Discovering Niche Markets for Your Equipment

Copyright © 2011 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in October 2011, Volume 37, No. 4 of The Engravers Journal
ID labels can be easily made with a CO2 laser to whatever specifications the customer wants. No minimum, any shape, any color—just name it. Here is an example of Grade II Braille added to a simple wall sign. This is best done with a rotary engraving machine. This glass ornament/sun catcher was used as a fundraiser by a country club. It also makes a great item for churches to use.

   Would you like to double your income without buying any new equipment? You probably can. That’s what this article is about—putting your engraving, sublimation and other equipment to work for you so you can make more money. No additional investment is required. No new equipment. No new processes. No new facilities. No big advertising budget. All you need is a little time, some ingenuity and a little of your own labor. The secret is something called “niche marketing” and just as it works for me every single day, it can work for you!
   I live and work in West Virginia. It’s not exactly the world’s leading technological center. In fact, there was a time when there were only two laser engravers in the entire state and that wasn’t so long ago. It was during that time that this story unfolded: In a town of 60,000 people, not far from where I live, an awards shop bought a laser engraving machine. I didn’t even know about it until about a year later when I heard they had sold it because “they couldn’t make any money with it.”
   I don’t think I have ever been more surprised! The first laser I bought cost $25,400 and it paid for itself in just 30 days! How could there be such extremes? Well, there could have been many reasons, but clearly that company didn’t try very hard to make money with it or, more likely, they just didn’t know what to do with it.
   This is true for all of us to some extent. We go to a trade show or read an article and get all excited about what we could do with a piece of equipment and we buy it. The trouble is, when we get out of the glitter and glamor of the trade show and back home to the routine of meeting customers’ demands and paying bills, we lose the enticement of “what could be” in exchange for the demands of running a business.
   Too often, the equipment sits in the corner for weeks or months before we even set it up. I saw this happen a thousand times when I was teaching sublimation across the country and I have also seen it with lasers and many other devices as well.
   Somehow, we think that if we have this machine or that, business will just beat a path to our door—and sometimes it does! But most of the time it isn’t that simple. We have to do something to stir that business and that takes marketing, and most shop owners in our industry are scared to death of the word, let alone the doing. Marketing seems to be out of our comfort zone. We think it is too 5th Avenue, too expensive, too risky, too overwhelming and so we try to ignore it until it buries us.
   The reality is, however, that marketing doesn’t have to be scary or expensive. It can actually be very simple and it costs almost nothing. To me, good marketing is marketing that is low risk, makes money and takes a minimal amount of time or effort. But, alas, there is the glitch. Where do we find good marketing?
   I think there is a type of marketing that meets all those criteria and certainly has worked for me over the years. I call it niche marketing.

This stainless steel plate was engraved with a fiber laser for a repair company on a natural gas line. These companies are often in desperate need of someone to do this work for them. Control panels are commonly needed by equipment manufacturers. The design was created in CorelDRAW and it was cut out on a laser from Rowmark Textured plastic. Tools of all kinds can be easily marked with a YAG or fiber laser as shown here.

What is Niche Marketing?
   First, we need to have a good understanding of what a niche is. Webster gives several definitions of the word but two are of particular interest to us: The first is “a place, employment, status or activity for which a person or thing is best fitted.” The second is “a specialized market.” My own definition is “a specialized market that we can relate to and understand or have interest in and one that is large enough to produce a profit, yet small enough that it doesn’t attract a lot of attention and competition.”
   Usually, niche markets are things that are very close to us. If you are a churchgoer, your niche market may well be related to churches. If you are a hunter, it might be hunting or some other outdoorsman activity. If you are a pet lover, it might be pet related. I am convinced there are thousands of niche markets covering everything from the unimaginable to the impossible.
   Through the years, I have tried to tap into as many of these little markets as possible. If the market is too big, everyone else rushes in to get the business and destroys it by cutting prices until it is no longer profitable. If it is too small, it might produce a little profit but could be more trouble than it’s worth (that’s rare). What I want is a specialized market that is somewhere in between these two extremes.
   For instance, I have one company as a client that makes contact lenses. They order only one engraved product from me but they order one or two of them a week. It’s only $20 or so a week but it is as consistent as clockwork and that makes an income of $1,000 a year. The annual income isn’t high enough to attract my competitors but it adds $1,000 to my bottom line and I’ll take that every time!
   Another niche market that I serviced for years was a group of wood workers. They wanted laser engraved name badges made from real wood. The group never got to be more than about 30 strong but they had people coming and going all the time so every week or two, I would get an order for a couple of $20 name badges. Over the ten years we worked together, I made thousands of dollars.
   There are many, many examples but rather than just list them, let’s tie them to specific processes so you can put them to work for you based on the equipment you already have in your shop. No matter what kind of equipment you might have, you can find niche markets to put that equipment to work. Already run your equipment 80% of the time? No problem: That means it sits idle and doesn’t make you money for the other 20% of the time. Niche markets are a way of making that machine run 100% of the time and will easily add significantly to your bottom line.

