By now, readers of Printing Impressions are well aware of convergence, what it means, and why it’s so necessary when it comes to positioning your commercial printing business for future growth. But knowing which verticals and print segments to cultivate can be difficult, with the wrong choice leading to lost time, lost resources, and lost profits. That said, there is one segment many have started to turn to, and that still has a great deal of opportunity to offer: wide-format digital printing.
In the “Printing Business Indicators/Product Markets Survey,” conducted by NAPCO Media Research and PRINTING United Alliance, one finding stands out starkly: half of the opportunities that commercial establishments are watching carefully all fall within the wide-format printing space. Building graphics, POP/display graphics, vehicle wraps, compliance and safety signage, window graphics, and fleet graphics all make the list of verticals commercial printers across the country are either already starting to offer, or are strongly considering adopting.
“There are so many opportunities,” points out Mike Graff, president of Clifton, New Jersey-based Sandy Alexander, which ranked No. 46 on the most recent Printing Impressions 300 list. The company reported $16.88 million in wide-format-specific sales, representing 16% of its annual sales. “I would recommend everyone look at their client base first, and see if they can sell more to existing accounts. That is the fastest and most direct route to sales opportunities.”
More specifically, Greg Neath, VP of In-Store & Direct Marketing at TC Transcontinental in Montreal, notes signage is a particularly lucrative space that commercial printers should be taking a hard look at, especially as travel begins to open back up worldwide.
“The best opportunity coming out of COVID-19 for the average commercial printer would be signage for local events — primarily sports, sports facilities, concert venues, golf courses, etc., as outdoor events will see a multi-year boom due to pent-up demand,” he says. “Local (non-chain) restaurants and bars should also see a resurgence and represent an opportunity.”
Trends Driving the Wide-Format Opportunity
Travel and commuting as trends driving growth opportunities play out in the numbers as well. A “Harris Insights & Analytics” survey found that while just 45% of workers were commuting to work daily in the winter of 2021 — with another 26% beginning a hybrid approach of commuting and working from home — those numbers will shift dramatically, with 59% expecting a return to full-time commuting in the first half of 2022, and another 18% continuing with the hybrid approach.
The strict work-from-home crowd will shrink from 28% of the workforce to just 22%, a sign more people are starting to come out of pandemic mode and think about the future.
On the travel side of the equation, that same survey found that 72% of Americans are planning some form of travel in the first half of 2022, with pent-up demand leading many to expect record numbers in the coming months. More than half (55%) expect to do that travel via airplane, which means people are venturing far outside of their pandemic bubbles, opening up a great deal of opportunity for printers capable of producing signage of all types.
OOH, or out-of-home, signage in particular will be a popular format for brands of all types and sizes looking to capture the attention of all of these travelers. OOH signage includes everything from advertisements on the sides of buses, to graphics in transit stations, to banners in airports, and more. The opportunity here is as endless as the creativity of the brands and printers who serve them.
And the opportunity goes beyond those traveling far from home, as well. In-person visits to places like grocery stores, retail outlets, restaurants, and pharmacies — to name a few — are all expected to surge in the first half of 2022 as people look to get out and interact with others more. And every single one of these places is a chance for a brand — and their print provider — to offer eye-catching signage and marketing materials produced on wide-format equipment.
That said, research has shown that some COVID behaviors aren’t going to go away any time soon. Online shopping is now a permanent part of the retail landscape, which means brands are looking to create unique experiences for those who do venture into brick-and-mortar locations. This type of immersive and interactive experience pulls from a wide range of mediums that all work together, including everything from mobile apps, to digital signage, to signage and graphics. For a commercial printer, this is a strong opportunity to become a “one-stop shop” with the ability to produce every piece of a campaign, rather than just contract out for a small portion.
“The merging of digital and physical is happening fast, and will definitely impact the industry,” Neath says. “As an example, we recently completed a drive-thru project with a major coffee chain that saw a printed base wrap for a digital panel, integrated to produce a promotional display that neither print or digital alone could have provided the same impact.”
