Exterior Signage: Pitfalls to Avoid on the Outside

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Exterior Signage: Pitfalls to Avoid on the Outside

By Robert Laurencelle, Signage US - 05/10/2011

After years of cost cutting, retailers have unwittingly created a dangerous climate for buying external signage. Cutting corners is more common than you'd think, as retailers have routinely pitted exterior signage vendors against each other to win low-bid contracts, buy then failed to check if they got what they paid for from them.

While electrically powered, external signage may look fine on the outside, subtle shortcuts can pose a fire risk, increase liability, hurt brand image and cost much more in maintenance and installation.

Here are some tips on how retailers can protect themselves from the hidden safety, liability, and maintenance risk of low-bid exterior signage.

Spotting the Culprit
In today's price-driven market, many sign vendors are outsourcing parts manufacture to Mexico and other locations where there is little quality control. The result can be products with parts that don't match the specs; don't meet UL requirements; are poorly constructed; and could even be a liability risk for fire or injury. Because the buyer isn't typically aware of how to spot these shortcuts, and isn't routinely inspecting for them, they are not often discovered until it's too late.

Even national retail brands are not immune to the problem on signage. For example, when signage supplied to a major oil company by a national sign company on exclusive contract was inspected, they found numerous shortcuts including the use of thin, reclaimed sheet metal on the sign's back; visible gaps, some larger than one-quarter inch, between sign face and cabinet; and duct tape adhering the sign face to the sign cabinet.

A common tactic of unscrupulous sign vendors is to 'bid and switch,' that is spec a higher grade part in the bid, but substitute a lower grade part later. Failing to meet spec in power supply, electrical components or wiring carries the biggest fire, insurance and liability risk. While it may seem like a remote possibility, having a retail chain's name on signage that's linked to a mall or strip mall fire can carry serious liability and hurt the brand in the eyes of consumers.

Failing to build to local weather conditions, such as for wet, cold winters; dry, hot summers; or excessive humidity is another problem that can accelerate signage failure. Supplying non UL-compliant power components instead of the UL-compliant ones specified can cause problems too.

More blatant signage deception occurs as well, such as bidding on a 122-inch-sign, but delivering a 116-inch one to save on materials.

A subtle but potentially costly problem takes place in the "one-year warranty" of many signage vendors that actually covers just 90 days before parts and labor become the responsibility of the store owner, franchise master dealer, or retail corporate office. Most retailers don't realize that the cost of servicing a relatively small sign can cost nearly as much as the sign itself when it's out of warranty. To safely work on an elevated sign, such as one attached to a building or pylon, can require a crew of two to three with a bucket truck, which can cost up to $1,500 per visit.

Beating the Problem
Retailers looking to beat the problem on exterior signage, including purchasing agents feeling "nickel and dimed" by tacked on costs for basics like painting the sign, can fight back in a number of ways.

One of the easiest ways to get quality signage at a reasonable price is to choose a vendor that offers a multi-year warranty, including parts and labor. That way, if anything goes wrong, the signage is promptly repaired onsite, and the retailer has no out-of-pocket cost.

Kevin Curry, co-owner of Danby Gasoline Marketers Inc., a convenience store/petro retailer and wholesaler based in the Northeast, for instance, has relied on the 3-year parts and labor warranty of his sign vendor.

"We chose a sign vender that has even optimized our exterior signage after the 3-year warranty," said Curry. "The initial price needs to be competitive, and when you consider parts, labor, installation, maintenance, and any extra charges, the total cost of ownership it can be at least 50 percent less expensive than the low-bid vendors of dubious quality out there -- when you choose wisely."

Retailers can also protect themselves from shortcuts in quality with the help of third-party partners, who can help ensure that exterior signage meets all required safety standards and specifications, including installation. They can help with signage contract conception, specification, and inspection. By inspecting a percentage of signage at the retail site, at the manufacturing plant, or by having the signage shipped first to them, for instance, such watchdogs can guard against cheating and serve as a deterrent to dishonest low-bid signage practices.

By creating contractual penalties for signage cheating or missed specifications, retailers can quickly offset the cost of involving a third-party partner. Multiple instances of missed specifications, if not outright cheating, are very common.

"Even if locked into a large multi-vendor contract, you still need an independent third-party partner on your side to protect you from low-bid quality issues," said Curry.

Curry's third-party partner, in fact, has stepped in to improve signage from other vendors on more than one occasion. "Whether it's as simple as putting a gasket inside a sign to better protect it from winter weather, or making it more energy-efficient, dealing with our sign vendor helps to take the risk out of low-bid exterior signage."

Robert Laurencelle is president of Signage US, a third-generation, family-owned signage provider based in Meriden, Conn for over 104 years. For more info, call 203-440-9419; visit www.signageus.com.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.