By Olivia Cahoon
Print service providers (PSPs) that launch into unfamiliar territory with services like digital textile printing for home décor or wallcoverings for architectural firms should plan on experiencing some learning curves. While adapting to a new production process is important, it’s also integral that PSPs learn how to cater to specialty customers and their unfamiliar demands. Focusing on communication and fully understanding the application as well as the customer’s expectations are important considerations.
Above: Utilizing wide format printers from Mimaki, PSPs can enter into decor printing for both residential and office spaces, creating applications like this sublimated glass piece.
As digital print technology continues to advance, PSPs take advantage of the newest innovations and expand into specialty applications. By entering markets like digital textile printing and wallcoverings, PSPs provide a fuller branding opportunity to current clients in addition to a new revenue source for custom and commercial items.
“Adding the ability to produce décor items like custom wallpaper and fabrics for office spaces and architectural applications expands the sign shop’s ability to provide more complex branding for customers,” explains Randy Anderson, product manager, dye-sublimation (dye-sub) and direct to textile printer line, Mutoh America, Inc.
Not only do PSPs expand their offerings to existing customers, they also open the door for new clients who primarily seek specialty applications. For example, digital textile printing for soft signage is a growing market that attracts retailers and brand managers. “It can be used to produce wind sails, dancers, and other attention-grabbing applications that are also easy to handle and more economical to ship,” says Michael Maxwell, senior manager, Mimaki USA, Inc.
With more services and applications to offer, PSPs increase profit margins while diversifying themselves from competition. According to Jessica Blevins, applications product specialist, S-One Holdings Corporation, PSPs can also increase their prices and charge more for customized solutions.
Tom Wittenberg, large format marketing segment manager, sign and décor, the Americas, HP, Inc., says PSPs who offer specialty applications should think of the benefits like a financial portfolio. With added capabilities, they can diversify to cover risks in primary holdings.
“In this case, if signage drops, you have textiles and décor to fall back on for business and vice versa,” shares Wittenberg. This includes providing other avenues for growth and margin to allow for faster reinvestment in the business. Additionally, it offers new creative outlets for the PSP’s designers.
Meeting Traditional Demands
Traditional sign buyers seek print providers that offer one-stop shop capabilities with a variety of services and products from printed materials and frames, to specialty inks like neon. At the same time, customers seek the newest sign products and trends to stay ahead of the competition.
“By being able to incorporate printed images on vinyl, banner, backlit film, or other types of flexible media into traditional sign design ensures the sign shop keeps the customer from sourcing your competitors,” recommends Anderson.
Specialty applications for digital textile printing and wallcoverings for office spaces are primarily used indoors while a large amount of signage is intended for outdoor usage. As a result, traditional sign buyers generally have a stronger focus on finishing requirements and price rather than quality. “For example, hems need to be reinforced with webbing for outdoor building signage or an anti-graffiti overlaminate might be specified for added surface protection,” adds Blevins.
Specialty Customer Demands
Specialty customers seeking home décor applications are primarily focused on quality. This is due to the fact that the application will serve as a decorative purpose or to invoke a specific response in an enclosed surrounding.
According to Blevins, home décor customers pay specific attention to textures, how the material feels, color gamut, and the quality of materials and prints. “The buyer might also be attracted to unique product offerings and capabilities to add to or diversify their design,” she explains. Materials for home décor range from fabrics, canvas, and wallcoverings to acrylic, metal, and wood.
Specialty customers also look at quality, turnaround times, pricing, material advice, and design work. “I’ve found that changes in scope and specifications are quite common, much more than the normal, traditional businesses that PSPs work with on a daily basis,” says Wittenberg. End user driven changes are also more common with specialty customers and can drive costs up and margins down. “This can occur to the point of the job being a money losing proposition if you are not managing the customers and your processes very tightly.”
Demands and needs for specialty customers differ from traditional sign buyers. Generally, specialty customers are more interested in appearance because the application is dependent on customization. According to Anderson, specialty customers may be more particular about design, fit, and finish because specialty printing services are typically more expensive than traditional signs that incorporate digital printing. “Customers want the best bang for the buck and they need it when they want it and it has to withstand the site location forever,” he explains.
