Custom digital graphics create value-added opportunities for customers and new economies for manufacturers.
By Barb Ernster
Personalized, customized, made-to-order, tailor-made—everyone wants their brand to stand out in the crowd. Upselling to that need is easier with digital capabilities that are becoming more accessible and affordable. Fabric companies weighing these new possibilities against hesitant customers with tighter budgets are finding some measure of success.
Add-ons all over
Since TCT&A Industries in Urbana, Ill., purchased a digital printer five years ago, its ability to upsell graphics on awnings, curtain walls, tents and other fabric products has been easier. Across all product lines, TCT&A has experienced new revenues with graphics, and company president, Byron Yonce, MFC, has no regrets. “That’s really helped us expand our ability to meet the customer’s needs,” says Yonce. “It’s exciting. I love the print market.”
Some of the requests are customer driven and others are company driven. TCT&A is getting an increasing number of requests for corporate logos and other graphics on large curtain walls that are used to divide space in manufacturing or production facilities and warehouses. The branding can dress up an otherwise plain curtain, says Yonce, adding an aesthetic appeal that isn’t seen on the outside, but looks good for employees, visitors and corporate tours.
The company is driving add-on business in other areas such as its tent rental division, where logos and branding graphics make sense for events. Ninety-five percent of its revenue from instant shade pop-up tents is because of its ability to personalize them with digital graphics, says Yonce, and the company has been able to offer better branding options for awning customers.
“We’ve been able to print awnings when we’ve not been able to find a certain color to match the corporate color,” says Yonce. “I can direct print on 3M™ films and apply it to fabric. Some of the new films have allowed us to find more cost-effective ways to do the graphics so we don’t have to do full print jobs to meet their needs. There are lots of different ways to meet the customers’ needs, and we don’t have to outsource.”
A new customer mind-set
As one of the first companies to incorporate the Sunbrella® Graphics System, G & J Awning & Canvas in Sauk Rapids, Minn., has been upselling customized graphics on awnings and boat lift covers for years. In the current cash-strapped economy, owner Gary Buermann, MFC, says customers still want the graphics, but they’ve scaled back to a simpler look versus four-color images and fancy scripts.
“Right now everybody is in a holding pattern, waiting to see what will happen. We’ll slowly climb out of it, but it’s likely that the consumer is going to have a completely different mind-set than what he had going into it, a more conservative mind-set,” says Buermann. “Rather than flash, you’re going to have to upsell to that mind-set by offering better quality or better functionality that customers can see will pay off because it will last longer or perform better.”
The customers at Arizona Awnings & Window Shade Systems Inc. in Phoenix, Ariz., are also scaling back to more basic designs, but they still want branding, notes general manager Jim O’Leary. “Everyone is becoming more focused on branding today. They want everything from their business cards through logo to the awning signage to deliver the same message,” he says. “Where’s the best place to put your signage, in your window or up on the awning? They can reach a much larger audience when putting the signage on the awning.”
Arizona Awnings does most of its graphics in-house using pressure-sensitive vinyl or hand-painted acrylics, and subcontracts out for digital or silkscreen graphics. “Ninety-nine percent of my customer base doesn’t want to pay the high-end price, although they love the look,” says O’Leary. “In today’s economy it comes down to a dollars and cents decision. What’s most important is their name or logo on the awning for the best price possible.”
More would-be prospects
There is potential to upsell graphics to many more markets, but a lot of companies are reluctant to jump in, says Rich Thompson, president of AdGraphics Inc., a service bureau for wholesale graphics in Pompano Beach, Fla. While some of the “niceties” have gone away with tighter budgets, branding is still important and you can sell add-on graphics without going overboard. “There are plenty of people with marketing and advertising dollars, and they want to see their brand and logo stand out in a crowd,” says Thompson.
One such customer, a beach café along a boardwalk in a tourist area of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., wanted four-color images of its food items on the awning to grab the attention of hungry passersby. AdGraphics printed the graphics for the awning manufacturer, Azure Awnings in West Palm Beach, Fla. “The graphics get all the attention, but that’s the least cost,” says Thompson.
