Skip to main content

Five ways to improve your in-store signage

Creating in-store signage that's both helpful and stylish is an art.

Sung to the tune of "Signs," by the Five Man Electrical Band: "Sign, Sign, everywhere a sign–a special price on broccoli, soup in Aisle 9.”

In-store signage plays a vital part in the overall shopper experience. According to U.S.-based Point of Purchase Advertising International, the number of shoppers making in-store decisions has climbed to 75%, from 70% in 1995.

Not only is signage an important tool for navigation and deal alerts, it’s also an expression of your store’s brand.

“If what you’re putting on the wall or the shelves has a different look than the rest of your brand, it could look like somebody’s come and slapped it up,” says Murray Stranks, business director at Toronto-based Perennial Design, which has worked with Loblaw.

With that in mind, Canadian Grocer asked signage experts for best sign practices.


To be effective, your signs need to be visible. Stranks calls the first 10
to 20 feet of a store the “decompression zone” where shoppers orient themselves to a space. One of the first things customers do upon entering a store is look high– above the light fixtures– for signage that provides navigational cues. These signs should be well lit, not placed in shadow or blocked by architectural features such as columns.

Wherever a person is standing in a store, says Stranks, her primary field of vision is 45 degrees up or down from eye level to a distance of about five feet. For shelf signage, Stranks says that signs placed less than two feet from the floor can be difficult, if not impossible, to read.


Stranks says illumination is typically one of the last things retailers consider, leading to poorly lit signs. As a general rule, lighting for your signs should be double or triple that of your store’s ambient light level. Using the industry standard unit of illumination, foot-candles (fc), Stranks suggests if your ambient lighting is 50 fc, for example, that signs be lit at 100, or even 200, fc. Light can be targeted through the use of floodlights or spotlights.


Horace Hume, senior vice-president and design director with retail store design firm Miller Zell, says colour plays a big role in the retail experience, from establishing customers’ moods to assisting with in-store navigation.

Brand colour (e.g., Walmart blue) should take precedence in store signage, says Hume, but grocers can use additional colours for navigation and to alert shoppers to things such as discounts and sales.

“If you have a store that’s a sea of blue, it’s very confusing for a customer to understand what’s directional and what’s product,” he says.

Hume notes some colours have specific purposes: yellow and red can be used to create a sense of urgency among shoppers, while blue suggests security. Black, meanwhile, is typically associated with luxury and prestige.

Miller Zell client Walmart, for example, uses black in its smaller Walmart Neighborhood Market stores in the U.S.

“They’re trying to make it a little more sophisticated and less discount- store oriented,” says Hume. Black also has the benefit of working in harmony with all other colours, says Hume. “It disappears when you need it to, and it’s very visible when you layer in white or a bright colour.”


Sheri Pearson, vice-president of retail insights and strategy for purchase design agency Hunter Straker, in Toronto, says it’s important for in- store signage to maintain a consistent look and feel, both for aesthetic and practical purposes.

“Your eye is quickly trained to look for like items, and if you can create consistency, it reduces over- all clutter in-store,” she says.

Pearson also suggests that retailers avoid using cursive. Not only is it difficult to read at distances beyond two-and-a- half feet, she says, but it can feel archaic (particularly among younger Canadians who haven’t grown up learning how to write cursive in school).

Funky fonts are also on Pearson’s list of don’ts.

“If it’s hard to read, don’t use it,” she says. “Shoppers will not put the effort in to decode hard-to-read fonts and will instead ignore and move on,” she says.


Boring and bland does not make for good in-store signage, says Sheri Pearson of Hunter Straker. While showing some personality is a good thing, it shouldn’t come at the cost of shopper comprehension. Pearson says shoppers need to understand a sign in three seconds or less. “If there is any room for confusion, don’t do it,” she says.

You can also communicate information quickly via lifestyle imagery complemented by a snappy headline. Shoppers process images before text, so the key is to communicate your message with a visual representation, then drive home your key point–“Sale,” “Great deal,” “Like these? Try this”–in five words or less. At a time when tweets and emoticons are used in everyday communication, it’s best to keep signs short and snappy.

There is a current trend towards the chalkboard look in grocery retail signage. Pearson says it contributes to a feeling of artisan, handmade and local–all traits that are highly valued by millennial consumers. “If handmade is the feeling you want to convey, then signage treatments that nod to that attribute is a good strategy,” she says.

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds