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Sign On

There are more elements to a good sign than first-time owners--maybe even old hands--might believe. Signs are a major tool in a facility's marketing strategy often overlooked or misunderstood. Approached with an eye toward marketing, sign design and purchase can go a long way toward filling facility units.

Size Does Matter

The first consideration when building or rebuilding a sign is size. But this factor will always be in the hands of local zoning adjudicators, not facility owners. Owners should take advantage of the maximum dimensions available to them, says Pamela Alton, owner of Mini-Management Services, based in Santa Barbara, Calif. "Try to get the biggest sign you possibly can get," she says.

"Get the biggest sign you can get approved and can afford," agrees Jim Chiswell, owner of Lake Monticello, Va.-based Chiswell and Associates Ltd. Getting approval is a detail that should be looked at during the building phase of the facility and incorporated into the construction budget, he says. "I would spend the maximum possible in the construction budget to get a great sign. It will help to get prospective customers to the site. Remember, the sign is also part of your marketing budget."

Content and Style

Once the largest possible size has been approved by zoning, the next hurdle is style. There are two main styles of outdoor signage: monument and pole. Most owners agree a tall, pole sign is the best way to get noticed. Unfortunately, zoning restrictions regularly deny pole signs these days. "You don't have much of a choice," admits Steve Ross, president of Cutting Edge Management and Consulting of Salt Lake City. "A pole sign is always better because you're up higher, but if you're in a residential area, they won't let you have pole signs. You've got to put in monument signs. Zoning is going to tell you what you can and can't have."

So most owners will be working with a sign on or close to the ground. What else can be done to draw attention to the site?

"'Storage' should be the biggest word on your sign," says Alton. "Storage should be the biggest possible thing--the No. 1 thing--on your sign, because that's what you do." The only possible exception, says Chiswell, is using "self-storage." Ross adds owners can go a step further by including a phone number on the sign. He also recommends "storage" be the largest word, followed by phone number, then facility name. "Quite honestly, if somebody in the neighborhood needs storage, he doesn't care if it's ABC Storage, Stor-It-Here or Stor-It-There," says Ross. "He just wants to know it's storage. The phone number is the next biggest item, so he can call you. Then you can explain your name."

Rather than displaying a facility name, what about a recognizable, unique logo? Logos, it turns out, are entirely optional--in fact, unnecessary. "When you have a logo that is so big it overpowers the name of your facility or what it is you do, you're making a major mistake," says Alton. The business is selling storage, not designs, she says. Owners may be so proud of their clever logos that undue attention is paid to them in the sign design. Only a few nationwide companies such as Public Storage or Shurgard will benefit from logo recognition. Small operators--those with three or fewer locations--are better served by emphasizing the nature of the business. "If you plan to be multisite, then maybe you want to go after having a recognizable logo," says Alton. "Otherwise, the logo should probably the smallest thing on there."

Likewise, says Alton, of the owner's name. "Don't let ego get in the way of making money," she advises. "Don't concentrate so much on your last name." Johnson's Storage won't make any impression, she says, unless Johnson also happens to own most of the town. Chiswell addresses the issue further, saying, "Calling your facility Courtney's Self Storage to celebrate the birth of your granddaughter does nothing to help you market the project."

Alton is also largely against using four or more A's in the name of the facility. Statistically, she says, clients call at least four places before deciding on a self-storage business. Being first in the phone book doesn't significantly increase sales, and can make the outdoor sign look amateur. Alton does advocate using the street name in the business title if possible. Chiswell recommends using a well-known landmark or other community focal point, such as "Tower Storage" if the site is near a water tower.

Names won't matter, though, if no one notices the sign among the myriad others vying for drivers' attention. Signs are best served by one color. "Try to get it in red," Alton says. "Red will draw the eye. Teal, or blue, or green or yellow will just blend in with the natural surroundings."

Scrolls, Attention-Getters and Sneaky Signs

There are other ways to get people to notice a site in addition to big, red letters. "I like reader boards because it allows you to constantly keep attention on your sign," says Chiswell. "Think of your drive to work this morning. Do you honestly remember any of the signs you passed? If you are constantly adding funny sayings or community promotional notices to your signs, people will remember to look at your new message as they drive by."

Ross is a fan of electronic or LED "scrolling" reader boards--the type that resemble stock market tickers. "Get a reader board up there," Ross advises. "The best thing are the scroll boards, which have the time and temperature and allow you to scroll different things. Those are great." Don't bother, though, unless someone can change the messages every single week. As for manual reader boards--the type similar to those used by gas stations to display prices--they're better than nothing, but many zoning laws are beginning to disallow them, Ross says. Scroll boards are often easier to get past zoning regulations.

Reader boards keep prospects' attention--especially when messages are changed regularly.

