October 15, 2012 Issue
The Most Powerful Name In Corporate News and Information
With a motto of “You Are Your Signs” SmartSign is giving their Customers the Tools Necessary to make the Best Signs Possible
SmartSign is an internet
distributor and manufacturer of signs, tags, mats, and labels. SmartSign
operates over 60 sites, including
Interview conducted by: Lynn Fosse, Senior Editor, CEOCFO Magazine, Published –October 15, 2012
Mr. Brewster: After licensing our unique online design tools to Staples, FedEx, OfficeMax, Grainger, and others, we made the decision in 2005 to bring our expertise, products, and technology directly to our customers. Since then, SmartSign has emerged as one of America’s 500 largest internet firms. We see ourselves as the Amazon of signs, labels and tags. We offer the largest variety of designs, including customizable templates, the greatest range of materials and sizes – and promise the customer the best pricing and quality available online. With so many designs and easy customization options, you can find or create just the right message. Our goal is to make it easy to order your perfect sign. Take the agony out of finding and ordering the perfect sign or tag.
CEOCFO: What is the market for signs in general?
Mr. Brewster: The market is huge, over $5 billion, but highly niched and with highly fragmented sales channels. The market ranges from billboards to recycling bins, from safety banners to no trespassing signs. Each niche has its own dynamic. Each niche has its own materials, designs and pricing. In response, we have built individual sites that are both comprehensive and authoritative. We run about 60 sites – each providing specific solutions to specific problems – for example keeping your pool safe and compliant at SwimmingPoolSigns.com, organizing a parking lot at MyParkingSign.com, controlling where you can and cannot smoke at SmokingSigns.com or keeping everyone safe at a gun range at MySafetySign.com.
CEOCFO: Who is your typical customer?
Mr. Brewster: Most customers find us online through search initially. But, many more come back again and again. They are micro businesses and non-profits, churches and military bases, schools, universities and sign resellers. The range is quite breathtaking. They are savvy enough to find us and realize that our quality and prices cannot be beat. You don’t have to be Ford Motor Co. to be able to order a durable and compliant sign – and to save 50% plus over traditional sign retailers. We have over one million customers.
CEOCFO: If people are not buying from you are there many other online sign people, or is most still retail?
Mr. Brewster: The sign, label and tag business has changed rapidly. In the past, this market was serviced either by mail order distributors or by industrial distributors. A fat 400+ page catalog would land with a thud on a customer’s desk every month. When you wanted a particular sign you had to crawl through page after page - just to find the sign or tag you needed. Other customers would need to call up a salesman at a local electrical or safety industrial distributor. Usually, and after some phone tag, they would narrow down their selection and buy some generic sign. What a waste! Sign channels are changing now. It’s going online. The transition to online will take some time, of course. Along with a number of other nimble online sign retailers, we have all grown rapidly. Luckily, we have been one of the first online sign retailers – with proofing technology that dates from the mid 90’s and, I believe, the best-in-class list of factories that support our product line.
CEOCFO: Are there any types of signs that you would like to have available that are not currently?
Mr. Brewster: Yes, every year brings new and exotic materials – signs that glow more intensely in a blackout, signs that reflect headlights more brightly, materials that are easier to install on curves and bumpy surfaces, such as asphalt. But, the real changes in the sign business have been with design. Instead of 20 generic parking signs, we offer over 3,000 designs. Instead of having to ordering a boring sign that merely says Reserved Parking, we now offer, at effectively the same price, a sign that has your school’s logo on it and specific times when parking is allowed. Like any publishing or graphic design business, the sign market is hardly static.
CEOCFO: Is your manufacturing base relatively stable?
Mr. Brewster: In our industry, there has been a wholesale rush into all things digital. Yes, many signs, labels, tags and, even, mats can be printed with a digital ink jet printer. Many of these digital presses are ideal for short run and lower durability products: banners, promotional signs and posters. The presses are inexpensive and can produce quickly a wide swath of sign products. Local sign franchises and many mom and pop sign shops have this equipment. Yet, in many cases, we prefer the traditional methods of sign printing – screen printing, deep engraving or hand assembly of braille signs, for example. These production methods are more durable and produce a higher quality sign. But, to integrate signs designed digitally by our customers to these older production methods is not easy. This touches upon a core belief here: treat our factories like customers. Treat them well. Build up a level of trust with the factory floor and respect their craftsmanship. Listen closely to what they do well and where they see problems. These are factories that have been making signs for generations. I can’t tell the number of times that someone in production finds a problem with an order or offers a better solution to a customer’s problem than anyone on the sales side had envisioned. The result has been a level of quality and delivery that is, we believe, second to none.
