Tech Tattoos Can Turn a Hefty Profit

Copyright © 2009 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in February 2009, Volume 34, No. 8 of The Engravers Journal

Customizing popular electronic gift items adds a personal touch to the gift, serves as a theft deterrent and creates a memorable keepsake. Photo courtesy of Universal Laser Systems.

  Customizing electronic devices serves as a great theft deterrent. Photo courtesy of Hitech Tattoos, Toronto, ON, Canada.

   Most people who own an engraving shop are always on the lookout for ideas to help increase their sales potential. It’s no secret that one of the best ways to boost sales is to increase your customer base. How do you go about finding new customers? Well, one solution is to add a niche service to your business that will attract a whole new breed of customers.
   If you’re wondering which niche service to consider, look no further than technology tattoos, or “tech tatts” as they’re referred to by most twenty-somethings. Just for the record, we’re not suggesting that you set up a tattoo parlor and learn a new trade. On the contrary, if you own a laser engraving system then you already have everything you need to offer this popular and profitable service.
   Technology tattoos are one of the hottest new trends in the industry that involves laser engraving various logos, artwork and text on a variety of consumer electronic devices. Some of the most popular items being engraved today include iPods and mp3 players, laptop computers and cell phones, but lasers are also making their mark on items such as digital cameras, USB flash drives, PDAs and handheld gaming systems like Nintendo’s Gameboy and Sony’s PSP.
   There has been a huge growth in the personalized products industry in recent years. Much of this stems from advances in technology, which has led to an explosion in the types of products available for personalization as well as the types of equipment that can do the customizing. The other part of the equation is simply the fact that people love products that are different and unique. If people can have their belongings personalized, they are usually more than willing to pay a fair price for the service.
   That’s where you and your engraving business come into play. Why not have people pay you rather than someone else to engrave their electronic gadgets? And there’s no better time to begin offering this service than right now, when the trend is still in its infancy.
   “Consumer electronic product customization is a market that is experiencing tremendous growth,” says James Stanaway, director of marketing for Epilog Laser, Golden, CO. “In fact, one of the hottest trends we’re seeing right now is the personalization of tech gadgets such as mobile phones, mp3 players, digital cameras and laptop covers.”
   It’s so popular, in fact, that John Catanus and Bruno Mackay started HiTech Tattoos, a retail business in Toronto, Ontario, in 2007 specifically to tap into this niche market. After recognizing the strong desire that people in the U.S. had for personalization, Catanus said they researched the technology and then decided to get in on the action while the concept was still fairly new in Canada.
   “We cater to the tech population,” says Catanus. “Since we are part of this population, we felt that there was a need that we could fill, especially in the Canadian market. There are a handful of U.S. companies who are already doing this and doing it well.”
   Rader’s Engraving, Boston, MA, is one of those companies, but owner Warren Rader says while the popularity of engraving these types of items is definitely on the rise, the concept really isn’t all that new. In fact, he says he can recall rotary engraving on the Walkman radios and personal CD players when those items were all the rage back in the 1980s and 1990s. Laser engraving technology has made it much easier to reproduce more complicated designs and allows for personalizing a much wider range of materials and more delicate products.
   Rader said he just recently did a job that involved lasering a company logo on a large order of Bluetooth headsets that the business was going to give to its employees. There was a small area on the earpiece which is where the logo was placed, he said. But Rader says the majority of items they see are iPods, with people either having their own names engraved on them as a theft deterrent or, if it’s a gift, the name of the recipient or a personal message.

Etching expensive high-tech devices can be done with minimal risk if engravers do their homework and know what type of material they’re working with. Photo courtesy of Epilog Laser, Golden, CO.   Laser engraving colorful anodized aluminum products like this iPod Nano offers nice, high-contrast marking. Photo courtesy of Engrave Your Tech, Portland, OR.