The list of possible devices to lure patrons to the facility isn't yet finished. Flags, balloons and blimps are all common attention-getters. But beware: The zoning boards will nab owners there, too. In addition to the restrictions on the facility sign, expect restrictions on flying any type of attention-getter, although most areas are willing to give owners at least a few days to fly them for grand openings and the like. Ross points out he has never been denied at least three days worth of "flying rights." Although some owners believe "It is easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission" and fly attention-getters any time they want, don't think the authorities aren't keeping an eye out. Ross knows this well. He flew colored flags at a new site in Florida, and within six hours, the police arrived and told him the flags had to come down. "If you're going to fly them, you must get approval," Ross says.

One fitting way around pole and attention-getter restrictions is to fly an American flag atop the tallest pole allowed. Flying the flag is virtually untouchable by law. Ross recommends using multicolored windsocks as well, as most communities do not have zoning restrictions on their use. "If they won't let you fly attention flags, fly windsocks. There are some beautifully colored windsocks out there. And there is not a zoning law I am aware of that says you cannot fly them."

Think outside the box when it comes to working with and around zoning restrictions. Can words be painted on the side of the building? Can the interior windows be used to house posters or banners? There is usually room for the traditional "the truck's in my parking lot" approach. "I know a guy who painted an old truck florescent purple," says Ross. "It was a vehicle--it was not signage--and it was parked on his asphalt. So there's always stuff you can do." For very little money, magnetic car signs can also be used to spread the word around town. The company truck then becomes a mobile billboard.

Take a look at the sides and rear of your buildings. Are they canvases waiting to oblige? "If they'll allow you to paint the whole side of the building, go for it," Alton says. She has seen self-storage signs five stories high painted on the sides buildings. Opportunities like that should be looked for and exploited.

Sign and Facility Maintenance

"Wouldn't it be great to know the illuminated sign you spent so much money on last year now reads 'ELF STOR' because the lights in some of the letters had burned out?" asks Chiswell. It's amusing, perhaps, but another aspect of signage operators can't afford to dismiss is maintenance. "If you have an electronic sign, you should consider a service contract from the installing company," Chiswell recommends. "Are the lights on, is the pole clean of any rust and freshly painted, have you trimmed the trees so people can actually see the sign? The key comes down to having someone with the responsibility and the authority to keep the signs up to your standards."

Other chores include replacing the bulbs in the sign at least once year, regardless of whether they are burned out. "If you don't replace them all, you start to get places where it dims out," Ross says. "It just looks real tacky." Owners may need to take a drive past their facilities at night to be sure the sign looks as good as it can. If the sign includes a reader board that is changed manually, Ross recommends buying a new set of letters and numbers every couple of years. "They do get that yellow tint to them," he says. Previous owners who neglected such details may be the reason reader boards are now out of many zoning boards' good graces. Keep the site clean, neat and attractive, and the neighborhood will be grateful.

Having a large, brightly-lit sign with scrolling reader board means little if the property itself is ill-kept. Ross explains outdoor maintenance is an ongoing process. According to Chiswell, landscaping chores should be done once a week. "Landscaping is just as important as signage in my marketing book," Chiswell says. "Owners should think about the outside appearance of their facility just like they do a Yellow Pages ad. With 50 percent of our customers being female, it is very important that the image is inviting. If you make landscaping part of your overall marketing budget, you will view these expenses in a different light."

The Bottom Line

At last, the sign is designed and ready to be built. It's time to whip out the calculator and see what the damage is going to be. "The sign I had redone, I had bids from $300 to $3,000," says Alton. Price will depend on a range of factors: whether the sign will be lit internally or externally, pole vs. monument, adding a reader board and so on. But most people are at the end of construction when they begin thinking about signs, says Alton, and now is the time they start scrimping. Cutting back on the sign budget is not encouraged. The most attractive sign that is as big as zoning will allow is the sign that will get noticed and bring in business.

As with any major purchase, comparison shop before settling on a builder. "Get as many bids as you can," Alton says. Furthermore, give the potential builders something to work with. Alton suggests owners have an idea of what the sign should look like then let the bidders have at it. "I would not rely on someone else to design. You should have some idea. Draw out a simple sketch of 'things I want to put on my sign,' and send it to six or seven different sign companies." Prices will range from low to high based on materials, size and whether an existing sign is being converted or built new.

For such an important part of the facility's marketing campaign, any investment will be worth the extra bells and whistles. "Most owners still look at signs as too expensive," Ross says. "The thing about a sign is, once you buy it, you own it. You can do a scroll sign for about $20,000 to $30,000. For the life of a property, that's pretty cheap."


Potential renters may be turned off by poor landscaping or ill-kept signs, indicating cleanliness and attractiveness are important aspects of a successful facility. It should be no surprise that interior signs of a facility should likewise be kept clean and attractive.

