You Are Here: Why PSPs Should Get into Retail Wayfinding
Unlike bold in-store promotional signage designed to stop shoppers in their tracks, retail wayfinding signage is created to keep shoppers moving. It’s more subtle.
Retail wayfinding signs and displays help customers get oriented when they first enter a store, shopping center, or mall. Then, the signs guide them to the store or type of merchandise they seek. The overall signage system should be so simple and clear that shoppers don’t have to give it much thought or stop to ask someone for directions.
Retail wayfinding projects differ from wayfinding projects in hospitals, universities, and airports. That’s because store layouts are strategically customized to the psychology, buying habits, and demographics of each store’s customer base.
Print service providers (PSPs) who want to produce retail wayfinding signage should familiarize themselves with some of the basic design objectives and trends.
Store Layouts, Zones, and Sightlines
The type and amount of wayfinding signage required is dictated by the layout, size, and amount of merchandise displayed in the store.
→ Store layouts use strategic combinations of fixtures, temporary and permanent displays, and signs to guide customers through the merchandise areas of the store and finally to the checkout area. The layouts are based on the observed behaviors of the store’s target customers, as well as the range of products available for sale. A well-thought-out layout and store design prompts customers to make impulse purchases along with the items they came to buy.
Types of layouts include: the loop/racetrack, grid, straight/spine, free-flow, and forced-path. Each type of layout has strengths and weaknesses. For example, the loop/racetrack layout guides shoppers past all merchandise in the store. It works for customers shopping for multiple items but can frustrate shoppers who just want to get in, find what they need, and get out.
Big-box stores and home improvement stores use grid layouts, in which long aisles of high shelves display lots of merchandise. In contrast, experiential stores have fewer products on display, so they can use a free-flow layout that allows shoppers to wander and explore productions
on their own.
→ Zones within the store layout are defined partly by foot traffic patterns. The decompression zone at the store’s entrance gives consumers enough space to transition from the exterior to the interior without feeling rushed or crowded.
High-traffic zones are the main paths customers travel to find the most frequently purchased products. Low-demand zones contain products that shoppers don’t frequently buy. To trigger impulse purchases, wayfinding signage will guide customers through the low-demand zones to reach the high-demand zones.
Idling zones are where customers wait in line to check out or make returns.
→ Sightlines are the paths shoppers’ eyes follow as they walk through the merchandise. Clear sightlines are particularly important for hanging signs. The signs should be displayed high enough to be readable from a variety of locations and viewing angles within the store.
Types of Wayfinding Signage
Although wayfinding signs should be simple and direct, that doesn’t mean
the design is dull. Signs should match the store’s branding without competing for attention with other signs.
PSPs can suggest signage that can best help the store designer meet the goals of their wayfinding projects. Some signs will be designed for permanent installation and should be easy to maintain. Other signs will be updated periodically. Plus, a designer may require similar signs to be produced in different sizes for different-sized stores at different locations.
→ Outdoor signs guide shoppers to stores in a shopping center or parking-lot locations where they can pick up online orders or return shopping carts. Big stores such as Walmart Supercenters use outdoor wayfinding signs to show which exterior doors take shoppers directly into supermarket, garden center, or pharmacy portions of the store.
→ Entryway signs and displays welcome visitors to the store, help them get oriented, and direct them to special events or seasonal merchandise.
→ Hanging aisle signs indicate the major product categories featured in an aisle or department. They should be consistent with the store’s brand, and treated as part of the store’s décor.
→ Aisle signs attached to the shelves or display cases can flag the location of specific categories of products such as potatoes, dishwashing products, or dog food.
→ Wall graphics applied to the upper sections of the store’s interior perimeter walls give shoppers visual clues about where to find product categories such as auto parts, pet supplies, or health and beauty products.
→ Exterior wall graphics in the parking garages for mixed-use facilities can guide drivers to the parking spaces nearest to the elevators for the apartments, retail shops, and salons contained in the building.
→ Display headers help store visitors quickly find free-standing displays of specialized products such as nuts, cheeses, and breads.
→ Landmark displays are specialty facades and themed elements that serve as focal points as shoppers wander through a store. They may signal to shoppers that they have entered the meat department, the bakery section, the in-store health clinic, or customer-service area. Landmark displays in an aisle may be higher than surrounding store elements, and feature brighter colors or dramatic lighting.
→ Elevator, escalator, or stairway signage helps store visitors see what type of merchandise is available on the current floor or the next floor.
→ Exit signs and safety signs provide simple instructions for exiting the building or reacting to an emergency.
