BOSTON -- As labor pools are being stretched thin, signs that sell will play a bigger role in supermarket bakeries and delis, according to an in-store merchandising consultant.
The consultant -- Kevin Fischer, national accounts manager for Insignia Systems, Minnetonka, Minn., which specializes in retail merchandising -- said signs should be looking better to merchandisers short on store help and at the same time faced with satisfying time-starved customers who want to grab items from self-service cases.
Fischer talked about how to use signs more effectively as a selling tool during a seminar at the New England Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association's 15th Annual Taste Show and Seminar, held here last month.
Technology is rapidly taking the ability to make sophisticated and highly effective signs down to the store level, he added.
But supermarket chains are not taking full advantage of that, he said.
"They just haven't made effective signage a mission-critical issue. They worry about keeping the floors clean, and lighting just right, but they haven't paid enough attention to the signs," he said.
"In fact, too many retailers are still putting all their attention on good buying, and aren't paying enough attention to selling more product," he added.
Basically, signs need to impart more information. "You can't sell a product on price alone anymore -- not in the face of the competition from warehouse clubs. You need to create a niche, maybe with something value-added, to get customers to come back to you," he said.
Using short phrases, signs should convince customers why they should buy the product.
Even the simplest product should have its features spotlighted on signs, he said. "High-fiber, low-fat" can simply but effectively call attention to bread, for instance.
Also, as supermarket bakeries and delis devote more space to self-service, it makes sense to offer as much information as possible at point of purchase, because customers have shown that they want to know more about the products they are scooping up, Fischer said.
He cited recent figures from the Washington-based Food Marketing Institute that show 94% of shoppers look for nutrition information about products. "Customers have less time than ever, but want more product information," he noted.
With retailers often short-staffed, however, information sometimes isn't available even at the service counter.
"At the service counter, employees are often concentrating on who is next in line, and actually don't have time to offer information about the features and benefits of products," he explained. "When was the last time someone tried to sell you something in the supermarket?"
Fischer said research confirms that informative, easy-to-read signs sell more products. He cited one study that showed that, in a variety of retail stores, descriptive signs pushed sales of selected products up an average of 26%.
Fischer showed the audience slides of computer-generated signs, which handled serving suggestions, product features and benefits, as well as the price, in relatively little space.
In one example, an 8-inch by 10-inch sign, touting "Homemade Blueberry Pie," pointed out that the product was baked fresh daily; that it was made with Minnesota-grown blueberries and that it went well with vanilla ice cream.
Another sign, calling attention to store-baked rye bread, suggested that customers "Try me grilled, with corned brisket of beef." Then, the sign listed the price of corned beef in the deli, and even told which grocery aisle had canned sauerkraut in case the rye and corned beef whetted the customers' appetite for a Reuben sandwich.
"Customers need suggestions. They're so busy, and everybody is competing for their time. If you can tell them what to have for dinner, they'll pay attention," Fischer said.
He also stressed that retailers aren't taking advantage of what electronics can do for them.
"First of all, there's more information more easily available about product than there's ever been, and great-looking signs can be produced at store-level with a personal computer and a laser printer," he said.
Why aren't more retailers doing that at store level? A lot of retailers just are not aware that the technology is there, he said.
"Some are generating all signs from the corporate office, or through their ad agency, but some of the signs don't apply to all stores. So, for particular items that may be featured at selected locations, someone at the store is making handwritten signs," he said.
The problem with that approach, according to Fischer, is that handwritten signs, while currently a popular decor accent in fresh food departments, may be missing the mark as selling tools. Fischer cited supermarket-specific research that indicated machine-printed signs boosted product sales 59% higher than handwritten signs.