Why So Popular?
   Why is this concept of customizing electronic devices becoming so popular? There are a number of reasons, including branding and the fact that it serves as a theft deterrent, but the main reason people are tattooing their tech gadgets is simply because they can, and because today’s generation is all about style and individuality.
   Style/Personality—At one time, consumers felt as though they were making a personal statement merely by sporting an iPod or a laptop computer. In today’s technology-driven society, however, electronic devices like the cell phone, iPod and laptop computer have become part of everyday life for many consumers.
   Whether it’s for business or pleasure, people are carrying these items with them almost everywhere they go, which means it now takes a little more than the device itself to express a sense of style. Customers are seeking out ways to maintain their individuality, and many are choosing to personalize their electronic gadgets. Those who really want to “trick out” their devices are turning to laser engraved tattoos of everything from cartoon characters and Star Trek scenes to intricate designs and personal photos.
   “It has become such a phenomenon to have your mp3 engraved,” says Stanaway. “Young people are looking for ways to make their iPods, phones and mp3 players stand out. If they can make their gadgets one-of-a-kind through laser engraving then they are willing to pay for the service.”
   Personalized Gifts—As mentioned earlier, personalizing products and gifts has become a booming industry as new products are introduced to the market almost daily. Customers are always on the lookout for unique gift ideas, especially those which have the ability to serve as a memorable keepsake. Personalization offers the possibility for people to create their own gift ideas with a variety of generic items, whether it’s jewelry, apparel, coffee mugs, iPods or laptop computers.
   Customized gifts also tend to add value to an item, at least in the eyes of the recipient. Consider for a moment that millions of people are purchasing iPods for birthday, Christmas or Valentine’s Day presents. Now think about how much more special, and unique, that gift would be if it had a personal message, design or even a photo engraved on it.
   Branding/Promotion—Many businesses and organizations are taking advantage of this trend toward personalizing electronic devices as well, but not because they’re trying to gain style points. Instead, they’re using it as a form of advertising, attempting to promote their company’s name, brand or product by marking the laptop computers, mobile phones and even iPods or Mp3 players they purchase for their employees to use.
   Theft Deterrent—Permanently marking items such as iPods, cell phones and laptop computers with a person’s or company’s name or other information such as a barcode also serves as a great security measure. There is the traceability factor if an item is stolen, but even more important is the fact that visible designs and other markings are a strong theft deterrent. After all, what thief in his right mind would choose to steal an item with a person’s name or a personal marking clearly visible and permanently attached to it? This would make it especially difficult for a thief to sell it off for a nice profit, which is the main reason these items are stolen in the first place.
   “Deterring theft is one reason for the growth in this particular market. When you have a unique design permanently engraved on your laptop it’s hard for a thief to pretend that it’s his or hers,” says Epilog’s Stanaway. “Whether it’s a university offering to laser engrave your name on your laptop or a company looking to engrave a barcode on each employee’s phone, the increase in lasering products for security reasons is definitely on the rise.”

Some businesses and organizations customize electronic gadgets for advertising/branding purposes. Photo courtesy of Tech-Tattoos, Toledo, OH.   Laser engraving electronic gadgets like this iPod Classic is a non-invasive process that typically will not void the item’s warranty. Photo courtesy of Etchstar, West Hollywood, CA.

Profit Potential
   Obviously, the main reason award or engraving shops would want to consider adding this niche service is for the potential profits. “Customization of any product gives retailers a large profit margin,” says Stanaway. “By offering a unique engraving on a high-tech product, the retailer is able to take a customer’s iPod that millions of people own and make it unique to that customer’s tastes. Really, you’re tattooing a product in an incredibly personal way for customers.”
   Stanaway says customized gadgets have the potential to greatly increase profits, adding that some retailers charge anywhere from $30 for a small device such as an iPod or mobile phone to upwards of $150 for a laptop cover. “By offering a limited number of preset designs at one price that can be engraved quickly through a template, the retailer can see large profit margins because there is no product cost, just the setup and engraving time,” he says.
   In addition to profits, however, taking on this niche market also opens up a wonderful opportunity to cultivate a whole new crop of long-term customers. “We all know that word of mouth is the best money maker for laser owners,” says Stanaway. “By expanding your services to include a youth demographic that understands lasers and their capabilities, you can create an entire base that will be coming back to your business for their signage, awards, trophies and anything else you might offer for years to come.”
   And Catanus can attest to that. He says that while HiTech Tattoos began strictly servicing the tech generation, it has since branched out into other areas. “We have actually etched leather—wallets and shoes, glass, tile and denim,” he said, adding they’re also looking into getting involved in the art community to help showcase designs. “At the end of the day we can pretty much do anything as long as we try it first.”
What are the Risks?
   Many engraving shops have a policy against engraving outside items; that is, items that people bring in off the street as opposed to items they sell in their shop. One of the main reasons for this is because they see it as a risk to do so, especially in the case of products that are expensive or difficult to replace such as antiques, family heirlooms, crystal, fine jewelry or limited edition items.
   In the case of tech gadgets like iPods, laptop computers and digital cameras, the risk might seem too high since it would be quite expensive to replace one of these items should you make a mistake. There are, however, many things retailers can do to minimize that risk and make it worth their while.
   “Rule one is to protect yourself,” says Stanaway. “The safest way to etch products is to have a selection of graphics that you have tested and that you know will etch well.” Another way to minimize your risk is to create templates for different products. Not only does this save time during set up, but it also helps prevent potential mistakes that can occur during set up. “Most important, make use of the Red Dot Pointer so you know exactly where the final image is going to etch,” adds Stanaway.
   Even if you do make a mistake, there are ways to fix a product without having to buy the customer an entirely new iPod or cell phone. For example, Stanaway says there are replacement parts for things like the front display or the back casing of cell phones, mp3 players and even laptops. He suggests having the contact information or websites handy for the various companies that offer these replacement parts. You should be prepared to replace one just in case you do mess up a job, he says, but adds the risk is minimal with today’s laser technology.
   Catanus says that while there’s always the potential for human error or machine issues, mistakes are very few and far between if you do your homework and test products before you begin. In fact, he says they only have one incident for about every 300 products they engrave. The customer usually understands there is a risk on their end as well, he says, adding it’s up to the individual retailer as to how they will handle these situations. As for HiTech Tattoos, Catanus says they guarantee all of their engraving work. This gives the consumer more peace of mind that if something goes wrong the service provider will make it right.
   Rader says experience is always the best medicine when it comes to preventing mistakes. “We’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says, “so we know what types of materials may or may not be an issue. If we think there could be a problem then we’ll warn the customer and recommend not to engrave the item.” At that point, he says, it’s the customer’s risk if they choose to do it anyway. But Rader says most engraving jobs involving electronic devices are very successful.
   “Engraving expensive tech gadgets may seem a little risky because of their high price tag,” adds Stanaway. “However, because speed and power settings are so precise, laser engraving tech toys is very noninvasive. Almost any tech gadget can be engraved ‘as-is’ without worrying about disassembling the item to protect the internal components. The laser engraving technique is so gentle that it will not destroy the inner workings of the devices.”

