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Shaping the shopping experience: how printed fabrics attract customers

May 1st, 2012 / By: / Feature, Graphics

Lightweight fabrics and digital printing deliver dynamic results for retailers.

In the 1980s, Seattle’s Rainier Industries Ltd. began installing exterior holiday displays for chains like Nordstrom and The Bon Marché (now Macy’s). For a company that once supplied tents to prospectors pursuing gold in Alaska, the decorative projects found an appropriate fit with consumer goods and bright jewelry cases

The stores were delighted and asked for more, which led to interior displays and, ultimately, to a new market for Rainier. “Since ‘No’ is not in our vocabulary,” says marketing director Scott Powell, “we continued to grow our retail visual marketing business.” Today, the Rainier Retail unit provides in-store visual solutions to a wide range of retailers.

Whether a brick-and-mortar store sells thousands of items (such as Best Buy and Target) or a small range of specialty products (such as Apple and Starbucks), every retailer seeks an edge in separating consumers from their cash. Well-stocked shelves and friendly prices aren’t adequate—in fact, they may not drive sales at all.

As Powell suggests, “Retailers must now create exciting environments and campaigns to capture the shopper’s attention and influence the buying decisions in-store.”

Under one roof

Rainier Retail offers a unique, vertically integrated approach to creating fabric graphic retail installations and products, which Powell believes has advantages over the firm’s “traditional print-based competitors.” The firm offers metal, wood, fabric and printing in one location, which can save time and money.

“Everyone’s challenge today is to do more with less,” Powell says. “Retail clients seek us out to help execute layered environments that need propping, texture and structure—not just printed banners. We also help them source items that need to be kitted and packaged as part of a campaign.”

Campaign end products, he says, are usually temporary in nature while decor environments are more permanent and utilize different materials. “The construction of campaigns requires … materials that can be recycled or disposed of and are lightweight, easy to ship and assemble or install at the store level. Decor projects are built to withstand years of use and generally require outside installation help—which we can provide or coordinate.”

One important tool for Rainier Retail is the Durst Rhotex 320, a printer manufactured in Europe (see “The next generation of digital-direct fabric printing”). In Powell’s view, Rhotex printing on any fabric gives the sharpest, most color-saturated images, which retailers love for attracting attention.

“Through one lens, printing is the easy part,” observes Powell, “although doing it well requires a high level of color calibration in your system. Clean and accurate cutting requires automated equipment and some fabrics require ultrasonic cutting to look good.

“Finishing the delicate fabrics that give the retailers the looks they like requires a higher level of sewing skill than just hemming vinyl banners. Having a production system capable of producing the quantity of parts needed … for a large retail campaign requires a high six-figure capital equipment investment.”

A fabric base for branding

Mike Von Wachenfeldt, technical service manager with Glen Raven Inc., says that his firm’s well-known Sunbrella® product line and the somewhat newer FIRESIST® are common retail components. History is on their side.

“Sunbrella has been used for decades for street-pole banners—single- and double-sided—for its color fastness and its ability to hold up to the elements. It can be painted, silk-screened and, more recently, will accept digitally printed graphics with the use of our Sunbrella Graphics System.”

Branded end products often include umbrellas, pop-up tents, and table skirts fashioned from this line. The flame-retardant and UV-resistant FIRESIST can be adapted to many projects as well and is available in 16 solid-color and patterned styles. “We also have an inkjet version of Sunbrella—Sunbrella Inkjet White,” he says, “which has a white pigmented inkjet-receptive topcoating on one side.”

The need for a wider array of options in fabric signage, including for retail installations, spurred Glen Raven’s continued advances in inkjet fabrics, including Sunbrella Inkjet White and Poly Oxford White. Both are part of the Vivitex™ line and are touted as ideal for indoor and outdoor uses, ranging from wall coverings and backdrops to revolving banners and promotional bags. The fabrics are compatible with numerous solvent, eco solvent and UV machines.

