Saidandsung Quoted in Article on Small-Business Branding in Small Towns

As a result of my previous post, an article was written in The Harrison Report and I'm quoted in it. Below is a reprint of the original article, published on May 20, 2010.

Much thanks to Managing Editor Mark Lungariello for initially finding what I had to say in my blog interesting enough to work it into a story!

Signs of the Times

Written by Paige Rentz and Charlie Johnson

Thursday, 20 May 2010 18:33

Branding a business in Harrison

When Violet and Sean Gerguri opened their new bakery on Halstead Avenue at the site of a failed bakery at the beginning of April, many customers thought that the previous store had merely reopened after a hiatus.

This was because the Gerguris, who had been flooded out of the shop they owned in Hartsdale, found the new space perfectly ready for them to get to baking. They didn’t change the tables, the flooring, the racks, anything. Even the words painted on the windows fit their business perfectly, so they remained.

The couple soon found that even with their new name – the somewhat generic “Bakery and Patisserie” – stamped across their awning, they still had to contend with the previous tenant’s reputation in the village. Ms. Gerguri said that her new customers suggested ways that she and her husband could differentiate themselves: stickers added to their plain white boxes, flyers, signs on the door and windows.

In the month-and-a-half that the bakery has been open, business has begun to pick up little by little, she said. The main battle is luring the first-time customers through the door because she is confident that once they have a taste of what her bakery has to offer, they’ll surely return.

That battle for foot traffic is all about branding, said Carla Rose Fisher, a Harrison resident who works as a freelance writer and web consultant for corporations and small businesses. “I think that signage is so important,” she said. “For small businesses, a few simple, small adjustments could make a big difference.”

Fisher said that measures like temporary signs or banners proclaiming “Now open!” or sandwich boards advertising specials can make a huge difference to passers-by.

Bagelicious, another Halstead Avenue hot spot, kept the same name when the shop changed hands, but the store expanded its menu to include a large selection of sandwiches and other offerings. In such a situation, the shops should make use of a temporary sign reading something like “under new management,” said Fisher. “Unless they hear it through the grapevine, they won’t know.”

Fisher singles out Rue Des Crepes as a local business that “does a really good job of trying to get people in the door.” At 261 Halstead Ave., the restaurant’s outdoor seating and other inviting features make it a prime target for foot traffic.

Noting a recent store that opened before its sign could be approved by the town, Fisher said that it had been unclear that the business had already opened its doors. “It’s hard for a new business trying to break through,” she said, especially with the time-consuming process required to complete all the necessary approvals before opening.

Town Councilman Joseph Canella (R) said, “The town really needs to be sympathetic to the needs of businesses in general given the difficult economic times,” but that as far as signs are concerned, he thinks the town could use more regulation down the road. “By and large, I think we’re pretty user-friendly,” he said of the process of introducing a business in Harrison.

Just as small businesses in the downtown are struggling to draw in foot traffic, properties along Westchester Avenue seek to do the same on a much larger scale with car traffic from the I-287 corridor.

One property has floated a possible amendment to the zoning code of the SB-O zone (which covers office parks) which would allow more liberal signage for those complexes. Town Councilwoman Marlane Amelio (R) said that a drawing of the change that would be implemented indicates the addition of a rooftop sign at the petitioning complex on Westchester Avenue, a sign designed to be visible from I-287.

Harrison Mayor Joan Walsh (D) said that she is in favor of broadening the scope of allowed signage, within reason, as a means to help customers locate businesses in town. “This is a medical complex,” said Walsh of the office park requesting the zoning amendment. “I think it would be helpful to the patients referred to that building to have the sign.”

Although she said that she preferred not to have the sign measure the entire width of a building, visibility from the interstate would not be a bad thing. “If we limit it to 287 and say it can’t be seen anywhere except 287, then I don’t have a problem with it.”

Though she wants Harrison to be a place that attracts businesses, Amelio worries that any loosening of signage regulations will lead to a deterioration of the town’s aesthetics.

“We certainly do not want to discourage business,” said Amelio. “We want to welcome business but at the same time protect the value of the area.”

Amelio sees lightening of signage restrictions as a slippery slope that would eventually diminish much of the suburban beauty people often associate with Harrison.

“My concern whether it’s one [sign] or four is it establishes a precedent and a precedent that I do not think serves Harrison well,” she said. “Once you do that, it changes the character of the area.”

Amelio added that prior businesses seem to have had no trouble establishing themselves under current signage regulations.

Cannella not only wishes to keep the SB-O zone signage requirements the same, but he also feels that greater restrictions on signage in downtown Harrison could improve the look of that area in the future.

Several years ago, he and other town board members examined changing the signage code to create more uniformity, a measure that would have been “substantially more restrictive,” he said, modeling their recommendations after policies in towns like Scarsdale, which has had very rigid restrictions on signage in place for years.

“They just didn’t develop any traction,” said Cannella of the previous recommendations, “but the goal is desirable.”

However, ultimately there will likely always be a divide between visibility and aesthetics when talking about signage. As Fisher noted, businesses cannot rely solely on “grapevine” advertising to develop a strong customer base.

What strategies businesses are permitted to use in the future to visually attract potential customers could depend on the progress of the economy. If more people are searching, whether for doctors or bakeries, businesses can certainly hope that even modest signage will keep them easily afloat.

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