Should you market your business with a sidewalk sign?

How many things can you spot wrong in this photo?

Sidewalk signs?  Should you use them, if you have a storefront business?  Or not?

Let me state right up front, I do not like sidewalk signs.  Also known as A-frame signs, or sandwich boards.  I don’t like them for this reason:

Sidewalks are for walking.

I am nimble, thank goodness.  I can get around a sidewalk sign, even if it is obstructing.

Not so for the visually impaired man I saw on Broad Street with a cane.  His cane got tangled in the sidewalk sign.  He tried to navigate around it, and almost fell over. It was awful.

That changed my mind about sidewalk signs for good.  If only for that one reason, I do not believe sidewalk signs should be allowed.  But I’ve also seen people struggle with strollers around them, and once I saw a person in an electronic mobility device get ensnared with one.

And let’s be honest, who hasn’t been looking and has walked into a sidewalk sign at some point?  I know I have.  I mean, they just aren’t supposed to be there, in the way!

Sidewalk Signs: Should They Be Legal?  Or Not?

In some local jurisidictions, sidewalk signs are not legal.  Right now, under pressure from the business community, Arlington County is trying to decide whether to lift their ban on sidewalk signs.

In other places, such as Falls Church City, sidewalk signs are allowed in the public right of way (sidewalks) but are governed by permits and zoning regulations.  For example, the signs are supposed to leave four clear feet of sidewalk for walking.

Here’s the rub: a lot of Falls Church businesses don’t go by the rules.  Either they don’t know any better (which would be strange, because you would think they would get the info when they got the permit for their sign), or they’re just trying to get away with it.  And the Falls Church Zoning Division, apparently, doesn’t enforce the rules, because the infractions are legion (and not just sidewalk signs either, on-site signage regulations were also violated all over the City).

(Surprising, and yet, also not surprising, at least not around here.  After all, this is the municipality that also left the public Christmas 2009 decorations on the lamp posts on Washington Street up until after St. Patrick’s Day 2010.  That wasn’t a good look for the City, and this isn’t, either.)

Result: non-conforming signs, unsafe placements, and unattractive additions to the City.  Arlington County, are you paying attention to this?  The only winners here are the business owners. But not all the business owners.  Because I think it would be pretty hard to compete with an adjacent business that uses an illegal or nonconforming sidewalk sign, if you chose to be aware of the law, or adhere to it.  How is that fair?

How Extensive Are Infractions?  A Look at Sidewalk Signs

I walked around Falls Church City, just to check out the sidewalk signs.  I like most of these businesses, by the way.  I’m a customer.  I just don’t like their signs.  Okay, so almost all of them were nonconforming to regulations in at least one way —

  • One business put out two sidewalk signs (you’re only supposed to have one, and you have to have a permit for it)
  • Several businesses used temporary or chalk versions, with different messages on both sides.  You’re only supposed to use professionally designed, permanent ones, with the same message on both sides.
  • Some placed them incorrectly — too close to their business, too far from their business. One put one almost on top of a fire hydrant.  Many put them as close to the road as possible, ostensibly to attract the attention of passing motorists.
  • I don’t think any of the ones I observed were weighted, as they’re supposed to be.
  • One sign obstructed the doorways of, not one, but two businesses.
  • Two businesses left their sidewalk signs out after business hours, which is another no-no.
  • One business used the word “Stop” on the sign, which is illegal.
  • A few businesses propped them against safety signs.
  • Some used balloons on their signs, which is also illegal (in the whole Commonwealth).
  • A set of signs was placed as to potentially block the view of motorists at an intersection.

I mean, clearly, we have a problem.

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Okay, what’s a few sidewalk signs?  Why does this matter?

You know, yeah, a few sidewalk signs, no big deal.  A chalk sign, so what?  Maybe, depending on your opinion, they don’t exactly beautify the environment, and they probably distract motorists.  But any problems beyond that?

Well, yeah.  A few sidewalk signs are not a big problem.  A few nonconforming sidewalk signs, not that much bigger of a problem.  Now consider this: what if every storefront business on Route 7 in Falls Church City put out a nonconforming sidewalk sign? What if they didn’t leave a four foot sidewalk clearance, or were not weighted properly, or used graphics that were distracting to motorists?  What if they ALL did?  And zoning did nothing about it?  What would that mean for our community? In terms of conducting business?  In terms of property values and aesthetics?  Safely navigating the sidewalks and intersections?  Creating a distraction-free motorist  environment?

What would that mean for that visually impaired man?

Because we already passed “ugly” some time ago.  Does somebody have to get hurt for this to change?

I mean, think about it.  Let’s just say for argument’s sake, that everyone from now on was aware of the sign regulations and had decided to obey them. What then, if every storefront business on Broad Street got a permit and erected a legal and conforming sidewalk sign?  Can you imagine what that would look like?  Is that the look we want for the City?

But aren’t sidewalk signs effective marketing tools? 

Well, yeah.  I would imagine so.  I don’t have any evidence yea or nay.  They’re certainly cheap.  I would imagine that they do bring in traffic.  But….

The problem is: at what cost?  There’s such a thing as being responsible.

Sign companies say sidewalk signs are designed to attract pedestrians.  The problem is, in this community, the signs are often placed to attract the attention of passing motorists.  And that’s potentially dangerous.

Even the City uses them in the public right of way (grassy medians) to promote Falls Church City events. It’s illegal for anyone but the City to do this, and VDOT officials are on the record as saying they really don’t like when municipalities make this exception for themselves, as it does pose a road hazard.  But they can’t do anything about it.

Is there any time when a sidewalk sign is appropriate?

In my view, I don’t think free standing signs belong on sidewalks.  But I think you could use temporary, A-frame signs in some other situations, such as to designate parking areas, or for special events, and such, if used safely.  Or maybe even to help identify a hazardous area, such as a sidewalk area under repair.  But I don’t think they should go where people walk on a daily basis.

What are the marketing alternatives to sidewalk signs?

Every business is concerned about visibility.  I understand that.  I believe a better and safer alternative to sidewalk signs is to create an attractive store front that is in full compliance and erect  quality, conforming, on-site signage.

Add to this direct marketing, email marketing, social media, advertising, and public relations, and a business can do without sidewalk signs.

About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a public relations and marketing consultant, and owns Fletcher Prince ( Follow Mary on Twitter @FletcherPrince.

Posted on May 14, 2011, in Graphic Design Tips, Marketing Tips, small business marketing tips and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.


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