Most experts will agree that a business isn't worth a dime without the right kind of sign, and self-storage is no different. How else can a customer find your facility? In fact, because storage is a micro market in which a majority of customers come from within a five-mile radius, 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 unit, a good, properly placed sign at your facility may have made the right impact on his memory, and you may just top his list of storage possibilities.
The elements of signage may not be as simple as one might imagine. 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.
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 in on Maple Street, how about Maple Street Storage?
Jim Chiswell of Williamsville, 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?
Here's a simple one: How big should your sign 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 painting the name 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 my sign right out front, if possible, on the busiest street. 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 generate enough rentals. Be aware that some jurisdictions levy heavy fines on businesses that abuse sign ordinances. According to Martin Lorch, president of BPI Capital Management in Phoenix, one Arizona municipality charges $2,500 for each day an illegal sign is posted--including temporary signs, which are 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. 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.
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," he says. "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."
Keep the design simple, with an easy-to-read typeface, a limited amount of information and a 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 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, in one city, Lorch knows of a facility that was forced to rework a new sign because it contained simple, descriptive words.
"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 it's 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 night. "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.
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."
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."
Expect to pay at least $500 for a good sign. If you're shopping for an illuminated and extremely large sign, cost 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.