Retailers are implementing a more strategic approach in merchandising perishables to today's better-educated consumers -- using point-of-purchase signage that introduces consumers to the product, informs them how to use it, and then completes the sale with a strong price display.
Part of the shift in the approach to selling fresh foods can be attributed directly to consumers' desire for more information about the foods they're eating, retailers told SN. The challenge has been to determine what data is critical to clinching the sale, and then presenting it in an appealing manner.
"I am a big believer of signage," said John Pardington, owner, Holiday Market, Canton, Mich. "I survive with big chains all around me because I am different, and I want to communicate that difference to my customers. The key is to create a sign where products can be distinguishable in a glance."
Holiday Market produces its signs in-house. A software package enables the independent to use a separate paper stock for different categories and include special features. "For our bread offerings we use a grainy, rustic-colored stock," said Pardington. "Then we add unique terms, such as gourmet, organic or handmade; a description of the bread, such as 100% semolina; and the price."
Signature items are identified with a "John P's Pick of the Month" indicator. "If it's something special, like our Sunny Oatmeal Bread, I like to tell our customers," said Pardington.
While readability is key, there has to be a concentration on what the customer cares about, according to Richard Draeger, vice president, Draeger's, Menlo Park, Calif.
"Signage in perishables has a greater urgency," he said. "These products have to move," so there is a concentration on flavor, region of origin and usage suggestions.
Indeed, successfully finding the right mix of information in a limited amount of space can be elusive if operators try to cram too much into the signage.
"It is important to provide education and information to customers, but it's critical to give the correct amount of information," said Draeger.
Another California retailer, Mill Valley-based Molly Stone's, employs a variety of signage strategies when it comes to the method used. Case-stack signs, shelf-talkers and plastic, imprinted signs are all put to work in the perishables departments, according to Dave Bennett, owner. Where the operator turns to a single strategy with signage comes in keeping and building the store's own brand image.
"We are constantly looking at color and typeface," he told SN. "Customers coming into our stores do not see an array of five, 10 or 50 different styles of signs."
Custom signs are the rule at Molly Stone's in the meat and deli departments. Plastic pin-style tags are emblazoned with the store's own typeface. Over in produce, the operator uses digital photography of the product that's transferred to a template, then printed and laminated. Country of origin is indicated with country flags affixed to the sign.
"None of the [mass-produced] sign packages available met all our needs," explained Bennett. "It's a tall order for an outside company to keep within our branding directives, keep up to date with the photos and country-of-origin identification."
Inserra ShopRite, a Mahwah, N.J.-based member of the Wakefern cooperative, is taking a new direction with its signage. "Our company is going to computer-generated signs produced in-store," said Ronald Hirt, director of appetizing, seafood and gourmet. Consistency and quality were factors contributing to the shift, he said.
"In-store signs are key to focus a customer's attention," he said. "They highlight items, draw attention to new items, and spotlight favorite sellers with a lowered price. Signage is key to movement."
At Jungle Jim, a unique situation affords them the ability to have custom signs at their beck and call. A sign company next door to the Fairfield, Ohio, unit allows the operator unlimited possibilities. Jungle Jim also uses chalkboards, in-case signs and simple price boards for a multipronged impact.
"All the signs have to be easy to read," said Phill Adams, deli manger. "They have to be able to be read quickly with little effort. Color and location are also important. I love signs, but I find our simple chalkboards above the service case work best for us."
Effective signage is especially important for independent retailers, according to operators SN spoke with. Jim Penhollow, owner of three Seattle-area Thriftway units, said fresh foods are being used by independents to differentiate themselves from the chain competition.
"Good signage gives us an opportunity to tell a story about the products that [chains] just can't bring to the table," he said.
Service style determines the sign style, experts say. Self-service departments are seeing new signage trends, they said.
"In self-service meat departments, signage should not only have the cut identified, the signage should indicate what the cut can be used for, the best method for preparation and a usage suggestion," said Joyce Mallonee, principal at Mallonee & Associates, a Lafayette, Calif.-based marketing and merchandising firm specializing in the food industry.
Penhollow cited fish and value-added products as two categories that demand good signage. "You have to tell customers what to do with the item when they take it home. You have to explain how to prepare it. The more information a customer has, the better choices they can make."
ShopRite's Hirt agreed, adding, "There are many different varieties of fish available in the case on any given day. A description of eating style, flavor profile and cooking instructions can usually help consumers try a species they may not have experience with."
Produce is another area where signage increasingly plays a key selling role. Global, year-round sourcing has created a department where the proliferation of products from around the world can easily confuse the consumer. As a result, there is a keen awareness on the part of retailers to develop signage capable of instantly educating customers, right in the aisle.
Holiday Market picks produce at the terminal market on a daily basis, and the retailer uses signage to tell consumers the produce manager has personally tasted the offerings. Here, descriptors such as "extra sweet," "sweet as my daughter" and "Kandy" are often used to reassure customers as to the quality of flavor. Cooking tips and usage suggestions are also included.
Signage not only serves as a suggestion, it can afford sharp-eyed managers a primary cross-merchandising opportunity, retailers said. For example, during a recent flu season, Andronico's, Albany, Calif., built a display with apples and oranges on one side under a sign reading "Prevention." Canned soups, cold medicines and tissues were displayed on the other, under a sign reading "Cure."