your facility. Or maybe name it 'Water Tower Self-Storage,' after the 40-foot water tower in the back of your facility."

Also, make sure the sign is coordinated with the same information that a customer will find when browsing the Yellow Pages. This way, they will make an immediate connection. You want your advertising dollars working for you, not against you, right?

Size Matters

Here's a simple one: How big should it be? Of course, bigger is better, but be careful of zoning regulations. No doubt they will play a role in how big your sign can be. Don't wait until after you've invested into an extravagant, monolithic sign before contacting the city department.

Call the planning and zoning department and ask to speak directly to the sign inspector, who can give you the dimensions and other sign regulations for your facility's area.

Location, Location, Location

The key to the location of your sign is to put it on a visible streetfront, easily seen by driving motorists. Again, zoning ordinances will most likely dictate where the sign can be placed. Look at nearby businesses to get some clues. If they have huge signs perched on the street, chances are you'll have the same luxury.

If the facility is on a main street and set very close to the sidewalk, you may get by with placing the sign directly on the office or another structure. If the property rests alongside a freeway, a tall sign visible to those drivers may be a good promotional tool.

"I always put it right out front, if possible, on the busiest street, and hopefully I can put up a secondary sign--usually wall-mounted," says Daryl Flaming of the Tierra Corp., a multiple-facility operator based in San Diego, Calif.

For a facility that's located near--but not on--a main drag, consider negotiating with a local business owner on the main street to post a directional sign on his property with the name of your facility and an arrow to lead traffic in the right direction.

Another idea--albeit a sneaky one--is to post temporary signs, similar to those used by real-estate agents promoting model homes or politicians promoting their campaigns. These temporary signs can be strategically placed during busy weekends to pull in a nice chunk of business.

One word of caution, though: Temporary signs can infringe on zoning regulations. If posted illegally, the facility owner may receive a warning, possibly a citation. Nontheless, some facility operators post the temporary signs anyway, reasoning that a small fine is well worth it if they rent most of their units with the help of these signs. But be aware that some jurisdictions levy heavy fines on businesses that abuse sign ordinences. According to Martin Lorch, president of BPI Capital Management in Phoenix, one Arizona municipality charges $2,500 for each day that a sign--including temporary signs--is in violation of city code.

Another piece of advice: Don't post signs at the risk of offending community members. Remember that everyone is a potential customer, and if you upset too many members of the community, you may wind up out of business. Therefore, consider posting directional signs on the weekend when they're less likely to be nabbed by zoning officials, then retrieve them before Monday morning.

But Lorch encourages self-storage owners and operators to take any advantage of signage that area authorities allow.

"In the mini-storage business we have so few media in which to promote ourselves, so signage is very important," says Lorch. "You need to maximize the amount of sign you have. If the city allows you to have wall signs, put them up. If they'll allow you to put up signs on both sides of your property, put them up."

Sign Design

Keep the design simple, with an easy-to-read typeface, a limited amount of information and concise message. Remember that people have to read within the time it takes to drive by the facility.

The words "mini-storage" or "self-storage" should be the most prominent feature on the sign so that customers can make an immediate connection. The only other information necessary for the sign is the phone number, and that's only if space and zoning regulations permit it.

Lorch says certain areas won't allow signs to contain any sort of advertising, including stating the facility has such amenities as climate control or security measures. For example, Lorch says in one city, he knows of a facility that was forced to rework a new sign because it contained words simply describing the facility.

"They said you couldn't have any advertising copy, meaning you can have your logo and the words 'self-storage,' but you can't say 'all units alarmed or climate-controlled,'" Lorch explains.

How about color? The right color can make the sign stand out bright as day. The wrong color can fade into the rest of the neighborhood.

Generally speaking, yellow is often a standout color, but not if the rest of the street's signs are already yellow. Why not walk the street of your facility and take an inventory of colors used, choosing one seldom or not used? Stick to primary colors; pastels are too pale and earth tones are too mundane.

To make the lettering stand out, consider using contrasting colors, such as black or red letters on a white background.

Although important that the sign be seen, Chiswell believes it should blend into the surroundings somewhat, and likes signs with a solid background and white lettering, making it easy to read both during the day and at nighttime.

"I don't know if I'd put a neon sign in the middle of Nantucket Island, for example," he says. "(But) you don't want it to be just another sign." Chiswell suggests driving in the area of your facility, especially at night, to get a visual landscape of the other businesses in your area. In some places, he says, it may be smart to offset the sign a foot or two deeper onto the property than others on the street. Even though it's not closer to the roadway, the visual appeal of being different makes the sign stand out from the group.

Finally, for franchises or facility chains, uniformity of colors and graphics play an important role in customers' recognition of the business.

Lighting

If zoning gives the green light on lighting, go for it. A backlit sign is a must to attract attention at night, and it should be lit from dusk to dawn. Electronic timers can take the burden out of having to consistently remember to turn the sign on and off.

One bone of contention for neighbors, however, may be that a too-bright sign creates light pollution in the neighborhood. This shouldn't be a problem in commercially zoned areas, but in residential areas, cities can be strict on lighting. According to Mel Holsinger of Tucson, Ariz.-based Executive Self Storage Associates Inc., one of his facilities near Tucson is restricted from using lighting because it is located on a designated "scenic corridor." "We can't have a lighted sign, period. End of discussion," he says.

A Sign of Change

Many business owners have found that using a reader board can draw more attention to their location because people driving by look and read the messages displayed on the board, especially if they're changed frequently. These changeable signs may be used to promote the business, such as a grand opening or special giveaways/promotions. They can also be used as advertising for community events such as the Boy Scouts' Scout-A-Rama or church bake sales. It's also the perfect spot for offering holiday cheer, or announcing a wedding anniversary or birthday.

