Signs Speak Up

In-store signage gets bolder and more interactive.
Signage by Shook Kelley and D|Fab. Photos by 2020 Lawrence Anderson.

Signage has long been a “silent sales-person” in retail spaces, assisting with wayfinding, sales promotions and product information. But as today’s stores are in a life-and-death battle with online retailers, signs are being called on to do even more in brick-and-mortar settings. Specifically, traditional print signs are becoming more colorful and information-rich, and digital displays are adding high-resolution video and interactivity to the equation.


The grocery industry has always been notoriously competitive and saddled with excruciatingly narrow margins. Add to that a recent influx of both big-box competitors (such as Target and Walmart) and online rivals such as Amazon Prime Pantry, Blue Apron and Peapod into the field, and it adds up to longevity being no guarantee of ongoing success for traditional grocery stores.

Against that backdrop, the Save Mart (Modesto, CA) chain of supermarkets – which has been in business since 1952 and operates stores under the Save Mart, Lucky California, FoodMaxx and MaxxValue Foods banners/brands – brought in retail design firm Shook Kelley (Los Angeles) to redevelop its flagship brand and make it more relevant to today’s consumers. Signage, in turn, plays a central role in that new ID, which is on display at its new prototype store in Modesto. 

Save Mart recruited retail design firm Shook Kelley (Los Angeles) to revamp its brand.
Save Mart recruited retail design firm Shook Kelley (Los Angeles) to revamp its brand.

After taking a deep dive into the Save Mart brand, Shook Kelley’s team focused on building more meaningful connections between the store’s flag and its origins in the Central Valley of California, one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. Shook Kelley designed all the environmental graphics in the store and had D|Fab (Madison Heights, MI) fabricate that package. “Save Mart has been working with local producers, suppliers and farms for many decades,” said Shook Kelley designer Sabrina Fan. “But outside of its produce displays, the brand was not necessarily building on those relationships as a primary point of differentiation, uniqueness and/or storytelling.” 

To better reflect its strong agricultural roots, the designers began by creating a new logo mark that’s an abstraction of the region’s geography. The new Save Mart logo, with leaves sprouting from the center, signifies the region’s role as a cornucopia of freshness and land of abundance, designers said. 

In addition, to reference local produce stands offering fresh products straight from the source, the designers incorporated a look that’s inspired by hand-painted signage into the logo. “Taken together, the logo now stands for Save Mart’s extraordinary focus on fresh produce, going beyond standard offerings, thanks to the brand’s strong roots and the Central Valley’s agricultural wealth,” Fan said. 

As for the store itself, the Produce Depot tells a story of local agriculture, fresh from Central Valley, by taking such steps as installing corrugated metal to allude to warehouses and the transportation of produce. Signage plays a large role in communicating that message in this part of the store, in the form of a large plant wall made of pallets and large “Local” graphics painted directly on concrete blocks.

Other visual elements in the store include wall photographs of real Central Valley producers, farmers, craftsmen and workers, creating an atmosphere of authentic local community and industry. At the same time, exposed framing and visible concrete blocks throughout the store communicate messages of value and “direct from the source” stories in ways specific to the area. 


Long-established brands like Save Mart are using signage to strengthen their market muscle, and the same holds true for such companies as South Korean cosmetics retailer Innisfree (Seoul), which is seeking to make major inroads into America. In doing so, the retailer is going up against entrenched competitors Maybelline, L’Oréal, Coty and Estée Lauder. Undeterred by those big names, Innisfree is using in-store digital experiences to lure customers through the door.

The retailer first teamed with Louisville, KY-based Creative Realities Inc. (CRI) in late 2018 to update its stores by installing large-scale LED screens showing product-related video at its store on Lexington Avenue in New York City. Based on the positive reception that new look received, the two firms inked a deal to install similar updates at multiple US stores slated for openings through the second quarter of this year. “The Innisfree Lexington store in New York City achieved the impossible, drawing attention away from long-established competitors that are located just steps away – competitors with loyal customer bases,” said Beth Warren, CRI’s senior vice president of experience planning and design. “By using large, bright LED displays to draw in customers and create a center of gravity for storytelling, shoppers are experiencing the brand’s natural-ingredient theme in a way that encourages excitement and sharing on social media.”