→ Floor graphics and sidewalk graphics can lead visitors to specific entrances or exits, or to in-store events.
→ Interactive digital directories enable customers in malls, outdoor shopping centers, and urban department stores to see where their desired stores or services are located.
→ Product mapping apps enable frequent shoppers to use their smartphones to guide them on the most efficient route in a big store to find every product on their shopping lists.
Design and Production Tips
PSPs and retail display fabricators often post useful tips for designers and users of wayfinding signage. Here are just a few tips collected from blog posts published by Vomela, Husky Signs, Endpoint, King Retail Solutions. and other sources.
Keep the text readable, simple, and direct. Customers who enter a store to buy a specific product just want to find what they want and check out. People shopping for pleasure want to control their own experiences by locating the sections that most interest them.
Use similar branding on wayfinding signage and graphics in online stores. Visiting the website should feel like visiting the store and vice versa. Colors, fonts, and music should be consistent and aligned with the aesthetics and ideas of the brand.
Likewise, the wayfinding sign in one store location should resemble the wayfinding signs of stores in other cities.
Some consumers use wayfinding apps on their smartphones to help them find what they need when they enter a different location of a store they often shop.
“As more consumers come to depend on grocery shopping apps, it’s vital to integrate the design of physical signs and the digital interface,” says Farrah Potter of King Retail Solutions in Eugene, Oregon. “Not too long ago, these two realms might have shared little more than a logo.”
Conduct retail site surveys to adapt the wayfinding signage to the specific dimensions, site lines, and layouts of each store building. If sign fabricators know the dimensions of each store, they can adjust the signs to fit the space before they are manufactured.
Pay attention to ADA guidelines for aisle signage. Signs can’t interfere with sprinklers or block doors or emergency equipment.
Use large-scale graphics to give shoppers the feeling of being immersed in the environment. For visuals that will be updated, consider ultra-bold soffit murals, projected signs, and printed
Use oversized letters to frame and define service areas, even in stores with small footprints.
Improving the In-Store Experience
Wayfinding signage strategies are continually re-evaluated to meet the changing expectations and shopping habits of new generations of customers.
For example, customers who feel digitally fatigued from staring at a computer all day welcome the opportunity to visit stores and retail complexes that offer novel experiences or pleasing environments.
Grocery store shoppers who are trying to control costs through at-home cooking and meal planning may prefer not to risk coming home with a lot of impulse purchases. So they convert their shopping list into an online order and look for signs that direct them to the pick-up points for same-day delivery.
Retail wayfinding signage also directs customers to locations within the store that offer specialty services such as printer recycling, COVID and flu shots, and product exchanges and refunds.
As consumer buying habits and preferences evolve, retail store designers are experimenting with different layouts and designs.
In 2022, Best Buy converted 40 traditional big-box style layouts into a “digital first” experiential concept that helps shoppers learn about and use the electronics they may have researched online. Instead of stocking products on the shelves, shoppers touch and try products at interactive displays, then scan a QR code on the product price tag to have the item delivered from the backroom to the cash register for pick-up. Pickup lockers outside of the store are available for 24/7 pickup of items ordered online.
While Target has opened smaller-format stores in city centers, the company has also developed stores that are 20,000 sq. ft. larger than the traditional stores. The larger stores will offer an even wider merchandise assortment and more backroom fulfillment space for same-day delivery on online orders.
Changes in Malls and Shopping Centers
Enclosed malls were originally built to enable suburban shoppers to find a mix of big department stores and small retail stores within a single, enclosed facility. Some shut-down mall stores have been replaced with temporary pop-up stores or permanent facilities such as Planet Fitness gyms or specialty medical clinics that attract a steady stream of visitors who might visit stores afterward.
Shoppers who don’t want to visit multiple stores in a shopping center like the convenience of smaller stores within a larger store. For example, Sephora boutiques can be found in dozens of JCPenney stores, and Ulta Beauty shops have been opened in some Target stores. These mini-stores use their own branding to help shoppers find them within the bigger store.
With so many changes underway in retailing, the need for wayfinding signage will continue to evolve.
“Experiential retail will continue to require creative interiors and frequent refreshes,” Potter says. “Even ultra-discount stores can’t afford to deliver an experience that feeds consumers’ anxiety that things are in decline.”
If your shop offers retail wayfinding signage, it’s helpful to follow trends and concerns within the specific categories of retailers you serve.
Eileen Fritsch is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist who has covered the evolution of wide-format digital printing for more than 20 years. Contact her at email@example.com.