An older man wearing gobs of sun block and a gardening hat dances on the side of the road as cars zoom past. He’s waving a sign advertising a sale at Dick’s Sporting Goods. The manager gestures at one car heading toward the sports store and says, “See that? See how he’s smiling? He’s just turning over there. He gave me a thumbs up.”
For the last three weeks, the customer service manager at Dick’s Sporting Goods has bunny-hopped, raised the roof and done the Harlem Shake all while juggling his giant sale sign. He says foot traffic into the sports store doubles on the days he’s outside. “You have to have a little routine going because a lot of the sign holders are very ineffective when they just wave the arrow like this,” he says, as he moves the arrow slowly back and forth. “You gotta create a buzz.”
In the past, sign spinners, or “human directionals” in marketing jargon, often pointed their signs toward used car lots or new housing developments. But as the cost of renting a billboard has doubled, sign spinning is attracting more interest from big chains like McDonald’s to mom-and-pop shops. One reason why sign spinning is catching on is consumer control over advertising is increasing,” says Ken Wilbur from University of California San Diego’s Rady School of Management. “So you can use your TiVo to skip the ads in a TV program, and you can use your ad blocker software to block ads on a web page, but sign spinning is pretty hard to block out.”
Wilbur says Southern California’s a hot spot for sign spinners because the mild climate makes outdoor advertising possible year-round. “But I don’t think that Californians are these weird people who love sign spinning, whereas it wouldn’t work in Minnesota,” he says. “What you often see is business trends quite frequently start in Southern California and then spread out to the rest of the country.”
AArow Advertising, based in North Hollywood, Calif., is at the head of that spread. The company rents out sign spinners for around $30 an hour. AArow’s COO Mike Kenny estimates AArow will make $4-$4.5 million in worldwide chain sales this year as business expands both nationally and internationally. “We’re in Johannesburg, South Africa, Paris and Sydney, Australia,” he says “We’re even in Zagreb, Croatia.”
AArow’s sign spinners don’t just wiggle the sign around. The spinners perform more than 300 wacky moves that are all carefully cataloged in the company’s so-called “Tricktionary.”
“The helicopter spin is a real crowd pleaser,” says Kenny. “The sidearm toss is a great one that people like to do, but I think the all-time favorite crowd pleaser is called ‘the rowboat.’ That’s where you put the sign down just like a boat and you start rowing.”
At a park next to AArow’s headquarters in North Hollywood, employees meet every week to practice. AArow’s director of training Justin Brown says, despite what most people think, a lot of spinners really like the job, which pays $9 to $20 per hour. He says the work appeals to a certain personality type — someone who is “hyperactive, has a general lack of respect for conventional authority and wants to be the center of attention.”
Brown says a lot of their best sign spinners are singers and musicians. They don’t mind the long hours spent on street corners or the exposure. Seems like sign spinning’s not a bad way to turn a profit even in this economy.
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