Moving Forward: Our Industry is Evolving

Copyright © 2013 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in June 2013, Volume 38, No. 12 of The Engravers Journal
Products that can be uniquely personalized for the recipient are easy to sell. This laser engravable bracelet is made from coconut and is available from LaserBits, Phoenix, AZ.

   A friend of mine, who is fully grown up, recently told me, “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” Like him, many of us have said that in jest through the years. Our lives change—they jig and jag—and this sometimes causes us to take paths we never thought we would ever take. I’m in my 60s and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t ask that question of myself. But what about our beloved industry? The one we have poured our hearts, souls and money into for so many years? What is it going to be when it reaches maturity? That is what this article is all about…
   Have you ever taken the time to think about how this industry has changed since you entered it? I have. When I first started in 1989, computer engravers were just coming onto the scene. Full color imprinting was limited to a very cantankerous and expensive sublimation process—nothing like what we have today. The number of engraving lasers in the country probably numbered in the low hundreds.
   Back then, the industry was thriving, although it was relatively small. The number of retail players with a million dollars in annual sales could be counted on one hand and the prime source of income for the vast majority of engraving shops came from a single product line—trophies and awards. The cost of getting started in the industry was little more than the cost of a storefront or garage and a thousand dollars in inventory. I started with an investment of about $15,000 and that included a computerized engraving machine!
   Today, things are very different. Chances are your first engraver was, or will be, a laser. And chances are the second thing you added, or will add, to your technological offerings will be full-color sublimation. The industry and the technology have come a long way in 20 years. A shop looks a lot different today than it did 20 years ago and even more so than 30 years ago when the primary method of engraving was a pantograph—something most newcomers have never even seen!
   What will our industry look like in another five years? Or ten years? Have you ever thought about it? In the 1960s, new technology and knowledge in general was growing at an astounding rate. Sources say that every ten years we were gaining more information than we had gained in all of history combined. That was astounding enough but now, we probably learn more in a single year or two than we did in all previous history combined—and our industry is not immune to the feverish change that comes as a result.
   What will the successful “engraving” shop of the future look like? Well, first of all, it won’t be called a trophy shop or even an engraving shop anymore. Most likely, it will be referred to as a “personalization shop” because far more will go on there than just engraving, trophies, sublimation or T-shirts. In fact, my guess is that prosperous businesses will include all of those things and many more—all under one roof.

Sarge Knives, Greer, SC, offers a large variety of knives and specialty gifts that you can personalize through engraving.

   If you are my age, you probably remember the original office supply stores—they were usually very small shops where you could buy paper, inks, tape and paper clips. You had to go to another store to buy a typewriter and still another to purchase a duplicating machine, often referred to as a “ditto” machine. The same was true with hardware. You went to a hardware store to buy nails, screws and the like but you had to visit another store to buy lumber, another to buy paint and yet another to buy tools. Today, these specialty stores have all but disappeared and re-emerged into big box stores. OfficeMax, Office Depot and Staples have become a source for almost anything to do with the office, including supplies, computers, copiers and even office furniture. Home Depot and Lowe’s have taken over most of the lumber and hardware business, and although a few mom-and-pop hardware stores remain, you can see where the trend is going.
   Now it may be a long time before we see some mega-billion dollar investment firm come along and do to us what Home Depot, OfficeMax and others have done to those industries, but there are many reasons why we should take a lesson or two from the giant box stores to benefit ourselves.
   Perhaps the biggest advantage of these big box stores is that they consolidate a wide variety of products and product lines into a one-stop shop. No longer do you have to go to three or four places to buy the tools and materials you need to paint your porch. You can buy them all in one store!
   Think about it. A customer planning an event might purchase awards from your shop, then go to the vinyl sign shop for banners and signs, and then go to the screen printing/embroidery shop for promotional products like hats, tote bags and wristbands. How much time does that take? How much gasoline? How much wasted productivity? Wouldn’t it just make sense to have all those shops, and more, under one roof? How many event organizers would continue to run all over town to order their materials if they could get it all in one place?
   The truth of the matter is, there are at least two dozen technologies and techniques that all qualify as “personalization processes.” These technologies are related by their very nature—to create personalized products—yet are rarely combined under the same roof. Here’s a list of the some of these techniques that come to mind. You may be able to add to the list.

There are a variety of methods for personalizing wearables. Photo courtesy of Stahls ID Direct, St. Clair Shores, MI. This crystal apple from Marco Awards Group, South Windsor, CT, makes an appreciated teacher’s gift.

