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Sign Calls

July 14, 2016 | By John Cumbelich

Commercial real estate brokerage firms spend thousands of dollars annually on signs. Paper and vinyl signs, wooden signs and banners. Window signs and monument signs. For Lease signs. For Sale signs. Coming Soon signs. Signs in a variety of shapes and sizes.

And what exactly are the benefits of all these signs? Leases? Sales? More customers? New business? Don’t I wish. If I have learned one thing over the past few decades, it’s that signs rarely generate leases or sales or customers or new business. The main thing that signs generate is… sign calls.

Real buyers and real tenants don’t use signs to search for, or secure properties when they are in the market. They use a broker, or they are already in the business and have owner relationships, or they participate in industry trade organizations like ICSC, or they do research on brokerage firm web sites, or they search online property listing services like LoopNet. No, the real users and purchasers of commercial real estate don’t make calls on signs. Which of course raises the question, who does? Hmmm. Let me count the ways.

#1  The Monday morning call

This call is waiting for me at 7:30 on Monday morning, and it came in from a woman who called at 9:30 or 10:00 pm on Saturday night about a leasing listing close to a nice restaurant or bar. Her voice is loud. “Hi this is STEPHANIE and I’m calling about the cute place for rent downtown…can I open a yoga studio, or a frozen yogurt shop, um, or maybe a wine bar here? Thanks!” I call Stephanie back at 7:45 on Monday morning. She has no recollection of leaving the message.

#2  The Gardener/Contractor/Landscaper/Roofer call

“Hey this is Russ and I’m in the gardening/construction/landscaping/roofing business and I saw your sign and was wondering if you could give me the name of the owner because he really needs some new gardens/buildings/landscape/roofing.” I let Russ call at least five times before answering his call. For guys like Russ, real estate signs are the Yellow Pages. When he finally gets me live I let Russ know that when the owner needs a vendor, he will call the guy he’s worked with for the last twenty years.

#3  The Nail Salon call

I think 50% of all sign calls since 2004 have been from people seeking to open a nail salon. None of them ever actually open a nail salon. They just keep calling.

#4  The Dreamer call

Six or seven times a year will come the call from the person who “has always wanted to open a business” but doesn’t quite know what that business is yet. But they saw the sign in the window and just had to call and ask.

#5  The My Life Story call

“Hi was calling about the property on Main Street, is it still available?” “Yes.” “Oh fantastic because I’ve been looking like crazy for a place since I lost my job and my boyfriend, and I have this idea about a homeopathic smoothie shop, because there’s really no place to get a good one, and the chains all serve crap, and ever since I recovered from my car accident and stopped eating gluten, I’ve gone vegan, which has totally helped with my migraines…”

#6  The Political Activist call

“I’m with the Farley campaign and we were looking for space for a campaign office and wanted to know if you would be interested in letting us use your space, for free, until the election in November?” “Well, the owners are running a business and they don’t give their space away for free to the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts or AARP or the PTA or anyone else, so I don’t suspect Mr. Farley can have it for free either. If Mr. Farley is a ‘pro-business’ candidate, then perhaps he would be interested in paying rent.” Apparently Mr. Farley is not pro-business.

#7  The Nosy/Bossy Neighbor call

“My name is Jones and I own the property across the street from your listing on Second Street. Has that property leased yet? Because I heard that a hookah shop was looking at the place, or a pipe shop or something, and what’s that going to do to my building if a place like that moves in? He really shouldn’t be leasing to someone like that…it’s bad for everyone.” “Remind me Mr. Jones, who are the tenants in your building?” “Oh, well, I have the taxidermy place, it used to be my business, but I sold it to the guy that owned the waffle shop next door.” “Hey, that’s real tenant mix!”

And last but not least…

#8  The Rookie call

“Hi, I was calling about that property.” “Which property was that?” “The one with the sign on it.” Oh, that helps.

These are but a sample of the daily calls that keep commercial real estate professionals on our toes. They don’t result in commission income or greater insights about the market. Yet we dutifully oblige when the client insists that we place a sign on the property and bite our lip about the secret world of sign calls.

Of course not all signs are without merit, and they occasionally result in a happy outcome. Indeed there probably have been a few successful sign calls that resulted in a real estate transaction in the past few decades. I honestly don’t remember any of them, but there must have been a few. If I had more time to think about it, I just might remember, but right now my phone is ringing …I wonder who it could be?