At the Michigan Downtown Conference two speakers talked about sign ordinances. The first was Sheila Bashiri, City Planner from the city of Birmingham, MI, a well-to-do suburb of Detroit nestled in amongst the other wealthy suburbs.
Because Of or In Spite Of?
Birmingham has the most strict sign ordinance in Michigan, so strict that some of the slides Sheila showed us of attractive signage wouldn't even be allowed in her city. Yet many retailers want to be part of that bustling downtown. And Sheila claimed that her sign ordinance was a main reason for their success.
I guess the dense population of millionaires is only a secondary cause of the businesses thriving there.
The next speaker, Robert Gibbs, mentioned how much he liked the Birmingham sign ordinance and how all communities should adopt it for their business districts. In a private conversation afterwards, he went so far as to tell me that all existing businesses in those districts should be given 5 years to change their signs or move out.
Does he really believe Frankenmuth should tell Bronner's and their two million visitors a year to take down the billboards or get the f*** out? Or that Ann Arbor should give Zingerman's a remove the ugly trailer and all that neon outside the Roadhouse or else ultimatum? Hugely successful, yet eccentric retailers are what give our cities their character.
Businesses do not thrive because of sign ordinances. They thrive in spite of them because the city has the population base to support them and the stores are taking care of that population. Period. End of story. Sure, a well-crafted sign ordinance can give a city a uniform characteristic and look, but that does not draw traffic or grow business. The stores draw the traffic because of who they are and what they do. And signs are what help you find those stores.
It is no wonder that most downtowns are struggling. There is a huge disconnect between the city leaders/planners and the businesses that pay their taxes. Both of these speakers advocated not having businesses in the discussion for things like sign ordinances. Both believed that only city leaders should make decisions on what they want their business district to be.
A Business Lesson
That would be the same as you not listening to your customers. You wouldn't do that would you? Of course not! You will value some customers' opinions more than others. But if you aren't listening to your best customers, they won't be your best customers for long.
Don't make the mistake others are making. Listen to your best customers. Include them in your plans. Not only will you make better plans because of it, you'll empower those same customers to become evangelists for your business. By giving them a say in the matter, they will be your strongest advocates, and give you incredible word-of-mouth exposure.
Not everyone has an unlimited supply of millionaires. Take care of those who are taking care of you. That's a lesson for retailers and for cities.