      1. Rotary Engraving: Rotary engraving can be used for a wide number of applications, including signage, tags, name badges, wood plaques, metal, ADA signage and much more.
      2. CO2 Laser Engraving: Carbon dioxide lasers are the most common types of lasers in this industry and can be used to engrave many plastics, acrylic, coated metals, wood, leather, paper and much more. Commonly used for awards and gift items, laser engraving can also be used to cut acrylic, plastics and thin wood. They are useful for both making and marking a lot of salable products.
      3. Fiber and YAG Laser Engraving: These processes can be used to mark most metals without the need for a laser-fusible chemical coating, which opens up the possibilities for personalizing many industrial and commercial products in addition to awards and gifts.
      4. 3D Engraving in Acrylic and Glass: Using a YAG laser and special software, three-dimensional graphic images (including photographs) can be engraved inside acrylic and crystal cubes so that they appear to float inside the piece. These make popular promotional products in addition to personal and corporate gifts.
      5. Sublimation: This process can be used for full-color imprinting on sublimation-receptive products, including short runs of shirts, plaques, murals and hundreds of gift items.
      6. Sandcarving: Also known as sandblasting, this technique involves using an abrasive grit to etch or carve glass, metal, stone, bottles, bricks, etc., to offer a host of products from awards to gifts to promotional products.
      7. Direct Print: This technology is still somewhat new but is growing rapidly. It includes full-color direct printing on fabric for making shirts and other wearables, in addition to many other products, including ADA signage, promotional products, sports equipment and much more.
      8. Pad Printing: This process is commonly used for printing color designs on promotional products such as golf balls and tees, water bottles, key chains, etc.
      9. Wide Format Printing: One of the hottest money makers in the industry right now is the ability to print large posters, table covers, flags, banners, signage, pictures suitable for framing, etc. Wide format printers are available in various technologies, including inkjet, sublimation and direct print.
      10. Rhinestoning: Little has to be said about the personalization possibilities by adding rhinestone designs to garments. Thousands of people do this either as a hobby or as a cottage industry for all kinds of wearables. With a laser engraver, rotary engraver or vinyl cutter, this can be taken to the production level needed to justify an actual storefront business or it can be combined with another business model such as embroidery.

B.F. Plastics, Inc., North Lawrence, OH, offers a variety of wood products that can be customized with a laser. The AcryliPrint process from Acrylic Idea Factory, Atlanta, GA, can be used to personalize acrylic products with full color.

   11. Full-Color Ceramic Imprinting: The products made with this method may look like sublimation but are actually made with a very different method altogether. This digital process involves printing a full-color image using special ceramic toners, applying the image to a product and firing it in a kiln. Most anything that will withstand 2,000-2,400 degrees F, the temperature of a kiln, can be imprinted in full color. The pictures you see on tombstones, for instance, are made using this process. Ceramic and porcelain dinnerware and murals are often made using this method. You can also use the process on metal and glass.
   12. Sports Team Wearables: Probably the most common way of applying letters to sports clothes is either sublimation or individual heat applied letters that are cut out using a laser engraver. With millions of youth and children’s sports leagues, school leagues and community activity, this industry has been quietly working in the background for decades.
   13. 3D Sublimation: This is a very new technology for our industry but it has been around for some time. The process involves using a thermoforming transfer material and a press that uses heat and vacuum pressure to sublimate three-dimensional items. A great many items we use are sublimated using some form of the 3D sublimation process. For instance, it’s a very popular technique for sublimating smartphone covers (including the top and sides of the cover). It’s also used on items such as costume jewelry, kitchen tools, car keys, eyeglasses and sports equipment.
   14. Picture Framing: Picture framing and engraving are a natural fit. Both can be highly profitable and one can easily sell the other. Chances are, you already engrave plates for a framer or two and you might be selling laminated wall hangings or sublimated murals as well. Offering your customers picture framing services is a natural fit.

There is lots of room in the personalization market for creativity. Photo courtesy of Laser Reproductions, Inc., Skokie, IL.