“Our Sunbrella Graphics System was developed out of the need for a better way of applying graphics to the rich colors of Sunbrella other than painting and screen printing,” Von Wachenfeldt says. “It helped bring graphics into the modern age with digital prints and vinyl cut lettering or decals.”

Look before you leap

According to one veteran fabricator who requested anonymity, working within the retail sector demands a level of caution and a clear understanding of contractual obligations. Many ad agencies and other “middlemen” collaborate directly with clients to design fabric signage. When they are prepared to bring a fabricator onboard, confidentiality agreements are customary.

“We work with companies that resell our products and they do not want their customers to know where the product is made. Most point of purchase (POP) signage is like that. But I’m sure there are some companies that print directly,” he says. “Practically speaking, fabricators are then prevented from obtaining or sharing photos of the work they’ve completed—an impediment to marketing their successes.”

Price is king when bidding and completing work in retail settings, which makes it similar to other markets. However, when dealing directly with a retail company (without a middleman), tenacity is necessary to ensure that retailers pay for completed work—and on time. One cautionary tale:

“We did free prototypes for a big retailer last year because we were going to turn around 3,000 pieces in about two weeks.  The client received the prototype we built, and we reworked the ‘bad’ art that they sent us. Originally they asked if we could come in at a certain price range … so we gave them our low[est] price. We turned the prototype around in two days and, on our dime, sent it to them.

“We didn’t hear back and didn’t hear back. After a couple of weeks, we heard that they only had about one-tenth the budget they had originally [quoted]. They had never ordered this particular product before and couldn’t do the job because it was too much.”

Another anecdote involved thousands of dollars’ worth of prototypes for a retailer with whom the fabricator had a solid, three-year relationship. “We were told we were getting a purchase order later in the day for about $500,000 … They said they were giving [the project] to us and we never got a call or email or letter telling us it was canceled and they were going with someone else.”

Forewarned is forearmed: some retailers may not respect their vendors, but a wide-eyed approach may help you retain your self-respect (and maintain your bottom line).

Creating new environments

Toronto-based Eventscape Inc. has been working with retail clients for more than 15 years. Marketing and communications director Elaine Allen-Milne notes that “It was a natural evolution from our firm’s beginnings in exhibits and special events.” The company’s established experience with branding was a perfect fit for retailers seeking powerful ways promote their own brands and merchandise.

“Typically we work with architects, interior designers and in-house store designers and planners,” Allen-Milne says. “They usually have a concept or drawings and come to Eventscape so that we can assist in the design/development, consulting on materials, construction methods, aesthetics—always with an eye to the most cost-effective solution.” Like Rainier Retail, Eventscape provides a turnkey solution, “from concept through engineering, fabrication, shipping and installation.”

She admits that the retail market fluctuates with economic factors, but clients are always seeking new ideas and innovations that give them a creative edge. “Each of our retail projects is different; we have one-offs as well as multiple rollout projects so each one is approached appropriately. Projects are usually permanent.

“Occasionally, if we have a temporary space it could be for a pop-up store or perhaps a new product introduction. For temporary spaces, minimal weight and easy assembly and dismantling are key requirements. Textiles are ideal for this application and can easily be printed with vibrant graphics.”

Among other impressive ventures, Eventscape contracted with Canadian apparel and footwear chain Mark’s on a two-year rebranding campaign. The rollout featured a custom rain display feature, technology towers, a “Big Ideas Fixture (BIF)” and graphic canopies, as well as interactive digital displays.

The company’s efforts won praise from many quarters, including two 2012 Design Awards from Chain Store Age. Video of the project is posted here.

Allen-Milne sees clear-cut advantages in the core textiles used. “Digitally printed fabrics can contribute to a life cycle costing benefit. After the initial cost of the frame and skin, the digitally printed skins can easily be replaced. This allows for logo or branding changes or new product introductions at a much lower cost.”

John Gehner is a freelance writer and editor based in Urbana, Ill.

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