Exterior digital message boards on the rise

As the restaurant industry accelerates the adoption of interior digital menu boards to showcase their offerings, more operators are also installing exterior digital signage to pull in new and existing customers.

One such operator is Bill Marble, who owns a Dairy Queen outside of Cleveland. A few years ago, he replaced his dated letterboard sign outside of his restaurant as a way to remedy stagnant traffic.

In 2008, his Dairy Queen’s summer sales were up just $2,000 from the spring. Since it was peak season for the brand, Marble said “If I’m not up more than that, I’m down.”

So, he researched digital LED message boards as a solution, saying it was a way to grab customers’ and potential customers’ attention. His initial investment was about $28,000 for a full color electronic message center from Watchfire by Time-O-Matic.

“The results were pretty amazing,” Marble said. Specifically, sales jumped to $23,000, an increase of $21,000, during the last three months of the year.

“There was one other unit that installed the sign at the same time and, consistently for the entire year, we were 10 to 15 percent higher than the average of the other 35 stores in the territory, stores that had the same weather patterns,” Marble said. “The only thing I can point to is the sign.”

Marble has operated his Dairy Queen since 1980. He said adding the sign was the second best improvement he’s made to the restaurant, after the drive-thru, which now equates to about 60 percent of the unit’s business.

“I’ve put additions on, expanded the parking lot, improved equipment, remodeled, everything, and I can honestly say the sign was the second best thing I’ve done for business,” he said.

Restaurant industry catching on

John Kunze, director of Sign Division Sales at Watchfire, said the typical return on investment for one of his company’s signs is anywhere from six to 18 months, depending on what features an operator requests.

Still, costs remain the main reason more operators haven’t updated or added exterior signage.

“This is an investment of $20,000 to $50,000, so that’s a new shake machine or fryer for some operators,” Kunze said. “But the costs are coming down and more restaurants are starting to realize there is a pretty quick ROI.”

Watchfire’s portfolio is broad — ranging from car washes to banks and funeral homes. Kunze said the restaurant industry is just starting to catch on to the technology, but is doing so at an accelerated pace. For example, this was the first year Watchfire exhibited the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago.

“We figured this was something we should invest in because the restaurant segment has picked up so fast, particularly in the past two or three years,” Kunze said. Watchfire has installed a “couple hundred” such signs for franchisees at Dairy Queen, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers and more.

New exterior signage is also part of the new 20/20 design at Burger King. More than 1,000 Burger King restaurants across the country have signed on to a remodeling program of varying degrees. According to a BK spokesperson, the new design focuses on “providing an inviting environment with a fresh look and feel.”

Benefits beyond aesthetics

A fresh look and feel is just one of the benefits of having a digital exterior message board, according to Marble.

“It’s easier and it’s more convenient,” he said. “We used to have changeable panels and in the winter in Cleveland the letters don’t come out as well. It was a pain.”

And, he added, if you leave the signs up for more than two weeks, people stop looking at them.

“The digital sign isn’t static. It doesn’t just sit there. It’s so much more attractive,” Marble said. “And people see something different in the morning on their way to work than they do in the afternoon on their way home from work.”

As is common practice, according to Kunze, Marble changes up his messages every two weeks to a month, depending on the chain’s national or local promotions. He also showcases anywhere from five to 10 different promotional messages a day (every five seconds), such as Blizzard of the Month, Children’s Miracle Network benefit events (Dairy Queen’s main charity), the latest high school musical, a combo meal deal, time, weather, or a local birthday announcement. By incorporating that local flair, the community not only pays attention, but participates.

“I had a 94th birthday picture on my board last week. If you send me a picture, I’ll put it up. It’s about giving back to the people who support you. This city supports me and my business and my livelihood. I can spend five to 10 minutes updating the message on the board to support them. It’s simple business 101,” Marble said.

Additionally, changing messages requires a few strokes on a computer. So if the weather is cold and rainy, Dairy Queen can push a different promotion besides ice cream. Marble said the sign continues to be successful because of one simple reason: “It’s nice for customers to look at.”

“This is an easy, memorable way to advertise,” Marble added. “It really grabs people’s attention every time they pass my store and reminds them about why they should stop.”

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