I Saw Your Sign

Snap Judgments and Impulse Spending are Keys to the Value of Signs

When a retail merchant asks a new customer how they happened to find the store, one of the most common replies is “I saw your sign.” This central function of signage — to be conspicuously intriguing and, thereby, to generate impulse buying — is greatly compromised by municipal sign codes which impose excessive restrictions on sign types, sizes, heights or designs.

The 2016 academic paper, Signage as Marketing Communication: A Conceptual Model and Research Propositions¬†(James Kellaris and Karen Machleit) offers important insights regarding signs’ basic functionality. One of the key principles discussed in the paper is the tendency of viewers to evaluate commercial signs based on “thin-slice judgments.” Essentially, this means that a driver navigating a commercial district typically makes very quick, nearly instantaneous judgments about the quality of a business establishment and its appropriateness to meet his or her needs. Because impulse purchases represent a substantial portion of retail establishments’ overall sales, eliciting these snap responses represents a crucial aspect of signs’ economic value.

Another interesting observation of the Kellaris/Machleit paper is the fact that signs installed at heights requiring a viewer to gaze upwards typically are perceived more favorably than signs installed closer to ground level. For this common-sense reason, regulations strictly limiting allowable heights of freestanding signs actually degrade the presentations of all signs within the jurisdiction.

Furthermore, because the overall visual impression of a sign is key to its attraction for potential customers, the sign’s graphic design elements may have even greater significance for viewers than its verbal message. Thus, sign codes which seek to limit color usage or impose uniformity of design strike at the very heart of what makes signs effective for users. In the 2017 article How Logo Colors Influence Shoppers’ Judgments of Retailer Ethicality: The Mediating Role of Perceived Eco-Friendliness (Journal of Business Ethics, December 2017), authors Aparna Sundar and James Kellaris explain the crucial role of color selection as a means to affirm a positive image for the advertiser.

Global Positioning System (GPS) devices are standard features on everyone’s smartphone these days, so it might be assumed that signs have therefore become less important. But signs never were intended to serve strictly as wayfinding devices. To truly serve the function for which it was created, a sign also must be instrumental in closing the sale via its unique, visual/psychological appeal.

On-premise signs continue to play decisive roles in bringing customers through the doors of retail shops, restaurants, hotels and other local businesses. Communities that fail to recognize the centrality of signs to economic vitality, or those that continue to dismiss signs as nothing more than forms of visual clutter, often claim to be acting on behalf of their residents. In reality, though, they might be erecting impenetrable barriers to their communities’ future prosperity.

Bill Dundas

Bill Dundas

Bill Dundas, a 40-year veteran of the on-premise sign industry as a fabricator, installer and journalist, is President/Executive Director of the Foundation for the Advancement of the Sign Industry (FASI).

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