Photo courtesy of NanoLumens
Photo courtesy of NanoLumens.

The displays that CRI specified for the work are from NanoLumens, with Warren describing its products as “an ideal fit for the Innisfree retail stores because its LED displays are absolutely not a one-size-fits-all solution. Each store has slightly different space availability, and with these [displays], we are able to specify exact sizes and pixel-pitches unique to each store to achieve a consistent aspect ratio and pixel count that vastly simplifies content creation and display.” She added that flexibility means the displays blend with their environment, and don’t appear to be a bolt-on afterthought, a crucial element in consumer-facing environments.

The large-scale displays are used to create an inviting environment by depicting natural scenes and landscapes that evoke a calming effect and relate to the brand’s ingredient sourcing on the remote South Korean island of Jeju. Large windows at the storefront make the signs visible to passersby, which entice them into the space.

Beyond such screens, the cosmetics brand has integrated other high-tech features, such as touchscreen stations that instantly analyze a shopper’s skin tone to recommend products for their specific needs, and smaller digital displays that promote products and identify different areas of the retail space. 


Claire’s (Hoffman Estates, IL), is a fashion-accessories specialty retailer catering mainly to tweens and teen girls. But what it’s probably best-known for is ear-piercing – the international chain estimates more than 100 million such procedures have been performed in its stores over the years.

Playing up that aspect of the business took center stage in the latest prototype store layout by BHDP Architecture (Cincinnati). That firm, in turn, brought in Triangle Sign Services (Baltimore, MD), and products from SparkleMasters, Perspectives in Print and Testrite Visual Products for various aspects of the signage, which played a major role in the update. BHDP noted that the retailer had been moving the store’s ear-piercing station from the back to the front, just to the side of the main entrance and behind the store’s floor-to-ceiling front windows.

“What we did for the prototype was celebrate and elevate the ear-piercing experience at the front of the store,” said BHDP retail leader Andrew McQuilkin. That included installing faux neon signage by Triangle bearing the words “ear piercing” on the inside of the window, putting the process on prominent display to pedestrians (which are typically mall patrons, as most Claire’s are in such shopping complexes).

“Neon is very on trend right now, and Claire’s wants to be at the forefront of trends and fashion,” McQuilkin said. Reinforcing the availability of its popular piercing service is vertical lettering sign by Triangle reading “ear piercing” on the side wall opposite the piercing station. 

BHDP Architecture (Cincinnati) combined with Triangle Sign Services (Baltimore, MD) on this project for Claire’s.
BHDP Architecture (Cincinnati) combined with Triangle Sign Services (Baltimore, MD) on this project for Claire’s.

Beyond those changes, the designers sought to visually unite the store’s interior walls by installing a horizontal band of metallic wallcovering at their tops bearing the brand’s signature purple. On the side walls, that band is covered with graffiti-like messages that were created by BHDP graphic artists and screenprinted on silver-metallic wallcovering by Perspectives in Print. “These are meant to look like handwritten messages, things you would write in a note to a BFF,” said BHDP senior graphic designer Heather Steiner.

Anchoring the back wall is a non-illuminated channel letter sign bearing the retailer’s name created by Triangle. That sign, in turn, is embedded in a set of interlocking sequin panels that was fabricated by SparkleMasters that makes the surface appear to shimmer. “The ‘shimmer wall’ helped achieve the client’s goal of bringing more sparkle and overall visual excitement to the space,” McQuilkin said. 

Triangle also made signs reading “be-you-tiful” for one side wall and “dream big” on the other, along with the illuminated “claire’s” sign on the store’s front façade. Beyond that, designers added one other signage system to the space: a rail running along the side walls with hanging category signs (“hot new trends,” “hair flowers,” “style your space,” etc.) from Testrite. 

“The product offerings can get very busy, so having those signs made the overall space a little cleaner and easier to navigate,” BHDP’s Steiner said.

Finally, BHDP used signage to enhance the store’s entry/exit experience. Upon entering, customers are greeted with a “hello beautiful” message projected via a spotlight on the floor. “It’s more cost-effective than embedding something there, and it also allows them to change or update the messaging as needed,” McQuilkin said. And on their way out, customers see a sign by Triangle embedded in a cross member above the door that says, “we make memories.”