The pet market is an excellent and profitable niche market. This stainless steel pet bowl was etched by Etched in Glass, Gibsonia, PA. Vinyl memorials for car windows are very popular. The same concept can be used for sports and a host of other applications. Everyone needs a label or lettering on their mailbox. This is a great little money maker and very easy to promote.

C02 Laser Engraving
   Beyond the usual awards and interior signage markets, there are as many niche markets for laser engraving as there are stars in the sky. Here are a few examples:
   Fundraising for churches and similar groups: Glass ornaments are inexpensive and can be used as either ornaments during the holiday season or sold with a suction cup and used as sun catchers the rest of the year. The inexpensive glass blanks laser engrave very well and are great for fundraising or gift shops.
   Name badges for fraternal organizations: There is huge potential in this niche market. These folks usually like a color emblem on their engraved badges (Classic Medallics, Mount Vernon, NY, makes these) and although orders from individual groups might be small, if you get ten or so groups all buying from you, the profit is significant.
   Industrial markets: I make a lot of control panels using engraving plastic, such as Rowmark Lights, and reverse engravable materials. Some are for multimillion dollar machines, while others are for a simple grinding machine. Boat, marina, limo, sound and alarm installation companies, manufacturing companies and the military all need and use a lot of custom control panels. These are sometimes a bit complex and demand precise dimensions but CorelDRAW makes it easy.
   In addition, companies that make chemicals or that repair natural gas pipelines or gas line equipment are required to attach stainless steel tags and plates to everything they install or service. With a thermal marking chemical you can, very inexpensively, mark all kinds of metals such as stainless steel and chrome with your CO2 laser very quickly and easily. And the beauty is that these tags and plates fetch big money.
   UID Marking: Have you ever considered engraving UID (Unique Identification) for government contractors? Everything except ammunition that costs the government $5,000 or more, must be marked with a 2-D data matrix code. Several engraving companies have specialized in this to the point where they do nothing else but UID marking. (For more information about this, visit EJ’s UID website at http://www.uidmarkinginfo.com.)
   Bar Codes: Lasers do a great job of engraving bar codes on almost anything. Many organizations now mark all of their property with a bar code either on a permanent label or directly on the product. Schools, military and many large businesses do this routinely.
   Product ID Labels: Making ID labels that are more permanent and durable than paper labels is a huge market but most companies who make them want a minimum order of 1,000. Lots of potential customers, including those in industrial markets, don’t need 1,000. They need 10 and they need them tomorrow. By using self-adhesive laser engravable materials available from industry suppliers, it is easy to make labels “on demand” and serve a market segment that the “big guys” can’t.
   Rubber Stamps: Rubber stamp making is fairly common to laser engravers but what about hot stamping dies and embossing seals? Jackson Marking Products, Mt. Vernon, IL, sells an aluminum-backed silicone rubber material designed specifically for making hot stamping dies with a CO2 laser in addition to Delrin plastic for making embossing seals. You can quickly and easily custom make hot stamping dies for customers or embossing seals for local or state government offices, law firms, engineers, architects, notary publics, etc., with a high profit margin. Even within the laser community, very few people know about this niche market. It does require some learning, but once you figure out the details, you should be set to go.
   Wearables: Did you know you could decorate shirts and other objects with rhinestones using a laser engraving machine? You can and it is extremely easy. You can also use your laser to engrave directly onto fabric items such as jeans, tennis shoes, table linens and more. (Read “Laser Engraving and Cutting Fabric,” May 11 for more information.) This capability allows you to venture into all kinds of niche markets: school spirit wear, dance studios, gymnastics clubs and events, gift shops and more. And we all know that personalized wearables can bring in major profits.

This sublimated mural would be of interest to a niche customer such as an Italian restaurant. Photo courtesy of Laser Reproductions, Inc., Skokie, IL.

A piece of Rowmark Mates was engraved and woven into a Longaberger basket to turn it into an award.

Many companies need to have key marking systems. These are very high profit items since the key fobs can often be made from scrap.
 