Upselling graphics is the next stage for boats and boat covers, he adds, but the industry is made up of a lot of mom and pop companies that see it as just one more thing to give them a headache. “Unless the customers push for it, a lot of companies don’t want to push it,” he says. “We have a lot of boats and covers on the market and some of the companies that have started down this road are hitting home runs. When they show their customers and get them excited, it’s an easy upsell.”
High quality, low volume
New products on the market are opening up digital possibilities for awning companies with lower volumes. Last fall, Herculite Products Inc. in Emigsville, Pa., introduced a new printable PVC awning fabric that looks like a woven cloth and is fire resistant, waterproof and heat sealable. Herculite® Natura™ allows awning companies to offer multicolor digital graphics in a one-off situation. Natura Digital White was added to the product line in January 2010.
“They can print a custom stripe that their customer may want, and they can print on as little as 10 yards of material. That would bring more revenue to them because they can customize one awning,” says Mike Gatti, business manager for Weblon Products.
It shortens the turnaround time and lowers production costs, which increases margins and overall market share for awning companies, adds Dan Dix, national sales manager, graphic products distribution for Herculite. “That’s the whole concept behind getting into the digital market; previously, the higher the quantity of prints, the better the price per piece. Now with digital technology, awning companies can print one at a time and be competitive. There are interesting possibilities for the Natura product in the digital banner market as well.”
Fisher Textiles introduced a digitally printable awning fabric this year made of a polyester base that’s coated to meet water-repellent and fire-retardant ratings for indoor and outdoor use. “We’re getting requests for an awning fabric that meets spray ratings and FR requirements that they can digitally print on with solvent inks or UV, and they want it to be 10 feet wide,” says Scott Fisher, vice president of sales and marketing. “The digital printers are being approached by awning manufacturers for this specialty product and are looking for a textile that will meet their needs.” Fisher says this new fabric will offer a solution to them and help the mom and pop awning companies get into the digital printing market with a one-off capability.
This is of great interest to Nikki Taheri of Parsa Sign Inc., Bayonne, N.J. The company designs, fabricates and installs signs and awnings, but economic conditions and reluctant customers have hampered Taheri from getting into wide-format digital graphics. “It’s hard to convince the customer to go with that kind of printing job because the prices are higher than hand painting stencils and decals,” says Taheri.
Having the opportunity to offer customized digital graphics in a one-off situation ‘would be great’ for her low-volume business. “I certainly would like to move in that direction. We all have to update ourselves because the quality will be better in the long term,” she says. “Right now it’s tough, but I think the future will be digital printing on banners and awnings.”
Expanding the tent niche
Upselling logos and graphics onto tents is still a niche, but it is a growing part of the digital print market, says Jeff Sparks, Herculite’s business manager for tent and structure fabrics. The market has evolved from printing on banner fabric to printing directly onto the tent fabric. “We put a top coat on the fabric to make it print better, and that’s how we have met the challenge of printing directly onto the tent. Digital technology has opened that up,” he says. “You can now digitally print on most sections of the tent, gables, tops and sidewalls. The latest thing is to actually print on the sidewalls to make it look like a stone wall. It’s pretty amazing what they can do with printing onto a tent. In fact, this is a growing market, and most of the large tent manufacturers have purchased digital printers to be able to offer this custom service to their corporate customers.”
AdGraphics is producing a lot of graphics for tent companies and corporate customers. For example, the company has printed brick and other ‘faux’ patterns on tent walls for corporate events and even printed faux brick on plastic covers to hide cellular service antennas on a building’s rooftop. The company has worked this kind of magic before, printing a pine tree pattern to make a 100-foot cell tower ‘disappear’ in a state park. Who would have thought it?
It’s hard to predict where customers might want to go with digital graphics. Sometimes it’s just a matter of jumping in and saying, “Do you want that customized?”