At one time a sign appeared in the window of New York’s famed Astor Place Haircutters that read: “Anyone claiming to have worked for Astor Hair was fired by us for incompetence.” Owner Enrico Vezza said stylists were falsely claiming to have worked for the ultra-hip East Village establishment, and that his sign let everyone knew that his place was the one and only place to get the ultra-hip haircuts for which the salon is known. In Vezza’s neighborhood, such a sign is hardly a negative. It’s an attention-getter — along with the hundreds of Polaroid photos of clients displayed in  the salon, which only underscore the hectic atmosphere that his customers have come to anticipate and enjoy. The point: When it comes to signs, you’d better know what works for you. Signs can attract passers-by, increase sale’s, and even attract new staff members if you knew how to use them and not abuse them.

How you use signs all depends on your business,” says Ira Bloom, who owns the newly franchised Nails Now! chain in Dallas, Texas. “If they’re unique, attractive, and get your message across, they’re important to your business. If they look cheesy or overdone, they’re a detriment. We use customized neon signs in the window that are coordinated in our trademark colors of shrimp and teal. We use simple signs to tell a story,” says Bloom.

“We do post prices in the window because; we’re a discount operation,” he continues. “We have the lowest prices in town, so it’s in our favor to post prices. But we’re getting away from that now. Our new signs emphasize our dedication to sanitation. They let customers know that we always get 100% on board inspections, or that we’re number one in the U.S., or that we were voted ‘Best in Dallas.’ We also display our inspection reports in the window; we’re proud of our sanitation practices.”

Look Through Any Window

Bloom’s approach to signage brings up several important points. The first: Your primary signs should be attractive and tell everyone what type of business you are.

“Signage is just one aspect of merchandising that establishes identity,” notes salon consultant and educator Michael Cole. “The biggest error I’ve seen relates to salons that use a person’s name, like ‘Michael’s.’ Your ego says everyone knows you, but that type of sign doesn’t say what Michael’s is. It should say Michaels for Hair, Skin, and Nails. Mentioning one to five profit centers is a way of idiot-proofing your sign. Now, it says who you are and what you do.”

Point two: Whether or not you post prices depends on your marketing stance and your competition. In many areas, clients want to see prices. However, if you’re upscale, don’t want price-shoppers, or do not have the lowest prices in town, posting prices in the window could backfire.

“We post our hours and the type of business we are,” says Robert Russo of Robert Russo’s Total Look Nail and Body Spa in Newton Centre, Mass. “I don’t like to post prices in the window because there are too many variables in this business. Sometimes, the time a service takes and the degree of difficulty determine the price. It’s better to get people to walk in and see the operation first. Then, they’ll see that tire price is worth it.”

Russo does use window signs to list his services and his specials; he found a unique and attractive way to do this.

“There’s a computer process that creates letters you can stick right on the window,” he explains. “It really dresses it up. Depending on how much you want to say, it costs from $60 to $200. You shouldn’t use anything cheap-looking or handmade.”

The best part, of course, is that the stick-on letters do not block the view into the salon, so passers-by can still see the action inside.

“Potential clients should definitely be able to see in the salon when they walk past,” notes Karren Hiatt, owner of #1 Nailhouse in Murray, Utah. “We have windows that go all the way around the salon and we use just one 4- by 5-foot sign at the side of the door. You want everyone to be able to see activity inside. The sign is to list our specials. It should be straight-forward and communicate quickly, stating what the special is and the price. Our regular price list is posted inside, close to the desk.”

What’s New, What’s On Special

The most common use of window signs is to announce new staff members, to let everyone know there is a job opening, and to list specials. In Madison, Wis., Mona Winograd’s most effective window sign at Dyanna — A Personal Place announces her $24 manicure-and-pedicure winter special. In Coral Springs, Fla., John Grandinetti of Nail Express salons learned the value of listing specials by accident. While his wife, Kim, owns the salons, he attends to business matters. One day, he stopped by the Plantation, Fla., location and saw a chalkboard in the window with the day’s specials written out.

“I said, ‘What’s this?’ and the manager, Tracy, told me it was an idea she had,” he recalls. “I told her it was ugly and stupid because I didn’t think it looked attractive, but I decided to leave it. That Friday we sold more full sets than we ever had before. We had a 10%-15% increase, which is a lot when you’re doing 800 clients a week.”

Now, all Nail Express salons use daily special boards, denoting Tuesday as “Toe Tuesday,” Wednesday as “Waxing Wednesday,” and Friday as “Full-set Friday” Grandinetti, whose initial reaction is explained by the fact that he owns a typesetting company and is accustomed to neat, professional signs, knows now that handwritten signs sometimes work. But, in general, handwritten signs should be avoided. It worked in this instance because the vehicle, a chalkboard, naturally lends itself to handwriting and attracts attention on its own.

While Grandinetti once assumed that professionally printed was always best, Joanne Engerman, who owns Personal Touch in Tualatin, Ore., made a different sort of assumption. With a salon in a strip mall, she always figured that clients knew they could walk in. Guess what?

“I was getting about four to five, walk-ins a week,” she says. “I always thought people knew it was okay to come in, but if you’re a small, independent business or your salon looks upscale, customers don’t assume they can walk right in without an appointment. I got a $50 banner that says, ‘Walk-ins welcome,’ and in the first week I had 35 walk-ins. I’ve had it up for two months and just yesterday alone, I got 12 walk-ins. It has had a huge impact on my business.”

Some salons use signs to introduce new staff members. However, a sign that says, “Karen has now joined us” doesn’t tell anyone much about Karen or why a customer would want to see her. A mini-bio or newspaper clipping about Karen’s work (if you have one) is more effective. One exception to this rule is to use humor and neighborhood familiarity to announce a new staff member. For example, across the street from “Two Kims” grocery store in Brooklyn was a salon sign that read: “Now we have a Kim, too.” It got lots of attention, but still might have drawn more people inside if it had said something about Kim and her skills.