Rotary Engraving
   Rotary engraving machines don’t have the same allure as they used to but they can still make you a lot of money. A couple of things a rotary system can do that is very difficult or impossible to do with a laser include engraving certain plastics and these alone can be made into several niche markets.
   Certain types of specialized plastics, such as Rowmark Heavy Weights, can only be engraved with a rotary engraver (or a CNC machine which most of us don’t have). The Rowmark Heavy Weights product line is a three-ply polymer designed for exterior applications where weather is a big factor. These plastics are commonly used by the State and Federal Park Systems for signage. They are also appropriate for airport runways and signage for subdivisions, parking garages, etc.
   Plastics like the Rowmark Granites make beautiful interior signage that looks and feels like stone. I recently saw this material used for grave markers for pets, which is another wide-open niche market.
   ADA signage with Braille is a time proven market that few attempt and that makes it a good niche market. If you have Raster Braille capabilities, consider offering your services to add Braille to the signs made by other engraving or sign shops or making the entire sign yourself using ADA sign materials.
   If you have a rotary system, then jewelry is another niche market to explore. Whether it’s ID bracelets, emergency medical tags, key fobs or other types of jewelry, a rotary system is usually the best way to do the job. Many engravers tap into this market by doing engraving for local jewelers and gift shops.
   Metals that CO2 lasers cannot mark include solid brass materials such as leaded brass, satin brass, nickel and copper plated brass. There is a great little niche market in connecting up with picture framers in your community and engraving personalized brass plates for them. You will be surprised at how many other engraving orders they can bring in.
   Rotary machines are also good for making control panels as described in the laser section.

Locksmiths use single letter punches for marking keys but when hundreds of keys are needed for a job, they will bring them to you if they know you can engrave them with your YAG.

This stainless steel gauge was engraved for a railroad to check the condition of car springs. It is 24" long—just the right size for a mid-sized laser table. Engraving a lock body is just about impossible with anything but a laser. A YAG can do it quickly and without chemicals or clean up.

Sublimation
   There are countless products you can make with a sublimation system: plaques, awards, gift items, shirts, cups, flags, etc., and all of these products can bring in profits. However, I suggest you consider putting together “packages” of products for specialized markets rather than just selling individual items.
   Small Clubs & Organizations: Any club or organization that is too small to buy products by the hundreds makes a great potential niche market. In the past, I have done work for all kinds of historical groups such as those for railroads, the Civil War, museums, antique cars, motorcycle groups and many more. Every town has historical groups that would love to offer a variety of imprinted products to their members and visitors but can’t afford to buy and stock hundreds of shirts, mouse pads, hats, cups, etc. Working with the individual group, you can imprint a set of sample products and let them take orders. Many groups have mailing lists or newsletters they can include the product list in. Let them take the orders and money, and forward the orders to you. You make the product, ship it to the customer and bill the club. They can charge whatever they want for the products and you sell them at whatever price you and the club deem to be fair.
   Likewise, church groups love pictures of their church on various products to celebrate anniversaries, the completion of a new building and the like. Like the club groups just mentioned, a group of products can be made up and offered which allows the church to make a few dollars while doing the marketing for you.
   Fundraisers: Fundraisers are easy with sublimation. Just as the two groups just mentioned make money on everything they sell, you can offer sublimated products to schools, sports clubs or anyone else who wants to make money for their cause. This is great for the group because they don’t have to invest any money in advance and they don’t end up with a closet full of unsold products. They order what they need, when the need it. And don’t forget, unlike a candy bar that is soon eaten and forgotten, your products can be personalized and will be around for many years to come. People like to buy things that stay around and they love personalized products! This is a winner for everyone.
   Murals: Sublimated tile murals are very popular and very profitable. Hook up with some high-end builders in your area and show them how you can install murals in kitchen back-splashes, bathrooms and pool areas using ceramic tile. This is a product the builder can sell as an upgrade. Likewise, contact architects and interior designers to reach the commercial market that includes the lobbies of corporate and public buildings, supermarkets and similar facilities. This is a huge and extremely profitable market that very few actually participate in.
   Labels & Control Panels: Full-color labels and control panels make up a significant part of my product base. Sublimated control panel covers made from self-adhesive Rowmark Mates are great for industrial control panels. Since most industrial equipment is built out of heavy metal and nearly impossible to engrave, a sublimated applique that simply adheres to the metal is quick and easy to make and looks fantastic. Holes can be cut out in seconds using an X-Acto knife after the sheet of material is affixed to the metal. When the panel gets beat up and hard to read, just apply another applique.
   Safety labels, instruction labels, wiring diagrams, warning stickers and property ownership labels make a great market. Schools, government agencies, business offices, labs and rental stores are just a few potential clients.
   Professional Photographers: Professional photographers have a reputation for being a little difficult to work with but you won’t mind when they send you thousands of dollars in orders, and they will if you offer to work with them. Like you would with other wholesale customers, make up a series of product samples and let the photographer offer them to his clients. You do the work for wholesale and let the photographer charge what he or she wants. These relationships can be extremely profitable, especially if you hook up with one who does school pictures, prom, wedding and other special occasion photographs.

