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aking it through this rough economy has been top of mind for retailers everywhere. The key to this puzzle is finding for what fickle consumers are willing to open their potentially lighter wallets. Consumers who love signs are definitely a bright spot for retailers and United States manufacturing alike.

A liquor-themed sign from Saltbox Signs. The Noisy Water Winery in New Mexico, where visitors buy wine and a little something to decorate their homes, stocks signs from the company.

“As a company, and we’ve been doing this since 1987, 2012 was a huge record year for us — over 30 percent up from last year,” said Dan Hutchings of Desperate Enterprises, a tin sign manufacturer based in Wadsworth, Ohio, whose signs are made in the United States. “But to many of our customers, we are their little secret!”

Top Tin
One retailer who has a particular sign niche is Remember Then, based in San Diego, Calif. Through its Ebay store, Remember Then 1954, and its three retail spaces (two in antique malls and one in a gift store), the mix is 100 percent nostalgic, but new. There are clocks, thermometers and signs with vintage ads and artwork to choose from. Remember Then works with manufacturers, like Desperate Enterprises, that license vintage advertisements from companies and vintage artwork from the artists.

“Ninety-nine percent of what we sell is signs,” said Ed Dillard, co-owner of Remember Then with his wife Cindy Dillard. “We don’t have a consistent top seller. For instance, right now we have a replica of the State of California seal that is selling really hot. Next week, that could change. Pinup girls always do well, as do auto signs.”

From his 20 years in the business, he’s found that knowing the signs and taking great pride in what he does helps him make the most of his sales. “We have a lot of product knowledge and that sets us apart. If a customer asks about a sign or questions its price,” he explained, “I can tell them the history and about how it’s made, which gets the sale.”

Good Things in Small Packages
At Warm Glow Candle Company, candles are the bread and butter. The candle maker has an approximately 11,000-square-foot space in Centerville, Ind. In that space, only about 8 square feet are dedicated to a sign display.

Saltbox Signs offers funny signs such as the one pictured. For retailers, light-hearted humor on signs sells well.

“We sell anywhere from 50 to 70 signs a week,” said Jackie Carberry, owner of Warm Glow. “And what’s really wonderful for us as a retailer is you have this wonderful display unit, and you’re selling thousands of dollars of this product off this very small area.”

Warm Glow carries different lines of signs, including the Saginaw, Mich.–based Poor Boy Woodworks, which are American-made home d├ęcor signs with wholesome sayings. “Very frank and honest, all the signs sell very well for us,” said Carberry. “We have a lot of the family and religious signs, and they do really, really well.”

One reason Warm Glow has been so successful with signs, she said, is she knows her customers. They tend to go for ones with humor and good taste. Having that compact display helps her stock a lot of product, from cheeky stuff to signs that remind you to treat people better every day.

“It’s heart-lifting to watch because people will stand in front the display, and read the signs, and start to chuckle or say, ’That sounds just like you. I need to get this one. This is my husband to a T.’ And they pick them up,” she said. “Our guests who come into the store just really love them.”

When New Mexico was a Spanish colony three centuries ago, the Franciscan friars made some of the first wines in what is now the United States. The Land of Enchantment is still a wine-producing region, and that, coupled with its steady stream of tourists, benefits the state’s wineries with retail spaces.

An “On Beach Time” sign from Saltbox Signs. The signs are handcrafted and hand painted in Wichita, Kan.

In Ruidoso, tourists from neighboring Texas, Colorado and Arizona come for the skiing and horse racetrack, among other things. Noisy Water Winery’s retail space attracts those passing through town. They pick up some wine and a little something to decorate back home.

“The funny signs sell the best for us and also the Christian-based ones,” said Lynette Woodward, regional manager of Noisy Water Winery. Popular signs say, “ASAP, Always say a prayer,” “Wine me up and watch me go,” and “Screw it.”

Anything with beer and anything with wine on it sell well, Woodward said. Among the signs she stocks are Saltbox Signs, which are handcrafted and hand-painted in Wichita, Kan. Though the retail space is only part of the 3,200-square-foot winery, Woodard has been successful with signs by defining her customer base, finding her niche, and capitalizing on it.

Shore Thing
Keeping the signs local has been a successful strategy for Sunsation, a beach lifestyle boutique in Belmar, N.J. “After the Sandy storm, we all have really become so close as a community, all the local towns bonding together and people really feeling proud to be from the Jersey Shore,” said Sherry Michaels, owner and manager of the approximately 5,000-square-foot store that’s been in business for 34 years.

Belmar is a small town on the coast of the Jersey Shore, and Sunsation’s product mix suits its location – swimsuits, beachwear, jewelry, gifts, footwear and signs.

Among the signs she stocks are ones from Saltbox Signs. Michaels makes sure to stock the same sayings in different colors, and to place signs in different locations within the store. “I feel that people need to actually touch the signs, and see them throughout the store, not just in one spot,” she said. “It makes them think and relate.”

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