In small biz, do red-letter signs yield red-letter days?

As I prep for a much longer, photo-heavy blog article, I offer this brief filler, with a new take on some familiar material: a declining, heavily vacant strip mall in a suburban area, this time in metro DC (the Maryland side).IMG_9071We’ve all been here before: these days, blighted strip malls are just as common in small towns as they are in suburbia.  And it doesn’t have to be a suburban district that’s declining socioeconomically; sometimes the strip mall is just old, outdated, and a more attractive alternative a mile away is Dysoning up all those tenants.

This one clearly isn’t commanding great leasing rates.  As seen in the photo below, at least one of the anchor tenants is a church, and it looks like one of the tiny in-line tenants just to the left is as well.  Storefront churches are rarely an indicator of high-value real estate. red-letter signage in aging strip mall, Maryland  

But what gets me—and this is a common visual throughout economically depressed areas—is the consistency to the signage. IMG_9072It’s a landscape of red-letter labels.  And this is a consistent theme: for whatever reason, in lower-income commercial settings, the tenants disproportionately use blocky all-caps red-letter signs.  The font might even be slightly different among the various tenants, but it’s red all the same.

Is there a reason for this?  Is red—a hot, often visually prominent color against a drab brown-gray building façade—the default hue, the color most commonly pressed at the manufacturer’s, for tube, backlit, or internally lit commercial lettering, and, since it’s already widely available, it’s also the cheapest?  Why is this such a stereotype?

Perhaps I’m demonstrating my own bias by simply assuming it’s cheap to use red-letter storefront signage, but it definitely contributes to a sort of commercial vernacular, and the connotations are rarely positive.  If one drives through a suburban area where the strip malls are replete with red-letter tenant names, the immediate assumption is it’s at least somewhat blighted.  Though prominent and the color of love, red also implies anger, danger, and—perhaps worst of all—financial loss.  Besides, color is a critical strategy for developing a brand, so if a business owner uses nothing but red-letter caps above the store’s entrance, he or she is impeding an opportunity to make a logo out of the business name.

Yes, it has to be a cost-cutting measure.  Commercial signs are deceptively expensive, especially when they’re customized—and these clearly aren’t—yet they’re also essential for a bricks-and-mortar establishment that owes its commerce to remaining easily identifiable. But there’s an ironic undercurrent to the red-letter approach: it creates a visual consistency that many zoning ordinances fail to achieve, and the ones that strive for this the hardest are often municipalities with the highest income.  Think of the mandated wooden signs in that charming three-block main street of that fashionable streetcar suburb.  It takes regulation for them to get the look this Maryland strip mall is achieving through its few remaining businesses.  Of course, the posh towns don’t zone for red; in fact, they just as well might mandate that that their signs be anything but the color of bankruptcy.

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4 thoughts on “In small biz, do red-letter signs yield red-letter days?

  1. Chris B

    I think your guesses are right:

    1) high contrast with the background, usually tan EIFS; in daylight, the red shows up better than, say, white;

    2) single letters in a standard font spelling out the business type (but not its brand name) are often the cheapest kind of lighted sign. For example “CLEANERS” or “CHECK CASHING”

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      I guess red is the baseline color, capital letters are the status quo for typography, and certain generic words are predictably more sought-after than a specialized company name–and anything that deviates from these standards causes the price to go up? Goes to show how many niche submarkets there are.

      Reply
  2. Brian M

    Some of the moral regulatory and “anal” suburban jurisdictions REQUIRE uniform signage in our strip malls. Or at least some consistency. That still does not explain the all red/all caps “solution”.

    There is just TOO MUCH COMMERCIAL in the United States, sad to say. We are vastly overbuilt. Especially for the internet commerce era.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt

      That sounds about right…which is the underlying irony. Most of the “Red Sign Belt” in metro DC stretches across the blue-collar Maryland suburbs. And since it’s Maryland, very little is incorporated municipalities, so regulations come from the county. And I do not imagine a county government covering a few hundred thousand people is likely to have much interest or political clout in regulating signage. Therefore, the red “solution” (as you say) comes most likely out of economic necessity. These’s a small mom-and-pops with very little capital who need depressed strip malls, which, as you note in your final paragraph, this country has in abundance. And it’s about to get worse. Just think of struggling commercial areas in otherwise densely populated, high-income districts; you’ve noted a few out there in California. Creative commercial developers could make a killing…

      Reply

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