Mary-Beth Kellenberger, consultant, Frost & Sullivan, a TO, Canada-based research firm, began studying the vehicle wrap market while researching the custom paint industry. She admits that it is a tough market to measure because there are so many variables involved. Accordingly, the potential market—every car, truck, and bus on the road today—is not same as the actual market.
For example, most people do not have the desire to wrap their personal vehicles. And even some commercial vehicles—such as limousines—may not be appropriate to wrap. Then there are commercial vehicles that are, or will be, wrapped, but in a cyclical way.
"Taxis and buses in places like Las Vegas, NV, where you have a lot of show promotion, may rotate more often," she explains. "You can wrap them every three months, six months, or even for just a week. City buses are usually wrapped on a contractual basis, and those may only change every six months."
Kellenberger’s research found that there are approximately 40 operations in North America outputting high volumes of vehicles wraps—partial and full, with approximately 4,000 businesses producing smaller numbers of graphics for this purpose. Based on her calculations, Kellenberger predicts that there are anywhere between 45,000 and 59,000 vehicles ripe for wraps at the moment.
"I believe there is growth potential in this marketplace," she asserts. "It’s growing non-stop at this point."
What’s even more intriguing than the market potential is the diversity of players. Traditional sign shops and vehicle wrap specialists capture some of the business while other non-print organizations are also carefully watching the market.
"This is a really interesting topic for the after-market companies too—the folks who are installing bedliners or electronics, or doing body work, repair, and collision stuff. And then there are the custom paint businesses," Kellenberger notes. "A Pep Boys type of business, for example. After all, they sell things like decals, so they’re asking themselves whether there’s money to be made by offering bigger wraps or wrapping as a service. Can they bring this service in-store and have it be a lead generator?"
"There is plenty of market development research data indicating the growth of vehicle wraps," notes Jeffrey Stadelman, technical marketing manager, MACtac Graphic Products. "The Outdoor Advertising Association indicates transit advertising as 11 percent of the outdoor market. This includes buses, taxis, truck sides, and airplanes."
"We see the vehicle wrap market as one that is not only rapidly growing, but incredibly diverse," remarks David Grant, VP of marketing, Oracal USA. "As the demand for wraps grows among new markets, such as automotive restylers, the printing and installation of vehicle graphics is a more appealing business opportunity—ranging from the smallest, one-person sign shops to large, specialty printers and full-service firms that truly specialize in wraps."
Becoming a Specialist
Based in Brook Park, OH, Lake Erie Graphics is one example of a commercial print business that successfully added vehicle graphics to its already existing services.
"About a year and a half ago, we created Wrap It Up Graphics to show that we are a one-stop graphics company," recalls Jim Dietz, owner, Lake Erie Graphics. "There was a real need for a company specializing in quality color and familiar with all of the graphic programs available. Our customers come to us to get everything printed—from brochures, pamphlets and booklets, to signs, banners, trade show displays, and vehicle graphics."
The shop is in its fourth year of producing large format prints. "Vehicle graphics was an area that we were interested in but did not have room to pursue at our old facility. Our new building—60,000 square feet—can accommodate 53-foot tractor trailers."
The majority of Dietz’s client base is local, though on occasion the company prints and installs graphics for customers elsewhere in the country. "The majority of our vehicle wrap clients have a business or brand that they want to advertise, although we have done personal vehicles, such as flames on cars, race boats, go-karts, and golf carts," he explains.
Wrap It Up Graphics is equipped with a Roland DGA Corporation SOLJET PRO III and a SEAL 62 Pro Series laminator. 3M Graphics Market Products and MACtac supply the media and laminates used.
Dietz finds that the most difficult area of vehicle wraps is in selling the actual product to the customer. "One of the greatest challenges with marketing and selling vehicle graphics is educating people," Dietz confides. "A lot of people don’t fully understand the wrapping process and what vehicle graphics actually are. They are afraid the graphics will damage their car, won’t last very long, or assume vehicle graphics are too expensive."
Despite the special challenges in marketing, producing, and installing vehicle wraps, it’s a market that Dietz is happy to serve, and even more delighted to see grow.
"The vehicle graphics market is growing in the sense that people from many different businesses are interested in wraps," Dietz suggests. "Vehicle graphics aren’t just your big delivery trucks anymore. People from all types of industries, with all types of vehicles are intrigued. Affordability is also opening up the market."
Word of mouth is how brothers Ryan and Scott Stara drive Revolution Wraps’ vehicle wrap business, based in Lincoln, NE. The best way to inspire referrals, they say, is to deliver a high-quality product for every job that comes through the door. It is how they differentiate their business from other wrap producers. Providing well designed and installed wraps is essential.
"We print at really high settings; our ink levels are pretty high, because we really want our colors to be great and vivid," notes Scott Stara. "We are very aware of what constitutes a beautiful product, and when people see our company’s numerous vehicles, they’re floored."
"There are some competitors who have the 50/50 mentality. They want their wraps to look good from 50 feet away, passing by at 50 miles per hour. But we’re really after show quality. It has to look good if you’re standing right in front of it," he attests.