"Do not use handwritten signs," Ross says. Get signs professionally made or purchase them prefabricated from self-storage business catalogs. Make sure the signs are, in fact, visible. Are all the signs visible from places where they should be? All facilities should have "No Smoking," hours-of-operation and lighted "EXIT" signs posted.

Interior signs should be brightly colored. The material used is not terribly important, so long as it is attractive. Painting directly on walls is fine, provided it is a neat, professional job. Make certain all interior signs are not faded, chipped or peeling.

Each unit should be numbered. Chiswell recommends using numeric designations only, rather than similar designations like 801-A and 801-C. Solely numbering the units reduces the chance of billing errors, such as when a check arrives for "Unit 801."

Alton recommends posting rules and regulations inside each unit. "I have copies of our rules and regulations, and items illegal to store, inside every unit," she says. "It's just copied on white paper. That way, if it gets ripped off, it's easy to put back on."

Don't forget to post directions to units, or basic directional signage indoors. "Directional signs showing the direction of different numbered units says to the new customer that you want to help them," says Chiswell.

For interior signage, the rule of thumb is attractiveness. "You just spent $750,000 to build a Class A project," Chiswell reminds owners. "You don't want to walk into the office and see various notices and signs hanging on the wall with tape or thumbtacks."

American Flags & Poles
276 Front St.
Marietta, OH 45750
800.262.3524; 740.373.4262
Contact: Sylvi Caporale
Products/Services: U.S. flags, flagpoles, custom flags and state flags.

American Inflatables
947 Newhall St.
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
888.904.9949; 949.515.1776
Contact: Gregg Mulholland
E-mail: [email protected]
Products/Services: Manufactures helium blimps and balloons, cold-air inflatables and dancing inflatables.

1270 Sunshine Way
Anaheim, CA 92806
Contact: Terry Melancon
E-mail: [email protected]
Products/Services: Banners, flags, banner frames, door numbers and state flags.

DH Designs Inc.
1220 Blue Spruce Drive, Unit 1
Fort Collins, CO 80524
800.822.4452; 970.490.1451
E-mail: [email protected]
Products/Services: Manufactures and designs electric, neon, channel-letter, cabinet, post and panel, and graphic signs; architectural signage, commercial signage, pole signs, directory signage and custom signs.

D'Ziner Sign Co.
5910 W. Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90028-6505
877.EXPOSE.ME (877.397.6736)
Products/Services: Designs and fabricates signs and banners using state-of- the-art equipment, the latest graphic programs and the highest-quality material available.

Fay & Sons Signs
1510 I-70 Complex Court
Columbia, MO 65201
Contact: Jim Flower
E-mail: [email protected]
Products/Services: Commercial signs, vinyl numbers, storage signs and office interior designs.

Flag & Banner Co.
P.O. Box 6406
Metairie, LA 70009-6406
800.774.3524; 504.834.2204
Contact: Robert Goodman
E-mail: [email protected]
Products/Services: Signs, door numbers, custom and stock flags, banners, flagpoles and flagpole accessories.

Global Signs and Awnings
7445 Hwy. 99 N.
Roseburg, OR
Products/Services: Manufactures signs and awnings throughout the United States. Helps determine what the customer needs, based on analysis of the particular type of business, location, competition and visibility studies.

Mandex Motion Displays
5401 Sunvalley Court
Agoura Hills, CA 91301
Products/Services: Programmable LED signage sales, rentals and leasing. Reader boards, motion-message centers and electronic-message signs.

1020 Cedar Ave., Suite 2M
St. Charles, IL 60174-2282
800.588.3209; 630.377.8811
Products/Services: Electronic message centers, signs and displays, from small, single signs to large, complex systems.

PSD Sign Company
Products/Services: Wholesalers of LED displays, electronic message centers, gas-plasma displays, neon signs, neon lighting, scrolling LED signs, fiber-optic signs, menu boards, tradeshow displays, clocks, timers and counters.

Romisco Sign Systems
214 Tacoma St .
Sierra Vista, AZ 85635
E-Mail: [email protected]
Products/Services: Sign planning, design, engineering, fabrication, installation, maintenance, service and leasing.

Sign Systems N.W.
18931 59th Ave. N.E.
Arlington, WA 98223
Contact: Jerry Kincade
E-mail: [email protected]
Products/Services: Door numbers, signs and banners.

Sign Tech International
1501 W. 5th St.
Austin, TX 78703
Products/Services: Efficient, dedicated professionals committed to meeting signage needs.

Signtronix Inc.
1445 W. Sepulveda Blvd .
Torrance, CA 90509-2901
E-mail: [email protected]
Products/Services: Exterior signage.
Produces one sign every 10 minutes of the day, for a total of more than 500,000 signs since its establishment in 1963.

1015 Maple St.
Danville, IL 61832
E-mail: [email protected]
Products/Services: Designs and manufactures electronic message-center signs and time/temperature displays.

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