Due to the barrage of new products that have recently come to market, going to a grocery store can be overwhelming, as shoppers turn into tourists, craning their necks to look up and around.
Bill Bishop, a principal in Willard Bishop Consulting, Barrington, Ill., says, in general, supermarket signage is inadequate to its task of drawing customers into Center Store. "The need is absolutely critical," he told SN. "And there's another component: if people don't know what's in the store, then it will certainly reduce the likelihood that they will go to the store and get it.
"There is tremendous pressure on the consumer. One of the reasons that sampling has the effect it does, is that it demonstrates what the store carries. We realized the nice selection of all-natural frozen entrees and snacks in a Jewel in Chicago, over the weekend. We bought four items as a result."
Part of the challenge has to do with getting people in the aisles, but once shoppers are there, retailers have to ask if the sections are always as shopable as they might be. Are the sections really set the way the people shop the stores?
Some food retailers sign their specialty sections well, such as Wegmans' Natural Marketplace and Shaw's Wild Harvest stores-within-a store. But take cereal, for example, "and think about setting it by adult, kids, hot, cold; as opposed to brand-lock," commented Bishop. "The signs to a certain extent help when the store is organized in such a way so that the sign can communicate thinking and logic. I think Safeway has done a good job. But it's costing us, because consumers can't always find the wonderful cornucopeia that is there."
A Safeway unit in Missoula, Mont., has end caps with signs that are about 1foot by 3 feet wide, in reusable plastic or cardboard. Slugged with titles like Thirst Quenchers, Snack Time, Breakfast Time, the end caps are done in red and white, white lettering on red background. On its aisles, Safeway includes double hangers, with the traditional 3 and 3, but it comes out in a triangle so it can be read from both sides. Lunch and Dinner are also adorned with red and white, as are Bake Time, Breakfast and Frozen Choices, but the coloring changes to plum and white for Snack Time.
Baby Care, Personal Care, Home Care, Pet Care and Party Print Paper signage is all in teal and white. And, the store diagram is color coded to match up with the colors of those particular signs.
The best approach, Bishop said, is the one that Safeway is using, where they actually define the aisle in terms of its occasion -- for instance, breakfast, household needs, bake time and baby care. Each one of the aisles is defined and reorganized so shoppers can use it as a reference point, given the occasion and the use.
Tidyman's, based in Green Acres, Wash., uses bigger signs for its destination categories, such as pets and baby care, and some stores use street names of the community in which the store is located, as well, just to add that 'we know our community' message.
Some newer signage innovations include signs on the floors, like Iams recently instituted by setting down paw prints leading to pet food. "It's much easier to look down than to look up," especially when pushing a cart, he added.
Electronic shelf labels, and talking signs, such as mooing and clucking in the dairy aisle, which is done by Tops Friendly Markets, Williamsville, N.Y., is considered to be attention-getting. Some customers find it entertaining, especially those with children, but others feel slightly annoyed. Sound effects can work both ways, backfiring by annoying some people, not only shoppers but also store employees, since they are forced to listen to it for an entire shift.
SN recently observed some confusion arising from thunderstorm sound effects associated with produce misters in a D'Agostino's store, with rumbling "thunder" and flashing white strobe "lightening." When they heard the "thunder," several shoppers looked toward the windows to see if it was raining.
Arctic winds howl, but gently, in the frozen food aisle of Andronico's newest store in Danville, Calif. Kellogg's just introduced three new kids' cereals for Halloween, which come in shipper displays that emit a spooky wailing sound. And Michael Angelo's frozen Italian foods are thinking of setting a 15-second chip a quarter of an inch thick, the size of a watch face, into the freezer doors so "it plays our spot" when a customer opens the door, said Randy Harmon, director of marketing for the Austin, Tex.,-based manufacturer.
Brian Riesenburger, general manager of Fairway Markets in New York City, said both Fairway stores use a graphics department in each store to create all of its in-store signs. Typically the signs look handwritten, as they used to be. "Now it's all done on the computer," Riesenburger said. Each sign tells a story about the product, where it came from, how much it is, and adds suggestions for use.
"We have a lot of new stuff coming in that we've imported from Europe, a lot of interesting new oils and vinegars that nobody else has, like apple cider balsamic vinegar and saba, which is something like a balsamic vinegar but with a lot more uses." The sign itself was pretty long, longer than most signs. It said the saba is "Imported from Italy, the ancient elixir from LeMarche, made from slow cooked trebbiano grape must, deep, dark and complex, brilliant." It went on to suggest using the product to braise onions, endive, lamb shanks, medallions of pork [giving the customer an idea, and also promoting other departments in the store]. Below the sign were five or six different recipes showing how the customer could use the product, and the price is always written big and bold. Often the signs tell customers how excited the managers are to have obtained that product, an attempt to build excitement among shoppers.
Riesenburger likes the signs. "I think they are extremely successful, enlighening people with knowlege, showing where it is, and it becomes a conversation piece itself. Walking the store, you hear a lot of people commenting on them and are very impressed with them." Most of the signs are written by Steve Jenkins, Fairway's cheese expert and a manager.
For Fairway, the advantage of an in-house department is speed. "We can get a sign within five or 10 minutes, if something comes in, or you have a special or you want to feature something for the weekend. You're never sure when the stuff is going to arrive. If it gets in on Friday afternoon, you don't have to wait until Monday morning for the sign." Urban stores have an additional problem: limited space.
Fred Van Roie, director of grocery for the D'Agostino's chain, based in Larchmont, N.Y., in describing the 22-store chain's plain black-and-white style aisle and other signs, said "We are the epitome of the classic shelf tag, and the 8-and-a-half-by-11 sign. We are so restricted by the size of the stores -- -there is no room in the aisles. A ShopRite or a big A&P, they have six or seven facings of everything, while I have one or two at most. What we do nicely, we flag automatically on the shelf labels, the organic items, the sale items, the private label.
"What's smart about these, it looks like the whole store's on sale, when half of them are just informational signs. The busy-ness look is to show we are active. Construction goes along with design of the store. As a company we have chosen to have very clear and very classic looking aisle design. It depends on the store, and the location."
Of course, not even the finest signage does its job if many customers can't read the language the sign is in, noted Dan Smith, vice president of PWNC, llc, Mebane, N.C.- based chain of three Piggly Wiggly stores in textile mill communities. "They're real meat-and-potatoes stores," he said, with the one located in Haw River having about a 30% Hispanic base, most coming from Mexico and trying to assimilate into the U.S. culture. Spanish-speaking people will be the largest ethnic group in the U.S. before long, Smith said, so many food retailers are already providing signs in Spanish.
"If a third of your customers can't read your sign, it's a problem," Smith said. An employee who is Hispanic is helping not only with the translation, but also the customs of where the sign should be and what it should say.
"All of our stores have signage in both English and Spanish, and we are working on getting a store map out and translating a copy of our ad, but as a list, This Week's Ad, in Spanish, in the Haw River store.
"Fleming supplies us, and is sending us its version of a Hispanic section, which we are tuning up quite a bit," Smith added. Otherwise, he said, the stores use Piggly Wiggly's newest format and latest color schemes, in a "kind of tan, with a highlight color in between wine red, the color of a good cabernet."