"Our largest challenge are competitors who sell inferior products," agrees Marc Oberman, VP of sales, Avion Transportation Graphics, based in Foothill Ranch, CA. "We have to educate the customer more if they had an unsuccessful experience with vehicle wraps in the past. The other main obstacle is finding good installers that meet or exceed our quality-control standards. We utilize 3M, Arlon, Inc., and Avery Dennison Graphics premium air release type cast vinyls and a 2-mil thick, hard UV laminate to protect against all types of weather elements," adds Oberman.
Regardless of the challenges inherent in vehicle graphics, Oberman says business is good for Avion. "With the way our economy is now, people either understand the benefits or they don’t. Our business is up approximately 20 percent because most of our customers understand the importance of rolling billboard advertising."
The Long Road
Like many in the business of digital printing, Tim Gray found his way into vehicle wrapping after traveling a winding professional path. "At the end of 1987 an automobile accident put me on my back for a month," he recalls. "I pulled a Macintosh computer into bed with me to do some typesetting for a little extra cash. By the Spring of 1988, a business was founded, focusing on typesetting and design.
"As the company acquired more equipment, a larger design base, and the revenue to support the acquisition of high-end equipment, the business evolved into a service bureau," Gray explains. "Our large format printing started early with a four-color Encad plotter, followed by eight- then 12-color MacDermid ColorSpan models. But it wasn’t until eco-solvent inks made a debut that we had any interest in taking our large format trade show work on the road. We have some of the largest eco-conscious businesses as clients, and true solvent inks simply were not a reasonable option."
Today, Gray’s business, which is known as BigAutoWrap.com, primarily uses Roland SOLJET PRO III printers in conjunction with Oracal media for vehicle graphics.
"The ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ does not apply in the vehicle graphics market," Gray advises. "Extensive knowledge of Adobe software, 3D rendering knowledge, color theory, and a background in printing, combined with hands-on experience in maintaining equipment, as well as automotive and mechanical skills all play into a successful design and wrap from a small-to-medium-sized shop. You need to be a master of all of these to propel your business forward—not to mention the skills with a knife and heat gun," he concludes.
Another challenge vehicle graphics suppliers face is how to price work—specifically, how to price the sometimes tedious and labor-intensive process of installation.
"Charges for installation vary widely based on location and complexity of the job," notes Oracal’s Grant. "Based on Oracal’s observations, however, typical printing and laminating costs average between three and five dollars per square foot. Installation charges for cars, vans, and small trucks typically range from $2,000 to $4,000, but again, this can vary depending on the complexity of the vehicle."
"Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. That couldn’t be a truer statement when it comes to vehicle wraps," cautions Troy Downey, owner, APE Wraps, in Coronado, CA.
"To get into this business, you need a realistic ability to seek and achieve perfection. Just because you’re a printer already doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically have the ability to start executing the precision necessary for installing vehicle wraps."
"We see a lot of bigger shops with their own installation base. They invest in those people," explains Joel Ross, marketing communications manager, Avery Dennison Graphics & Reflective Products Division.
"We also notice a lot of sign shops creating vehicle graphics, but they don’t have anyone to properly install them. You’ve got to invest in good installers," Ross stresses. For those interested in exploring this market further Ross says that Avery offers seminars in vehicle wraps, periodically hosted by the manufacturer’s distributors. "It’s an eight-hour introductory course in application techniques for vehicle wrapping."
When the Fates Align
While studying the vehicle graphics market in preparation for publishing Wrap It Up, Kellenberger says she learned that the core of the vehicle wrap business consists of a number of factors. Yes, the media and inks play a critical role. And so does the prepress, the printing, and the quality of the installation. But the success of the wrap is mostly dependent upon how all of these fates align.
"All of those elements weigh upon the finished quality of the product," she explains. "I came to understand that through talking to the participants in the marketplace. If any one element is missing or isn’t done to perfection, the job is lost. This is a very timely business. You only have access to a vehicle for a certain number of days, so to profit, you must do the job right in the brief period of time provided."
Fortunately for companies hoping to get into the vehicle graphics trade there are plenty of educational resources available.
"That is one area of study that I would like to go into a little more—the training side," Kellenberger confides. "There is a broad range of training—from professional to the shops that are doing their own, from the media guys offering classes to the industry associations, such as the Professional Decal Application Association."
Considering all the variables makes it difficult to predict just how fast or how far the vehicle graphics market will grow in the coming years. Kellenberger suggests that the smartest businesses tapping the market are really looking at it with long-term development in mind, rather than a quick-print mentality.
"We can’t have 100 percent of the vehicles wrapped out there, because no one would pay attention to them; they would lose their impact," she notes.
The other potential market pitfall? An all too familiar term to the print industry at large—commoditization. "It is up to the participants to make sure that they’re not reducing the price of the wraps too much, or turning out low-cost, poor quality wraps, because it undermines the whole industry," explains Kellenberger.
Growing Inside and Out
The print industry is thriving thanks in large part to vehicle wraps. "Vehicle graphic markets, led by vehicle wraps, are probably the number one growing market in the large format graphics industry today. It has shown growth, year after year, since its initiation with cut-vinyl trailer graphics, then bus wraps, and now vehicle wraps," notes Tim Boxeth, product marketing supervisor, 3M.
As long as sign shops who feel fully confident in their customer service, marketing, designing, and installation abilities can continue to break into this niche, who knows what the future holds? Vehicle wrapping isn’t for everyone, but if you want to make it work all the right tools are at your fingertips.