Laser engraving electronic gadgets like this iPod Classic is a non-invasive process that typically will not void the item’s warranty. Photo courtesy of Etchstar, West Hollywood, CA.   Style and individuality is one of the main reasons consumers choose to tattoo their laptops and other tech toys. Photo courtesy of Tech-Tattoos, Toledo, OH.

Other Considerations
   Some of the questions frequently asked by consumers have to do with the types of materials that can and can’t be laser engraved. Materials for consumer electronic devices are relatively limited, with most of these products made from plastic, bare aluminum, anodized aluminum or stainless steel.
   According to Epilog’s Stanaway, all of these materials engrave well with a CO2 laser, but the mark it leaves behind can vary dramatically from one material to the other. It’s important for retailers to do their homework and understand not only the type of material they’re working with but also what the end result will look like. “Many of today’s high-tech plastics are so well-engineered that they actually look and feel like metal,” says Stanaway. “Luckily, stainless steel is easily identified and the other three materials are all engraved using similar speed and power settings, so whether it’s plastic or aluminum won’t impact how you set up your laser for engraving.”
   Stanaway said the biggest difference in all of these materials is the amount of contrast that is produced when they’re engraved. “Bare aluminum and some plastics will produce a ‘tone-on-tone’ contrast, which is subtle and not nearly as eye-catching as anodized aluminum, but luckily the tone-on-tone look is very popular when it comes to high-tech gadgets,” he says.
   If you’re looking for a darker contrast, that can be achieved with bare aluminum and stainless steel by pre-treating it with a metal marking substance. Anodized aluminum, on the other hand, needs no premarking preparation. The laser removes the anodized coating to reveal the raw aluminum underneath, and because this material comes in so many different colors it leaves a very nice, high-contrast mark. Most plastics work similarly, where the laser removes the top layer to reveal the layer below, which is typically a lighter color.
   Another common question consumers have is whether or not permanently marking their electronic devices will void the warranty from the manufacturer. The answer is typically “no” since laser engraving is considered more of a cosmetic enhancement rather than a modification that would affect the behavior or performance of the product. However, the answer to this question depends on the specific company and its policies. If there are any doubts, retailers should always suggest that customers contact the manufacturer of the product before getting it engraved.
   It may be common knowledge these days that consumer electronic companies like Apple and HP have begun offering free engraving services with the purchase of one of their products. Retailers may be reluctant to offer this service simply out of fear of competing with these manufacturing giants, but those who are say there is plenty of profit to go around, particularly because these companies only offer limited engraving services.
   “The answer lies in variety,” says Stanaway. “Manufacturers of consumer tech goods may provide free engraving services, but it’s usually limited to a certain number of characters and certain fonts, and it usually doesn’t include the engraving of logos or artwork.”
   By offering consumers more variety and greater detail, not only can you attract more potential customers but you can also offer more price points. “Keep in mind that the big players (Apple, HP, etc.) won’t do the specific custom personalization that most consumers desire, and here lies our potential,” says Catanus, adding that the best time to get involved in this market is now, while the concept is still cutting edge and cool. Just like anything else, it’s the early bird who gets the worm.
   Catanus says another great thing about this market is that it’s unlikely to get saturated for many years to come. “The technology industry is growing and changing so fast that there’s a very high product turnover rate, which means there will always be business,” he says. In addition, he says technology tattoos can be marketed to more than just the younger generations. “Every level of the population is directly a target market, from the students who have tech gadgets to the adults and corporations.”
   There’s no doubt that personalized products are in very high demand with consumers these days. Even if trophies, awards, signs and nameplates are still your bread and butter, technology tattoos offer a great opportunity to expand your customer base and increase your sales. And the best part of all is that you don’t need to purchase new equipment or expand your inventory in order to make it happen. If you own a laser engraving system then you already have everything you need to take advantage of one of the hottest new trends in the industry