Many laser engravers haven’t tried making rubber stamps yet, but it is an easy process, inexpensive to get into and quite profitable.

Sublimated jewelry, such as these bracelets, can lead to many potentially profitable niche markets. The wedding market is another marketing opportunity for products such as sandcarved wedding invitations on products such as picture frames. Photo courtesy of Etched in Glass.

   Class Reunions: Class reunions make a nice niche market and they occur every year. Organizers of the reunions almost always want some type of favor and many will want other products they can offer for sale, including a class picture. Offer their class picture on a variety of products such as a tile mural, wall hanging, ChromaLuxe product, etc. In fact, Unisub has a new product coming out that will be perfect for class reunion photographs called a Benelux aluminum plate.
Vinyl Cutters
   Not too many award and engraving shops have a vinyl cutter but if you are one that does, here are a couple of suggestions for you:
   Rhinestones: One unique process using a vinyl cutter is growing in popularity. It is decorating fabric with rhinestones and using a vinyl cutter as a way to pick up and transfer the tiny stones to form a pattern or design on fabric. Although you may not be ready to go into the T-shirt decorating business, you might work with local decorators, craft shops, sewing clubs, etc., to offer this as a service. Digital Art Solutions, Tempe, AZ, offers hundreds of designs created just for vinyl cutters. This is one I haven’t tried myself but it looks like it could be very profitable and easy to get started.
   Car Window Stickers: Car Window stickers are growing in popularity. I think we would see a lot more of them if people knew where they could buy them. Some stickers are in memory of a loved one, others show a string of stick figures representing each family member and still others are sports related with a ball, school name and player’s number. Your creativity might introduce a host of other subject matters. These can be easily cut using clipart and some white vinyl and applied by the customer to his or her vehicle. You may only get $25 or so from one but if one high school ball player has one, how long do you think it will take for them all to have one? This is a niche market I plan to tackle myself in the near future!
 

Steel switch and outlet covers often need to be marked. This EMT (electrical metal) product engraves well with a YAG laser.

  Many companies require bar codes engraved on all kinds of products. Here are a few of the most common bar codes, including the UID or 2-D code.

Sandcarving
   Sandcarving or sandblasting equipment affords many niche markets centered around glass products.
   Weddings: Selling to wedding stores and wedding organizers can be extremely profitable. Every wedding couple has a toast of some kind after the wedding. Why not provide personalized glassware for the occasion? While you are at it, the serving knife and server can also be etched with their names and the date. Don’t forget that each guest will likely be given some token of the big occasion so why not a wine glass blasted with the couple’s names? Glass, marble or stone coasters also make a great gift.
   House Signs: Although this may be a bit involved for some, consider marketing sandblasted stone or wood house number signs for the front yard or front of the house. These are very popular and orders can be taken through local hardware stores, landscaping companies or masonry suppliers.
   High-End Crystal: Real crystal such as leaded and optic crystal typically cannot be laser engraved. This opens up a market for sandcarving high-end glassware, punch bowls, vases and the like. Most towns have at least a few stores that carry high-quality crystal items. Team up with them so that when they sell a set of crystal, they can offer personalization as well.
   Tourist & Gift Shops: When people visit a new area of the country, they often look for some inexpensive keepsake to remind them of their visit. Glass knickknacks are very popular for this type of application. I know of one company that engraves thousands of little glass boots for local Western gift shops. Shot glasses are very popular as are sun catchers, coasters and the like. These aren’t usually personalized with the person’s name but have the name of the town or tourist location and perhaps the year. These can then be sold on consignment or in small quantities to test the market to find out what sells best. Once you find the right product, you can keep some blanks on hand and whenever you have some spare time, engrave a bunch of them for later.


 

Using a thermal chemical, stainless steel plates like these can be made for companies that repair gas valves.

  After cutting out raised letters for ADA signage using either a rotary or laser engraving machine, the centers have to be weeded. This cutting process is often not something larger sign companies can do.