Provide Answers Or Prompt Questions

Inside the salon, the rules of sign usage are the same as they are for windows: They should be neat and attractive and never over-used or clichéd. They should also communicate your message quickly. Color-coordination is nice but not necessary if you’re on a budget. A black and white sign can be as effective as a more expensive color one if the message is one your customers want to receive.

The most popular uses of in-salon signs are to list prices, draw attention to special services or retail items, and encourage clients to ask about services.

Engerman uses small “Product of the Month” and “Try Me” signs near special mini-retail displays; mini signs at her hair stations read, “Ask me how to get a bee haircut.”

“They help open the conversation about our referral system,” says Engerman. “Sometimes the stylists are too shy to tell clients they can get a free cut for referring two new clients.”

“Ask Me” signs can also be used to cross-sell or introduce a new service when posted at manicure stations or the reception desk, A local print shop or typesetter can create professional-looking signs inexpensively; Hiatt paid just $17 for her 4-by 5-foot window sign.

“We keep signs inside the salon simple and minimal,” says Winograd. “You shouldn’t use too many signs. They’re great outside to get walk-ins for your specials. Inside, we use them to list prices and promote retail items on sale. That’s it.”

“Black and white can be okay; we decide to use the salon’s colors depending on the seriousness of the message,” adds Russo. “If a sign announces a price increase, we have it made professionally and color-coordinate it with the salon colors. Fun signs don’t have to be coordinated with the salon colors. For example, we used a big red stop sign to get people to fill out a contest entry form. When the intent is for something fun or unique, a sign doesn’t have to perfectly fit in with the decor; it should grab attention.”

Be Positive and Always Professional

Bloom says that a small salon in which everyone knows each other can post birthdays of staff members and such personal information, but that upscale businesses should avoid this approach. “It all depends on your business,” he says.

Whatever you post, make it positive. One salon owner said she has a sign that reads, “No children allowed without their own appointment. They interrupt our patrons and the technicians.”

“You should avoid negatives at all times,” notes Bloom. “It would be better to say something like, ‘We love children. However, because there are chemicals in the salon, please do not let your children wander around.’ The idea is that you’re looking out to protect the children.”

Many salons post guarantees of service, but when it comes to inviting complaints, keep in mind that you may get what you ask for.

“We use a sign that encourages customers who are not happy with an employee to try anyone else in the salon without feeling bad,” says Grandinetti. “But for any problem they can’t resolve, we list an 800 phone number. Customers are more likely to be honest over the phone.”

Perhaps the biggest question about “personal” handmade signs is about the sign itself, not what it says. Should you ever design a personalized sign just because someone in the salon thinks they have artistic talent? You will save money, but unless the person is genuinely talented, you should pay for a professional’s services.

One of Engerman’s staff members did create a “botanical-look” sign, complete with a colorful jungle border, to let clients know there was a refill bar in the salon. She used high-grade construction paper and felt-tip pens, and she definitely has talent. Emgerman also uses a local painter to create cartoons of “bad hair days,” which she puts in her window.

What’s Your Sign?

In Grandinetti’s $65,000, color-coordinated salon, an out-of-place, handmade sign could spell disaster. For an eclectic salon in New York’s East Village, it would become part of the atmosphere that customers expect — and appreciate. In other words, the first rule of signage is to determine what type of signs make the most sense for your decor and your market position. Then, keep it simple, say what you mean, and, in most cases, pay for signs that look neat and professional. This way, how you say something will never detract from what you say. The medium may be part of the message, but it’s the actual message that should get all the attention.

Stop! Read! Reap The Rewards!

Signs should command attention, sell, and inform. These ideas on using signs in integrated window displays from educator and consultant Maggie McCain Davis, of 3MD Associates International in Minneapolis, Minn., will help you create signs that do more than talk. They’ll invite customers in and urge them to act.

Window signs should:

  • Draw people into your salon with a message. What do your windows say? Is the message to buy clear or is it confusing? If you were walking past someone else’s salon, would the same sign entice you to walk in and find out more?
  • Focus on a theme. Too much clutter is confusing; stick to a single theme per window. Several ideas presented at once can actually create anxiety.
  • Cross-promote products and services. Signs are a powerful way to educate your community about the image of your business, products, and services.
  • Be changed frequently. Change signs at least every six to eight weeks. People get bored easily and if they see the same thing over and over, it becomes part of the expected scenery, not something new and interesting.
  • Be created professionally. It’s easy and inexpensive to obtain signs from local print shops, sign shops, and art schools. Even your computer can create signs with the right software.

Window signs should not:

  • Be expected to do all the work. Signs alone are 68% less effective than signs supported by product displays. Use attention-grabbing, integrated displays in your windows to draw people into your salon. The test? Can you walk by quickly and still get the message?
  • Be squeezed in among clutter. Eliminate faded posters, smudged windows, dusty props, and outdated decals that say you haven’t changed since 1973. Your business is about current fashion and beauty, and your signs should say so.
  • Be situated at the bottom of your windows. People read with their eyes, not their knees. Position signs that appear within displays at or near eye level. For creative ideas on strategic placement, check out shops in your local mall.
  • Cover up the action. If your windows face walk-by traffic, leave plenty of space for people to see what’s going on inside your business. You’re more likely to get walk-ins.
  • Be underestimated for their effectiveness. Today’s consumers are very knowledgeable about products and services; they also love to make informed choices. If your signs capture their attention, educate them, and offer them something that will improve the quality of their life, they won’t be able to resist!

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