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    Finding a niche: Small markets, big profits

    Feature, Graphics | August 30, 2009 | By:

    How and why digital graphics companies are succeeding because they found their niche.

    I was sent on a quest to find digital graphics companies that are printing on textiles in niche markets. So what is a niche? Why a niche market? And who are these people?

    “Merriam-Webster” says that a niche market is “a specialized market.” The “Risk Management Curriculum Guide” defines niche marketing as “marketing a product or service in a small portion of a market that is not being readily served by the mainstream product or service providers. These niches can be geographic areas, a specialty industry, a demographic or ethnic group, a specific gender group, or other special group of people.”

    Now that we know what it is, the key question is why would a company look for—and embrace—a specialized market, especially since “specialized” generally means small?

    The “big” market

    Although it has been possible to print directly on textiles with digital printers in the past, assuming you did a lot of pre- and post-printing treatment, evolving technology has made it easier. Dye sublimation produces beautiful, colorfast images on polyester fibers, but direct print to natural fibers with no offline processing or preparation is now taking hold.

    I.T. Strategies, a research firm specializing in digital printing markets, recently forecast that printed output from digital textile printers will reach $6.1 billion in 2012, growing 27 percent annually from $1.9 billion in 2007. A 27-percent annual growth rate means that in five years, the volume will grow 133 percent. That’s a lot of digitally printed textiles, but where are the “niches” in that number?

    In an earlier report, I.T. Strategies looked at the market by square footage and estimated that by 2010, more than 2.1 billion square feet of digitally printed fabrics will be produced, 26 percent of that volume will be non-signage. In other words, in the midst of all those banners, flags and signs, there are plenty of niche or unique applications. And by 2012, direct-to-garment printers will print more than 260 million garments or other products.

    Marketing to a niche

    In 1994, Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.” The immutability of anything these days is questionable as times change faster than we can track, however the first three laws are particularly applicable as companies look to position themselves.

    1. Law of Leadership: It is better to be first than it is to be better. It’s much easier to get into a prospect’s mind when you are first than it is to try to convince someone you have a better product than the one that really did get there first.
    2. Law of the Category: If you can’t be first in a category, set up a new category you can be first in.
    3. Law of the Mind: It’s better to be first in the mind than to be first in the marketplace. Being first in the mind is everything in marketing; being first into the marketplace is important only to the extent that it allows you to get into the mind first.

    When the digitally printed textile market is measured in billions of dollars and billions of square feet, thinking niche can get your company into “first” place in your prospect’s mind quickly. It’s hard to be a category killer in the banners and signs market. But the biggest challenge is to reach new customers. Niche marketing requires print service providers to clearly define both their target market and their capabilities before exploring messaging, positioning and marketing channels. For marketing to consumers and end users, the internet has proven to be an excellent vehicle. For marketing to business, traditional methods, such as direct sales, are still most effective.

    Even in the current challenging economy, companies in our industry have identified and profited by some pretty unusual applications, proving that the proof is definitely in the printing.

    Betting on a niche

    As more states allow casino gambling, custom-printed tabletops will become a large niche opportunity. One would think that this isn’t really a niche, since textile providers have labeled fabrics “gaming suede.” However, when serving a particular segment of a market requires a certain status like licensing or certification, that segment certainly is specialized.

    Successful selling into a specialized area like gaming tabletops goes beyond getting an image onto the fabric. A printer really has to know the entire business behind the product. In Washington state, Lynn Krinsky, Stella Color, has to have a gaming license, which requires fingerprinting and both background and financial investigation. Not only are casinos and “card rooms” and their employees licensed, but so must be any company that manufactures or sells gaming equipment, supplies or services.

    Krinsky has been licensed for more than 15 years and has built a good base of repeat customers. Hours of card players’ elbows rubbing on a tabletop can wear it out pretty quickly. New customers are referred or find Stella Color through the Washington state listing of license holders.

    Bold, brilliant images are applied to polyester gaming suede using dye sublimation, and the fabric can be washed to keep it clean, bright and colorful. Krinsky prints on Mimaki and HP printers for sublimation.

    From books on demand to fabrics on demand

    Photobooks and “books on demand” for self-publishers are hugely successful for narrow-format digital printers, and now a few wide-format printers have discovered the opportunity to produce and market “fabrics on demand” in a similar fashion. A new niche is evolving that allows an end-user consumer to upload a design or photograph that will be gang printed by the yard direct to a natural fiber, such as cotton or linen. The fabric projects are then cut apart and shipped to the individual buyers.

