How to build a retail shop on a DIY budget #2 (Part 1) "Signs Signs Everywhere Signs"

Before I decided to add “retail space” to my “work studio/office/fulfillment center/warehouse” I had figured I would be going real bare bones on the whole build out of my place. And to be honest, even after I decided to add the retail component, I still figured I would go bare bones. This was partially a function of cost, and partially a function of our brand being a sort of down home / do it yourself type of brand. But I began to think that there was a much deeper, less brave, reason for me to “keep it simple” and to not put “everything” into it …what if I really TRIED …and it didn’t work?

As I mentioned in the last post, I know nothing about running a retail space. And its nice to have the safety net of, “its really just my warehouse/office…” . It’s one thing to run my operation from the back and fulfill orders to wholesale accounts. But it’s another thing to invite the public into the store and not know if anyone will actually come. Let alone like the stuff. Its like throwing the highschool party and hoping people will show up, but doing it without the lure of beer and the promise that that one cute girl or boy they like is also going to be there.

And if the retail space is the party, the sign on the front of the building is the invitation.

I committed to the retail space for the singular reason that it would have been dumb, not to include it. And once I committed to the retail space I committed to having a sign out front. And as soon as I decided to put a sign up, I immediately knew what I wanted that sign to be. I was really lucky in that regard. To be honest there was only one thing it really could be. I had a great logo that I had worked really hard to create with a graphic designer over the course of a couple weeks. Fortunately we had decided to make it a simple black on white logo so as not to compete with the variety of colors and designs of the bowties and other products I was making. And the logo fit very nicely into an almost perfectly square rectangle that was just slightly wider than it was tall. The image of my new sign as a black logo (about 5’ tall and slightly wider than 5’ wide) on a white background all with a black border around it, just seemed to make sense. It was (in my mind) objectively the “right” sign. I wanted the sign to stick off the wall about 6” with the black border that was around the Logo on the white rectangle also acting as a black border around the sides bottom and top of the sign itself. Did I lose you as I described that? If so, then you are in the same boat as the 5 sign companies that I tried to describe this to over the phone.

My description to them was... a sign on a flat printed piece of material, didn’t really care what that material was as long as it was sturdy and wasn’t too expensive. It should be about 5’ high but it could be as small as 3 ½ feet if that made it significantly cheaper. It should be the black logo on white, and then I wanted the black border all the way around it. I didn’t care what material the border was made of as long as it wasn’t too expensive. You might be recognizing the theme of how much I didn’t want to spend much on this and was eager to cut corners if it would save me some cash.

To be honest, I had made a couple of small 2’ table top signs to use at our farmers markets just weeks prior. I used the same company (North Shore Printery in PB) that prints our look books to make these. I had asked Carolina (from North Shore) if they made exterior signs for businesses. She said that wasn’t really their specialty. But for my table top signs she had recommended a white PVC and said they could print a little black version of the logo on it and that if we were using it at an outdoor market and it rained, that the PVC was extra sturdy and would stand up to the wet. Each of these 2’ signs cost me roughly $45. In my mind I thought, couldn’t we just make a bigger version of that and slap it up on the front of the building? Clearly I am not a professional sign maker. Though after I started getting quotes I thought maybe I should become one.

Sign companies are extremely reluctant to give you a quote over the phone. Part of me understands this reluctance, but a part of me thinks… if I give you the general dimensions, colors and a description, and if you (the sign company) price and make signs each and every day as your profession, shouldn’t we be able to get in the ballpark pretty immediately?

What they are not reluctant to do is make sure that you know about the permit process if you want a “Lit Sign”. ie a sign that lights up. If it lights up then they need you to get a permit before they start the job. Or they can get the permit for you for a fee.  That all made sense to me, but it was delivered in a way (by multiple companies) that made me feel like something sketchy was happening. Like I was being winked at as they said it. But it didn’t matter since I did not want a lit sign. I just wanted the name of my company to be on the front of the building.

As I mentioned before, describing the border that I wanted around the sign seemed to be the trickiest thing to communicate to the companies I spoke with. Eventually I had a company agree to come out, listen to my idea and give me a free quote. Once we were able to meet in person and point and grumble and scribble terrible drawings on note pads, Dave (sign guy, not his real name) tells me that the border I am describing is called a “return”, meaning that the edge of the sign returns straight back to the wall. Essentially meaning you can’t look behind the sign because there is material on the sides, bottom and top.

Dave told me they would get back to me within 5 days with a quote. This seemed like a really long time to put a quote together. But I am not a sign maker so what do I know.

The good news was, now that I was armed with the term “return” it was far easier for me to communicate what I wanted over the phone to other sign companies. I even got 1 of the company to give me a “very rough estimate” right over the phone!!  The bad news was the quote.

5 Grand.

No Joke.

I was baffled. I immediately realized that I hadn’t done as good a job of communicating the idea as I thought I’d done. They were very clearly thinking about something completely different than the thing that I was thinking of. After getting similar quotes from other companies on other phone calls, I figured the only recourse was to wait for the quote from Dave, with whom I had spent real in-person time. I knew that Dave knew exactly what I wanted and understood how cost conscious I was, how willing I was to cut the bells and whistles, and how truly simple the requested  unlit design was. I waited. On day six I called them to check in.

Them - “Hey Dave did you end up drawing up that Bowtie Guy’s sign?”

             “(inaudible mumbles)”

              (to me)“Was that going to be a lit sign?”

Me –  “Nope. Just the sign. No lighting.

Them – “OK cuz if you want it lit you’ve gotta get a permit before we can start, but we can get it for you” (wink)

Me –   “Right. Nope not lit”

Them – “Dave. Its unlit”

              “(inaudible mumbles)”

              “Ya he says it’ll probably be around 5 Grand”

Wow. And also…absolutely not. Not when all I wanted was for my 2’ ($45) sign to be blown up to a larger version,  add a “return”. Why couldn’t I just make that little sign bigger? No really. Why couldn’t I?

We'll Find out why not in part 2 of this Blog Post...