YAG & Fiber Lasers
   Very few people in our industry have YAG or fiber lasers yet but that will be changing over time. If you are one of the lucky ones who do own a YAG or fiber laser, here are a couple of suggestions for you:
   Tools: Think “tools, tools, tools.” Mechanics and people in many other professions spend a fortune on tools and they keep them for decades. Unlike most of us who use a tool for a few years and watch it disappear or just plain throw it away, these folks take extra care of their tools because they buy big name, professional tools that have a lifetime, unconditional guarantee—unless you lose them.
   I’ve seen one wrench sell for more than I could pay for an entire socket set with wrenches, drivers and a hundred other gadgets. The people who buy this level of tool are willing, and even anxious, to have them marked so they don’t “walk away” as easily. Even at $2 per socket and $5 for pliers and other odd-shaped tools, the final bill can easily be several hundred dollars. A YAG or fiber laser can easily mark these chrome tools in seconds without the need for chemicals. For those customers who rent out or loan out tools, or for the military, bar codes can also be added.
   Picture Framers: Another niche market that is working well for me is the picture framer’s market. These professionals frequently mount personalized brass plates on picture frames. Before I purchased my fiber laser, I engraved these plates with a rotary system and blackened them with oxidizing chemicals just like everyone else. Now, I can offer a much higher quality engraving, with darker, richer letters (I still blacken them) and do them in 1/10th the time. I have even added other metals to the line including stainless steel, gold plate and brass plated materials such as nickel and copper.
   Labels: One final niche market for YAG and fiber laser owners is the ability to make labels using a 3M laser marking material referred to as #7847 and #7848. This cast acrylic (no PVC) self-adhesive black material is UV stable and exterior grade. You will have to search the Internet for a supplier since none of the suppliers in our industry carry it yet but it isn’t difficult to find. Because of the durability, labels made from these materials have tons of applications for electricians, plumbers, chemical plants, refineries, mining companies and just about anyone else you can name.
Niche Markets are Everywhere!
   A few years ago, I wrote a manual entitled “125 Ways to Make Money with Sublimation.” In it I listed over 125 different niche markets I have either tried or continue to sell to. Although the manual is geared toward sublimation, it can also be applied to other processes such as laser engraving. Below are just a few of the niche markets I included:
   Fire departments love things with the picture of their fire truck or station on them. Generic pictures won’t work.
   Privately owned pet stores, vets, groomers and pet hospitals can add much to their bottom lines if they offer pet-related products that are personalized with a pet’s name or picture on them. Pet tags, memorial plaques, keepsake boxes, urns, collars and food dishes are but a few of the many products that can be sold through these vendors. Pet shows are also a great place to sell products, especially plaques with pictures of the pets. Cups, shirts, collars, leashes and kennel signs are just a few products that sell.
   Car shows, motorcycle shows, hot rod shows, etc., all offer great opportunities to sell your products either directly or through another vendor. People who have invested fortunes in their hobbies want shirts, hats and other items with a picture of them and their showpiece on them. Again, generic pictures just won’t do.
   Hunters and fishermen love plaques, shirts and hats with a picture of their prize kill or catch. Sell through locally owned hunting/fishing supply stores and clubs.
   Privately owned baby stores are usually open to selling products that use the words “Grandma” or “Grandpa.” They are even more excited when they find out you can personalize the items with any name the customer wants!
   You may have noticed that nothing in this article has recommended selling over the Internet. That’s because Internet selling is an entirely different animal. Any of these suggestions will work for Internet sales and you can set up a website for each one and many, many more. Just remember that when you depend on the Internet to bring you business, you must find an easy, affordable way for people to find your store online. If I ever figure out what that is, you can be sure I’ll write about it. As for now, I have better luck selling though other dealers and I recommend you start there too.
   However you do it, know that finding and supplying these niche markets is both fun and very profitable. If you try one and it doesn’t work out, no problem—just try another. In due time, you will find 6-12 of them that are just right for you. Start with things you know about and expand as the opportunities afford themselves. Don’t waste time competing where there are already several companies bidding for the same small market or get caught up in consignment deals except to prove your products will sell. Dealers push items that make them cash. If they have no cash invested in your products, they may not push them the way they would inventory they have already paid for.
   Over the years, I have met hundreds of people though niche marketing and, by far, these have been the most enjoyable, friendly and trustworthy people I have ever worked with. They love what they do and they love to talk to someone else who has an interest in their favorite activity or product line. I even give them my cell phone number so they can reach me any time they need to and you know what, they almost never call except during business hours. When they do call, it is usually to be their guest at some outing, picnic or other activity they are hosting. Their loyalty has been refreshing and they rarely ask for special discounts. These people have been just great to work with through the years and I look forward to many years to come.

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