Home décor and fashion applications tend to involve entirely different types of consumers and challenges. Because there are several types of materials and inks available, Anderson believes it’s important to dial in the appropriate type of material with the appropriate ink and the finishing techniques to ensure the end result is what the customer wants.
Customer Service Approaches
PSPs beginning to offer new specialty services should provide customers with a clear understanding of the application and its terms.
According to Anderson, terms for describing textile applications can differ from traditional signage. For example, the contrast between woven and weave, the different types of weaves, and characteristics of fabric types are all specifications that customers will expect the PSP to be familiar with.
“Listen very carefully to your customer as there are usually special instructions, more than you would have with your traditional buyers,” suggests Wittenberg. This includes being actively involved in the design and decision-making process, which can result in reducing costs and providing ease.
PSPs should approach specialty services by identifying what application they would like to produce and then selecting the best printing process for the project. Once the application is identified, printing methods become easier to navigate with specially matched printers and ink systems that include features for quality, reliability, and value. “Working with an established dealer with knowledge in all areas—including printing, media, inks, finishing, and operations—will help PSPs decide which new specialty markets to tackle,” says Maxwell. Attending leading trade shows will also helps PSPs learn about new applications for existing equipment and new technologies.
If soft signage is the PSP’s intended specialty application, Maxwell believes the next step is to work with a knowledgeable dealer that specializes in all aspects of digital textile technology. This includes several considerations including printers, inks, transfer media, and heat presses or other finishing devices.
“For the best results, a dealer should be selling the inks matched to the printer by the manufacturer,” says Maxwell. In addition, he believes dealers should also be able to work with the PSP to select the best solution based on specific needs, provide information on cost, value, and ROI, and continually service the shop by providing consumables and assistance.
Established in 1994, Parallax Digital Studios, Inc. started as a design agency in Atlanta, GA. With six employees, the company originally offered creative, design, and photography services from a 10,000 square foot space.
“This gave us a distinct advantage by providing our customers with a more complete set of services,” says David E. Clevenger, president, Parallax Digital.
Today, it has 49 employees and offers home décor items, expanding from the traditional sign business. Printing services for retail, corporate, exhibit, photographic, and giclée industries occur in a 60,000 square foot workspace. This includes signage, design, and fabricating divisions including in-house paint services.
The PSP also has an ecommerce group, interiorink.com, which offers select interior décor products like murals, custom wallcoverings, fabrics, solar shades, and fine art prints. “We began working in the décor space several years ago and continue to see a very nice upward trend in that business sector,” says Clevenger.
Parallax Digital offers signage including LED systems, fabric, and frames for reflective and backlit applications. According to Clevenger, the shop produces a majority of interior décor in the home, corporate, and display markets.
15 percent of the company’s work is digitally printed home décor with 25 percent in the business-to-business market. “We see the décor markets growing far faster than traditional signage markets with the exception of soft or fabric signage,” points out Clevenger.
The company has three HP Latex 3500 printers, two MS Printing Solutions Impres 4320 dye-sub printers, and an MTEX Solutions Blue inline sublimation device. “We pride ourselves on offering the latest materials and products with state-of-the-art production processes to provide customers with a one-stop, turnkey solution for signage or décor,” shares Clevenger.
Parallax Digital produces custom size products printed to meet the customer’s needs. According to Clevenger, the traditional customer for signage tends to be a professional buyer or facilitator while most of the home décor buyers are do it yourself customers buying for personal projects.
To cater to new types of clients, Clevenger believes the experience needs to work for the customer as seamlessly as possible. “It’s been a process to understand the market and to tailor a solution that meets customer needs without a lot of complexity or frustration,” he admits.
This includes developing the proper tools and platform. “We have dedicated customer service providers with specific knowledge and training to ensure the customer has the help and attention to make their order with us a pleasant and successful experience.”
For PSPs beginning to offer services like digital textile printing for home décor or wallcoverings, Clevenger suggests they start small with one or two core services. Once mastering a specialty application and developing customer experience, the PSP can then determine if and when adding other products or services will be the next step in the business model.
Expanding beyond traditional signage into specialty applications provides a fuller branding opportunity for new and existing clients. To effectively serve specialty customers, it’s important that PSPs are aware of the customer’s demands and expectations. Specialty customers are generally more particular about appearance and design because these services are generally targeted toward customization with higher costs.
Mar2018, Digital Output