    While there are several companies—and more popping up every day—that will produce custom fabric to order direct to consumer, two companies stand out: Fabric on Demand and Spoonflower. These two companies have approached the idea of offering consumers the ability to design and create their own fabrics from opposite ends of a continuum.

    Andy Graven, president of Custom Printed Fabrics, partnered with Rysa Pitner to launch Fabrics on Demand. Graven has been delivering custom printed fabrics to the textile industry for years, and he and Pitner teamed up initially to offer a “gateway” that allows customers to upload images and have them printed on a variety of substrates, including fabric. Pitner was the image manager and Graven was the textile expert.

    When that offering proved to be conceptually difficult for the buyer, they looked for an install base that would “get it” quickly. Who else but quilters, crafters and textile designers? Fabrics on Demand focuses on printing high-quality images on textiles. The company offers its customers hands-on support that results in personal service. For example, when it was contacted by a father who wanted to print fabric he could laminate on his son’s prosthetic leg, Fabrics on Demand offered a lycra that wasn’t on the website but was in stock. The result is a terrific blend of substrate and printing technology that allowed for a smooth lamination of photos of the boy participating in a wide range of sports, despite his disability.

    Custom Printed Fabrics prints direct to fabric and incorporates dye sublimation on a wide range of equipment that includes Dupont Artistry and Ichinose printers.

    Spoonflower targets the same audience from a different direction. Stephen Fraser and Gart Davis met and worked together as part of the executive team at “books on demand” site Looking for a new market that could incorporate similar on-demand technology, Fraser and Davis turned to textiles in an attempt to do for fabric design what YouTube does for video distribution and Lulu does for custom produced books. As experienced online marketers that developed a sophisticated “design and produce” web interface for consumers, they took a logical step into fabric production.

    Embracing the do-it-yourself movement and offering yet another tool for people to produce their own content, Spoonflower has automated the upload, imposition and printing process to offer reasonably printed fabric by the yard. The focus is to provide “pleasing” color and reasonable resolution on a few fabrics to a large number of consumers.

    Spoonflower has five Yuhan-Kimberly printers and prints pigments using water-based NanoColorant inks.

    Beyond the banner: You say “blinds”

    It depends on which part of the world you come from that determines whether you say “window shades” or “window blinds.” Mark Forrest, Print2Canvas (soon to be rebranded as “Printed Spaces”), with his very proper British accent says “window blinds.”

    A roller blind is not a banner, but the next iteration of a banner. It can be static, simply hanging flat, and it can get larger or smaller as needed when it rolls up and down. Forrest’s company produces custom window covers in the form of roller-mounted window blinds for both the consumer and commercial markets. Because Print2Canvas works primarily in the commercial market in London, commercial contracts for wallpaper and window blinds generate most of its revenue.

    Appearances on “60 Minute Makeover,” a redecorating reality show in the United Kingdom have generated numerous orders. Through specially focused websites, the company gets orders from consumers that can upload or select images from the Print2Canvas website or the more targeted website, choose the proper size, and order blinds online.

    In 2008, Print2Canvas produced two large blinds measuring 78 inches wide and 117 inches tall for the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, England.

    Print2Canvas prints with an Agfa Grand Sherpa 64 Universal and an Epson Stylus Pro 9880. Blinds are direct printed to two substrates: a blackout fabric like that used at the Museum of Science and Industry and a 100-percent cotton canvas. Inks used are solvent-based, though a move to water-based inks is taking place.

    I say “shades”

    Rainier Industries, Seattle, manufactures window shades primarily for the consumer market, however president Scott Campbell is directing the company into a new niche market: AdShades.

    In most communities, graphics and awnings attached to the outside of a building are considered signage. Municipalities often have stringent sign regulations that require permits and set certain specifications that must be met. Put that same installation inside the building and those regulations go away. For retail locations, AdShades may be just the ticket. Got sun shining into your shop? Ordinarily your options are tinted windows, blinds (the kind with slats) or shades. Unfortunately, all three block the view of passersby into your location and the view of shoppers out.

    Rainier’s AdShades screen out the incoming light and UV rays and let shoppers see out, all while presenting an appealing or informational image to the street. The shades were recently installed on large street-facing windows in a natural foods market. By reducing the heat and glare from incoming light, shoppers have been encouraged to enjoy the street view while dining in the store’s deli. Sidewalk shoppers are presented with appealing graphics. On cool, cloudy days the shades can be raised out of the way.