Window graphics, in particular, are a fantastic medium that commercial printers with wide-format equipment can take advantage of. The majority of consumers are always on the lookout for great deals, and many will stop and walk into a store with interesting or eye-catching graphics that draw them in.
Other trends driving the explosive growth expected in wide-format graphics in general include a push for sustainability coming from consumers and brands, leading to a push for more eco-friendly ink and substrate options, as well as better plans for what happens to graphics after the campaign is over.
Privacy is another major trend that will lead to increased demand for graphics — as consumers get more serious about their data and how it is used in online and mobile platforms, it will get harder for brands to use those mediums to target them. They will increasingly turn once more to unique signage and graphics to help capture attention and tell their story.
Personalization will continue to be a trend driving wide-format growth as well, with everything from interior décor, to vehicle graphics, to apparel as fair game when it comes to offering consumers the chance to make something their own. Wide-format is the tool needed to meet this growing space and offer higher-margin, more unique one-off projects.
Finally, safety and compliance aren’t going to disappear any time soon, even as the worst of the pandemic seems to finally be behind us. There is still a lot of uncertainty, and brands will want to reassure customers that shopping, dining, or traveling with them is safe. Everything from wayfinding signage, to floor graphics, to banner and window graphics, can be used to help cultivate a sense of peace and help consumers navigate comfortably in this “new normal.”
Overcoming the Initial Challenges
As much as wide-format printing is an opportunity for commercial printers looking to grow their businesses in 2022 and beyond, it’s not something that should just be jumped into with no thought, either. There are considerations to work through before taking that first step.
Graff stresses that the very first thing commercial printers need to really think about is space. “The No. 1 untold story with wide-format is that you need a lot of space to do it right,” he says. “Even proportionally, a small shop adding a 60˝ or 70˝ machine will need a fair amount of space for everything, from finishing to warehousing. It is very different from storing 28˝ sheets. That was the most surprising thing for us when entering the market — we started out with a 40,000-sq.-ft. building, and now we’re up to 80,000 sq. ft.”
Another challenge, according to Neath, is that it can be hard to transition traditional offset press operators to the wide-format side of the business. “We added wide-format more than 10 years ago and … even this many years later it can be a challenge to move long-term staff from a ‘retired’ litho press (especially web presses) to the digital world, where makereadies happen in minutes and speed is significantly more critical to the client. Some just can’t adjust.”
That said, both operations note that the move to wide-format was absolutely worth overcoming any unexpected challenges along the way. They had some additional advice to offer others looking to follow their path to add wide-format printing capabilities.
“You need to fully understand who your target market will be, and if you have the right equipment to compete and win in that market,” Neath advises. “Be honest — you won’t be printing for the local Walmart or Home Depot, but understand what your current local clients need, and then build out niche capabilities so you’re [offering far] more than the local sign shop you will need to compete with.”
“Do not do it as a ‘field of dreams,’” Graff, of Sandy Alexander, notes. “Do your homework and make sure you have a client base that is going to support your investment. We did that, and were able to hit the ground running — we did not build it and hope they would come. We started out almost immediately with incoming business.”
Graff adds that, in the end, a well-built wide-format business can also help grow other segments of the business as well. Some of Sandy Alexander’s customers came from the litho side to take advantage of the new digital wide-format services, whereas others were wide-format clients who also started purchasing offset work. “This is an easy sell if the client is already a client,” he notes, “and it enables deeper penetration into new accounts. It also provides better opportunities to enter new accounts, and provides some stability to the overall ebb and flow of work throughout the year.”
Wide-format printing is diverse, with a range of sizes, both roll-fed and flatbed options — as well as hybrid equipment that offers both — and various inksets that each offer their own unique challenges and opportunities. For commercial printers willing to spend some time researching the options and making strategic investments, it is a lucrative space that can bring in higher-margin work, with larger profits and more diverse customers. The opportunity is waiting for those willing to take the plunge.