Signs

This is an article that appeared in Comics Buyer’s Guide in the fall of 1992. It was the last of my columns, entitled Suggested for Mature Retailers, to appear in that fan publication. Krause, CBG’s publisher flattered me with an invitation to bring my readership to their new trade magazine written specifically for my audience. It was to be called Comics Retailer.

While this article was directed toward business owners, I’ve encountered the phenomenon so frequently in my life as a consumer that I felt it to be worth sharing. Please let me know what you think.

You spend a lot of time trying to make your store presentable. After all, its presentation is the packaging of your product, if you will allow an analogy, and a product’s packaging is really more important to its initial sale than the product itself. So you initiate policies of daily vacuuming and dusting, no eating lunch on the front counter, daily shelf maintenance, etc. Somewhere in the course of all this, you realize that a lot of the‹‹reason that maintenance is required is due to certain habits that customers have. Obviously, some of these policies need to extend to customers, as well. You don’t want food in your store, for example. Past shoplifting experiences require you to check bags and packages. If someone’s property is stolen, you don’t want to be responsible for a customer’s indiscretion in leaving it lying about. And so on. So you post signs.

And you end up contradicting the very principle you were trying to uphold in the first place.

A couple of years ago I went into a T-shirt store—you know, the kind where you can quickly have a shirt made to say just about anything. I have to admit that my main purpose in going in to the store was not to buy a shirt (though as a recovering T-shirtaholic, I would have bought one if it were really cool) but to see how they were displayed. I was never satisfied with any T-shirt display I’d seen at the time; on a circular rack like I had, no matter how professional it looked, the customer had to fumble through the shirts to see them, hung on a wall they took up too much room, and an imprint-only wall display, while solving the first two problems, didn’t leave the thing looking like a T-shirt. So, I figured, this T-shirt store looked like a pretty upscale place; they might have some ideas for shirt fixturing and display.

I can’t even remember how the shirts were displayed. Nor can I, an admitted T-shirtaholic, remember what they had for sale. All I can remember is the 11 x 17 inch sign standing erect, shrinelike, on the counter. Written in red and black ink, it was prominently visible for all to see who entered the store. It read as follows:

NO checks
NO credit cards
NO money orders
NO pets
NO food
NO shirt (on you), no shirt (from us)
NO smoking
NO loitering
NO handling merchandise without assistance

A broken water line in front of the store couldn’t have been a more severe deterrent to business. As I hastily copied the text from the sign into my ever-present date book (I just knew I’d have occasion to recite this someday), I was amazed. I was in a beautifully appointed, well merchandised store in a busy shopping mall at lunch time, but I was the only one in the place. The sign might not have been the main reason for that, but it sure didn’t help.

It was a severe example of what not to do, but all of us run into situations that could give a negative message to customers. Some years prior to the T-shirt store incident, shortly after I opened my store, I needed some signs. I had a street-front store which had one of those annoying doors that you can never figure out whether to `push’ or `pull’. So my mother-in-law, a talented artist and a terrific help in creating my store, bought me stickers that explained this. She also gave me a third sticker-sign, which exclaimed “NO BARE FEET” in bold metallic letters. I was amused at what I felt was an aberration of her usually impeccable design sense. As I chuckled, a confused expression played across her face. She wasn’t amused in the least. With eyes wide, she challenged, “What’s so funny? You don’t want anyone in here with bare feet!”

I don’t want to get into a lengthy discussion of the disadvantages of bare-footed patrons. I suppose, if forced to actively choose, I would have preferred shod customers. But despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that I had never before thought about this potential problem, it was intuitively and instantly clear to me that it would not be enough of a problem to warrant a negative sign on my door.

Shortly thereafter, I started to pay attention to signage as a concept, instead of simply a necessity. This is why I was sensitive to the one in the T-shirt store. Not only is it destructive, but there is never, ever a need for it. In fact, since signs are often a necessary part of a business, they can be used for expressing yourself in a positive way to your customers.

I heard a story one about how businessman Whitt Schultz favored businesses that exuded a positive attitude toward their customers. Specifically, he noted some interesting signs, and how they affected the way he viewed the business he was visiting. He mentioned a financial institution that posted, instead of the normal “Closed” sign, one that read: 

Our next opportunity to serve you is at  8:30 a.m.
And we look forward to seeing you.

In his favorite restaurant, there was a sign in the cloakroom that stated:

Of course we’re responsible for your personal belongings when you’re a guest here. Relax, and please enjoy your meal. Our number one responsibility is always to serve you well!

Compared to the normal “Not responsible for personal property,” how memorably this stands out! He mentioned a washroom that contained an eloquent sign that read: 

Because of the quality of the people we employ, we don’t have to remind them to wash their hands before returning to work.

What a difference a little creative thinking can make! When a sign is necessary, think about its wording. You’ll always be able to come up with a positive way to get your message across.

And if you get stung, think twice about the necessity of preventing future problems with signage. My grand opening day was somewhat tarnished by a woman who came in and said, “The entire neighborhood is up in arms, because we’ve heard that you sell adult comics.” I had already put my adult stuff on the top shelf, but I instantly printed a sign that said, “You must be eighteen years old to purchase adult comics.” The result? A year and a half later, I pulled the sign down, and began bagging adult books and inserting a slip of paper with the store logo and a sentence that stated the same thing. All that sign ever served to do was invite people to ask, “Hey, you sell adult books here?”

You see, no matter how bad the sting, it just might not be worth negative signage because of the infrequency of such an occurrence. How many coats did that restaurant have to buy as a result of its sign? $1000 worth per year is probably an overstatement, but it is a small price to pay for the feeling its patrons got when they hung their coats. And all told, I don’t think I had more than a few bare feet in the history of my store.

And by all means, blow your own horn! Positive signs make your place a nice place to shop. If you have a pretty good track record about fulfilling rare back issue requests, flaunt it! A cash register sign that states, “We at Comic World will make every effort to fulfill any special request” will raise some eyebrows, and give you more business, as well.

Of course, signs are only advertisements of policy. The first step is to have your store policies in place. Generous service and return policies are what will keep your customers generous and returning.

Bruce Costa lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

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