Chiswell agrees and thinks reader boards are under-utilized in the self-storage industry. They're a perfect way to promote your facility through advertising and get the attention of civic leaders in a different fashion, he adds.

"Fifty percent of the time, a reader board should be used to promote something going on in the community or some holiday," explains Chiswell. "Promote something for the volunteer firefighters, Girl Scouts or local church bazaar, etc. What you're doing is soliciting community and civic organizations, using your name. That's going to be brought up to their board of directors or committees and, all of a sudden, your name is used in a non-sales environment with all these people from the community and they will discuss it."

Other Possibilities

A conventional sign is not the only way to attract attention. Don't overlook the possibility of using banners for grand openings, special promotions, auctions, etc. But don't forget to consult your zoning restrictions. And once you've used the banner for awhile, don't forget to take it down. If it's faded or ragged, it reflects poorly on the facility.

Other attention-getters include illuminated awnings, an American flag flying high overhead and an exceptional landscaping job, like freshly mowed grass, trimmed hedges and a lots of fresh flowers.

"You can't ignore the physical appearance of the facility as a sign," relates Chiswell. "I see facilities that are just gorgeous; some have won landscaping awards and are very attractive when someone is considering renting. They know the facility because they drive by it everyday."

The Price

Expect to pay at least $500 for a good sign. If you're shopping for an illuminated and extremely large sign, costs run as high as $20,000 or more.

Despite the costs, don't even consider using a homemade sign. You may save a bundle in supply fees, but you will likely lose on the rental side of things. Nobody wants to rent from an unprofessional- looking business.

Give 'Em Something to Look At

While tackling a municipality zoning board may be no fun, getting a good sign at your facility is of utmost importance, especially considering that the majority of your tenants will probably be drive-bys. If you give them something to look at, whether it be an expensive back-lit pole sign, or a clever phrase on your reader board, they may just be your next customer when they're in the market for storage.

What's in a Sign?

By Pamela Alton

As we drive down the street, we are bombarded with visuals everyday: signs, flags, billboards, etc. What makes one sign stand out from another? Is it the color, graphics, size or the information it gives us?

When you first entertained the idea of building, buying or managing a self-storage facility, I bet you began to notice self-storage signs everywhere. Some of them looked like a third-grader made them in class, and some cost thousands of dollars. The type of sign and the price you pay for it depends on many variables. Your city or county may have restrictions on size, height, placement, colors you can use, and so on. Before you invest in a sign for your facility, I suggest you check with your local building or city planning department as to any restrictions on signage. It could save you a lot of time, money and frustration.

There are several areas that should be addressed when it comes to signs. Obviously you need your facility name on the sign, but it should not be the largest wording on it. "Self-storage," "mini-storage" or just "storage" should be the largest print on your sign. Your sign is telling people what your business is, and that is self-storage.

Color is another factor. Statistics show red draws the eye to any sign. To test this theory, drive down the street and see what signs you notice more than others. It's nice that your facility is color-coordinated in teal blue, but that might not be the best color to use in your sign because if it blends into the surroundings, people might drive by without ever noticing your facility.

The sign must be lit and be visible at night, also. You should periodically drive by your facility in the evening to make sure the sign is lit and no bulbs are burned out. If you don't have an electrical can with lights inside, at least have spotlights aimed towards your sign and, again, make sure there are no burned-out bulbs.

As stated before, size may be dictated by your city or county. Monument or pole signs are typically the type of signage you will have. If your city restricts you to a small monument sign, then consider placing the tallest flagpole allowed by the city and fly the American flag. You can fly an American flag, your state flag or company logo flag on the pole, and of course, light it as well. This is a good technique to use if you have a location off a main thoroughfare and your managers can use the statement "look for the huge American flag" in their telephone presentation.

Pole-sign height may also be restricted per zoning codes; however, you should purchase the largest one you can afford. Either a monument sign or a pole sign can be used as a changing advertisement billboard by having a marquee-type of front where you change the lettering or message, either manually or electronically. You can offer managers specials on certain sizes, free locks with move ins, packing or moving supplies, or place little message quips that you change regularly.

Other types of signage includes sandwich boards, rooftop signs, flags, banners and balloons. Sandwich boards can be portable and placed at the entrance of your facility displaying similar information as a marquee sign. Small flagpoles can also be attached with banners to draw attention to the sign. Rooftop signs are good for facilities next to a freeway so they can be seen. The message here may be directions for exiting the freeway to access your facility. We have all seen the large blimp-type balloons used at car dealerships; they also draw attention to those facilities that are hard to see or difficult to find. Make sure they are rotated on a regular basis, replaced when needed and placed around the top of the facility roof or wall. Banners can be placed along walls that face freeways or busy streets, or on the office building. Some cities restrict banners, so check with your city to see if you can get a variance for three months to place your banner. They could promote a grand opening of a new facility, offer move-in specials, truck rentals and so on.

Remember, you don't have to spend thousands of dollars on a professionally designed and built sign, but you should make sure your sign looks professional, as it is a reflection of your facility. Always check your local zoning or building codes that pertain to signage before you purchase your sign, and make sure the sign tells what your business is: storage.

Pamela Alton is the owner of Mini-Management, the largest nationwide manager placement service. Mini-Management also offers management, policy & procedures and sales and marketing training manuals, inspections & audits, consulting, new facility start-ups and training seminars. For more information on the various services offered by Mini-Management, call 1-800-646-4648

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