CEOCFO: Are custom signs a big part of your business?
Mr. Brewster: Over 60% of our sales are with custom products. We offer, literally, thousands of custom design templates. Dating from our early work in the hypercompetitive world of business card design in the mid-90’s, our ability to create new templates and then, through easy wizards, our customers’ ability to quickly personalize that template – these are core strength for us. A custom safety sign or floor mat is always more effective than another me-too generic danger sign or entrance mat. Who do you call in an emergency? What do you do when you see someone breaking into a substation? Custom signs with specific wording work best. Through our easy customization wizards and close integration with the factory floor, we have eliminated many costs associated with custom signs. Our goal is to drive the cost of customization down to the point that a custom sign, for example, is the same as the cost of a stock sign.
CEOCFO: Do you have much repeat business?
Mr. Brewster: Luckily, we have a growing base of loyal customers. For some of our sites, repeat customers are over 50% of our customer base.
CEOCFO: Customer service is always an issue; how do you maintain the level of customer service that ensures return customers?
Mr. Brewster: When you solve a problem for a customer, you have built a relationship. And, once a customer has worked with a particular CSR here, the customer is then assigned to that same CSR for all future orders. With so many sign types and materials, it is not always easy for a customer to choose. It’s a collaborative process. Our CSR experts guide the process – often sending along free samples and overnight proofs – all to make sure that the customer will love the final product. A CSR will often work collaboratively with the customer and design their personalized sign, in real time and in the customer’s own session. We get a lot of return customers.
CEOCFO: Do many people take advantage of the customer service?
Mr. Brewster: On a busy day, we can get 1,000 orders. That’s a lot! About 35% of our orders come through our customer service center.
CEOCFO: Where is your customer service located?
Mr. Brewster: We are here in Brooklyn, New York.
CEOCFO: Will that continue?
Mr. Brewster: Will we ever move? “Fuggetaboutit!” as we say here in Brooklyn. Yes, we love it here. We have an incredible, multi-lingual and internet-savvy workforce. There is no better place, than Brooklyn, to attract and retain young and energetic team members with the smarts to play – and then win – in an increasingly competitive online marketplace.
CEOCFO: Do you find that your customers appreciate your customer service in the US and appreciate that they get good service?
Mr. Brewster: Yes. Let me give you one reasons that I know this is true. Around our offices, we have large monitors that show every order as it is placed. Additionally, all of our customer comments are displayed, along with the CSR’s photo. Most customers comment on their level of service - what they like and, just as important, what they think we could do better. Even now, during this interview and out of the corner of my eye, I am scanning these comments. Every comment is read. And, when a customer has a problem, one of us will make sure to call that customer back and try to straighten it out.
CEOCFO: What do you see a year or two down the road for SmartSign?
Mr. Brewster: We have key initiatives with mobile applications, QR codes and expansion into Canada and Europe. With any luck, we will be able to continue our growth.
CEOCFO: Do you find your online advertising to be sufficient, or have you considered reaching out to schools or other organizations or industries?
Mr. Brewster: We do not perform outbound marketing. Unlike many of our competitors, we don’t mail catalogs, send out email solicitations or make outbound sales calls. But, our model is different. Our sites are authoritative. Our goal, either through repeat customers or through our online search engine position and advertising, is to make sure that potential customers get to one of our sites. Once on our site, we want to make sure that their experience is compelling enough that we will get that order and keep the customer for future orders, too.
CEOCFO: What is new in the sign industry? Is it tried and true?
Mr. Brewster: Signs are advertising – advertising a particular safe procedure or advertising to slow down drivers on a stretch of curvy road, for example. As such, the sign industry will not go stale. Signs change as frequently as advertising campaigns change. Recently, we have worked on Don’t Text While Driving signs. New international regulations on hazardous chemical handling are sure to drive other sales. Advertising, whether on TV driven by Madison Avenue ad executives or just by a school administrator ordering signs restricting unnecessary idling by parents picking up their kids, will always drive our industry.
CEOCFO: Why should people pay attention to SmartSign?
We are yet another example of how online distribution has revolutionized a
heretofore stodgy industry – for us, signs. Sign buyers are becoming smart.
Buyers now realize that signs that used to cost $70 are now available online
for under $20. Buyers now demand signs that are more durable, more effective
and delivered more quickly than ever before. Our motto here is “You are your
signs.” Accordingly, our goal is to give our customers the tools necessary
to make the best signs possible. A smart sign buyer is our best customer!
Our motto here is “You are your signs.” Accordingly, our goal is to give our customers the tools necessary to make the best signs possible. A smart sign buyer is our best customer! - Blair Brewster
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