Visual cues giving big boxes an identity

Curbs on signs lead retailers to use of colors, shapes


HACKENSACK, N.J. -- A neon orange awning. A bright blue wedge jutting out of a storefront. A red stripe around a building. For retailers, these are the signs of the times.

As retail corridors grow more crowded, and municipalities clamp down on the number and size of the signs that stores use to draw shoppers, "branding the big box" has become a top concern of retailers and their architects.

Visual cues - like the bright orange color favored by Home Depot, or the red bull's-eye circle that is Target's logo - stamp a store's identity on the mind even when no sign is visible. Those elements can turn a big box into a virtual billboard without violating any sign ordinances.

"Branding the box, and creating an icon for the box itself, certainly is a trend," said Barry Seifer, a principal with Cubellis Marco Retail, a leading retail design firm in Michigan.

"Municipalities are becoming much stricter about their sign regulations, so the recognition of the retailer has to be conveyed in different ways.

"The combination of color and form is being used to stretch the idea of a sign."

Retailers are following in the branding footsteps of McDonald's, which made its golden arches synonymous with burgers and fries decades ago. While fast-food chains need good highway visibility to drive impulse purchases, retailers are looking for ways to stand out in a landscape cluttered with otherwise indistinguishable big boxes.

A Target store planned for a town center project in Paramus, N.J., will have subtle details, such as the bull's-eye logo cut into the facade of the building, and the use of red bands on the building, to brand it from all angles as a Target.

Office Max has a new prototype store designed to look like a giant file folder, with a yellow tab jutting up from the building and the tab motif repeated inside the store and in all advertising.

And Babies "R" Us is making the color purple a key design element in its new stores.

Retailers strive to make their stores as recognizable as big-box leaders Home Depot or Best Buy. Best Buy's design, with a blue wedge shaped like a corner, can be applied to most storefronts without triggering zoning board or developer objections. The blue panel allows Best Buy to use relatively small signs, yet still send the message that a Best Buy is nearby.

"You recognize the blue of a Best Buy even if it is outside of your 60-degree cone of vision," said Navid Maqami, a principal in the Manhattan office of GreenbergFarrow, an architecture and engineering firm.

Retail design specialist Andrew McQuilkin believes that branding big boxes is good for a retailer's bottom line. "I have a theory: Those who have the more iconic storefronts are more successful."

Retailers aren't always allowed to build the iconic big boxes of their dreams. Often, a developer gets approval for a shopping center, with restrictions on allowable colors and signage, before the tenants are on board. So a retailer that wants a red stripe around a building may be required to stick to the shopping center's color scheme of tan with green accents.

"A lot of times ... you're stuck with what the developer has already committed to," McQuilkin said. That's why you can find Targets without a square inch of red, or a Staples without the red awning.

Wal-Mart, which led the way in big-box branding, now has so many stores that it is re-branding itself as the flexible company that wants its stores to blend in rather than stand out too much.

"In the past, our stores were always battleship blue and you could always tell a Wal-Mart miles and miles away," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mia Masten. "We don't build those boxes any more. We're dealing more with earth tones, the browns, the greens."

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