    Made of vinyl or fiberglass mesh, AdShades are printed on Rainier’s roll-to-roll UV printers fitted with mesh kits.

    Where in the world?

    A special customer took Nora Norby, Banner Creations, into a new niche when she teamed with Earth Adventure to produce and market 20-foot-diameter inflatable globes of the earth. Looking to find a local printer, David Knutson, executive director of Earth Adventure, discovered Norby’s Banner Creations in Minneapolis. This is a case where a specialty grew into a partnership.

    Earth Balloons are part of a series of educational programs that teach children about the earth and their environment from inside the globe. Satellite images are applied to coated polyester satin using dye sublimation, and the segments are sewn into globes of various sizes. The 20-foot diameter is the most popular because it is an inflatable classroom that accommodates up to 30 students, and the translucent quality of the fabric displays the image inside and outside.

    It’s round, cover it up

    Paul Speert, SAS Promotions, has found himself a very special niche. He may not be printing on the largest piece of equipment, but he turns out tens of thousands of customized covers for steering wheels, tubas, bar stools and breadbaskets. What do these products have in common? They can all be covered with something that looks like a giant shower cap.

    Originally designed for automobile steering wheels, Speert increased the diameter and introduced covers for RVs and tractor-trailer trucks. Then he reached out to the marine market where his covers protect powerboat steering wheels from the elements.

    Staying in the automotive niche, but moving from inside the car to under the hood, Speert offers covers for air filters. The big, round, bright chrome air filters reflect a lot of light when custom or collectable cars are displayed at outdoor shows. The reflected light can distract those who want to take a closer look at the engine and damage the paint on the underside of the hood. Slip a customized cover over the filter and the problems are solved.

    Other niches can be reached with “cool steering wheel covers.” Marching bands use them to cover the bells on tubas, beer distributors give them to their customers to cover bar stools, and restaurants use them to keep baskets of dinner rolls warm. And every one of the covers has an image right in the middle of it.

    Speert may not be printing on the largest piece of fabric out there, but he images a lot of covers. He prints transfer paper from an Epson Stylus Pro 4808 for sublimation on a specially modified HIX SwingMan heat press that has round plates of assorted sizes.

    Serving both businesses and consumers, Speert reaches his customers by word of mouth, self-promotion, simply by covering his own steering wheel, and the website, all of which have helped his business grow and helped him identify new uses for his product.

    Bye-bye rotary press

    Digital printing of samples and “strike offs” for textiles manufacturers, first on IRIS printers, then on digital inkjet printers, is an established niche that is developing into something new and different. First2Print, a digital print-on-demand service, originally targeted fabric designers in the textile industry as a business-to-business service.

    Dani Locastra, a textile designer by trade, joined First2Print early in the company’s existence and has helped take it into new markets by pairing the design process with the production process. In other words, she is looking for clients who understand that digital printing allows them to offer a product that is unique because of the capabilities of digital printing. She partners with designers that take advantage of imagery that could not be produced with traditional rotary techniques.

    For example, in 2007, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation teamed with Graco, a manufacturer of baby and children’s products, to raise money with an auction of signed, limited edition strollers. First2Print digitally printed the fabric that was made into 1,000 strollers.

    Some people might view the limitations of digital printing, particularly the high cost per yard, as a showstopper. Locastra turns that problem on its head. She doesn’t sell by the yard, she offers clients the ability to create one of a kind, unique products in extremely short runs, eliminates inventory, and produces the fabric in the United States. Those customers take her fabrics and turn them into products like high fashion couture designs (, handbags and totes (, board shorts and surf shorts (, and wild bathing suits covered in graffiti (

    First2Print primarily prints direct to fabric and dye sublimation on a wide variety of equipment, such as the DuPont Artistry and printers by Mimaki, Mutoh and Encad.

    Take the big step

    New processes for printing directly to textiles, combined with both transfer and direct dye sublimation processes, offer an ever expanding array of opportunities to digital printers of all kinds.

    Those who are holding their own in these tough times—and who will be successful going forward—are the companies who are making the big paradigm shift from commodity to niche and turning big profits in small markets.

    Gail Nickel-Kailing, Business Strategies Etc., Seattle, Wash., provides outsourced business planning and marketing services and manages the execution of marketing communications tactics.

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