Look for an independent shop. A franchise is generally purchased by someone who has no experience in the industry. When using a franchised shop be sure to ask how long they have owned it, not how long they have been in business because existing franchises are often re-sold when owners retire. We all had to start somewhere, so even a franchisee eventually gets experience.
Before you allow anyone on your property get a copy of their insurance certificate from their insurance company, not directly from the shop, as it is too easy to Photoshop someone else’s insurance certificate. They should carry at LEAST as much as you do. If not you are risking your insurance.
When shopping around checking pricing make sure you are comparing apples to apples. Don’t compare the price of a 10 oz banner to the price of an 18 oz banner. Make sure that the shop is using a high-performance material on your vehicle, not the same intermediate vinyl used on a standard substrate sign. An honest shop will indulge your curiosity, not brush you off because they think you don’t understand. And don’t be afraid to ask for proof, such as the vinyl liner (most good vinyl manufacturers mark the backing with what the product is, for instance, 3M marks their backing with quality and product number).
Most shops charge between $65 and $100 per hour for design and installation. This is reasonable and is dependent on their overhead, such as how many employees (more people means things get done faster), what services they offer (a bay to bring vehicles inside or a bucket truck for high or difficult installs), equipment they have (large format printing, digital router, high-tech paint spraying) and how much insurance they carry.
Don’t discount the shop that doesn’t have the lowest price, or won’t lower his price to compete with someone else. In the end, you may find these shops offer much better customer service. They aren’t out to be the cheapest; they are out to be the best. Look for shops that support local suppliers vs. bringing in materials from out of state just because they can save $2 on a sheet of material.
When purchasing digitally printed material, make sure the product is laminated. It can cost up to $3/sqft more but protects from pollution, chemicals, the sun, scratching and graffiti. If something is only for the temporary use you can forego the lamination to save a few bucks. This is part of comparing those apples to apples. Some shops will leave lamination out of the pricing in an attempt to beat the competitions pricing. Other shops will leave it off the product but in the price to defraud the customer. It happens more than you think.
An honest shop will give you an honest opinion about other work you had done by someone else without being critical or abusive towards the other shop. Legitimate independent sign shops stick together. We share materials, refer customers to each other depending on our specialty, and help each other whenever we can. There is enough business out there for all of us. We work together to push out the uninsured basement and garage shops that can do a lot of damage to the reputation of the industry, and risk the insurance of the business owner on whose property they work.
If you pay to have design work done, you OWN it. Ask for a copy of your artwork in every format available (pdf, eps, ai, jpeg) on a disk or load it to a gig stick. If you don’t and you decide to go to another shop, it is lost. We use our logos for print ads, promotional items, mail, etc. It only makes sense to have it at hand when you purchase these things. Some shops will say they lost your artwork when you want it sent to a competitor. Legally it is smart to make sure you have a copy of anything you sign. Financially it is smart to have whatever you pay for in your hand.
Finally, do not allow anyone on your property that does not carry workers comp insurance. As business owners we have the right to not cover ourselves, we only have to cover our employees. BUT…….if the owner of the sign shop who does not carry workers comp on himself falls and gets hurt on your property, he can go after YOURS. Most business owners are not aware of this but guaranteed every personal injury lawyer is. You wouldn’t let an uninsured electrician wire your house. Don’t let an uninsured sign guy on your property. You worked very hard to build your business. Are you willing to risk it all to save a few bucks by using an uninsured trade’s person?