   15. Heat Transfer: Sublimation is not the end-all cure-all for printing shirts. Other forms of heat transfer have been around for decades and are still popular with many dealers. With this process, you print the image onto special transfer paper that has a plastic coating on one side. When you use a heat press to transfer the design, you are actually “melting” the image onto the substrate.
   16. Promotional Products: Whether you imprint them in-house or farm them out, promotional products are still extremely popular and now, companies are beginning to offer many of these products in full color. The Promotional Products Association International (PPAI) reports there are as many as 85,000 of these products on the market.
   17. Embroidery: Everyone loves embroidered items such as shirts, hats, handbags, jackets, sports bags and hundreds of other items.
   18. Screen Printing: Commonly used for shirts and other wearables, screen printing can also be used for printing ribbons, metal, plastics, wood, leather and a host of other materials. Typically thought to be profitable only in medium to large quantities, it can greatly reduce production cost on products where the quantity is high enough and the process is suitable.
   19. Cast Bronze/Metal Signage: This is one of the many processes that has to be farmed out but it can be a significant money-maker. There are many uses for cast metal products, from architectural signage to historical markers to donor recognition and more, and customers for these products are willing to pay a premium price.
   20. Bronzing: Bronzing, the technology of applying a metallic coating to non-metal objects such as baby shoes, is another process that has to be farmed out, but believe it or not, these things still sell like crazy. But don’t limit your mind to just baby shoes. Many customers will bronze just about anything, including pacifiers, sports memorabilia, military items—even an ice cream cone (without the ice cream of course).
   21. Acrylic Embedments: Businesses love to give acrylic embedments as corporate awards or keepsakes to employees and clients. This generally has to be done out of house but even writing an order to be jobbed out can be very profitable.

Personalized photo products is an area in the personalization market that is growing in double digits. These sublimatable glass photo plaques are available from Laser Reproductions, Inc.

   22. Vinyl Signage: The question with vinyl is how big do you want to go? Do you want to produce large banners or just small signs? If you really want to focus on this process, you can put vinyl on vehicles such as cars, vans, trucks and race cars. If you are into doing shirts, you can use special films that work on fabric. With a wide array of films to select from, your business can make shirts, stencils, signs, awards, promotional products, do rhinestoning and much more.
   23. Gifts: Obviously, a shop that incorporates even a few of these processes will be heavy into personalized gifts—but remember that the sky is the limit here. Such a shop can add as many gift items as they have floor space (or catalog shelves) to display them.
   24. Specialty Products: These are products you want to sell that may not fit into any of the other molds. For example, I offer a product line of LED letters that can be made into signs spelling whatever the customer wants. Availability of these is limited and applications are many. I also sell a full-size gold-plated golf putter that can be mounted on a plaque and used as an award. At one time I offered a line of CDs of children’s songs that actually incorporated the child’s name. Not exactly what you might expect in an engraving shop, but exactly what you might expect in a “personalization shop.” The CDs have gone by the wayside but have been replaced with books that use the child’s name. Another section that will draw a lot of attention is one for pets that includes sublimated pet dishes, leashes, collars, coats, sublimated or engraved burial urns, memorial plaques and, of course, all kinds of pet tags.
   25. Print & Ship Store: What better place for a UPS or FedEx print and ship store? Quick print stores are booming and, of course, shipping is a major need for any business. Although an actual Post Office might be hoping for too much, an automated USPS kiosk where First Class Mail and Priority Mail packages can be deposited should be possible.

Consumers will pay a premium price for high-end personalized crystal products, such as this piece from Badash Crystal, Deer Park, NY.

Is It Really Possible?
   After reading through this list, I can bet that many of you are thinking one of two things: Either you’re thinking, “Who’s going to pay for all this?” or “You will never get all these things under one roof.” And, for the most part, you are right on both counts. Putting this under one roof would be a multi-million dollar venture and no one is likely to try it—well, not any time soon that is.
   Actually, some very big outfits have experimented with branching out in the direction of personalized goods. Names like Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Costco have reportedly done some market testing. So far, the best they have been able to come up with are machines that engrave dog tags and a special order counter in their photography department where you can order sublimated cups, shirts and mouse pads. Some office supply companies have experimented with engraving and similar processes, but ended up offering plastic engraved signs, rubber stamps, desk easels, etc., by farming them out to companies such as Business Cards Tomorrow (BCT).
   That being said, however, I do believe this combination of services idea is the future of our industry. It may take a while, but I think it ultimately has to happen.
Becoming a Personalization Center
   So, as shop owners in the real world or perhaps someone who would like to get into some area of the personalization industry while it is still small and the budgets are manageable, what should you be doing? The answer is simple: diversify, diversify, diversify. Learn and include as many of these technological disciplines into your business as you can and as fast as you can. It is not going to get any easier to sustain a business, particularly the kind of business that is going to pay you the kind of salary that you want, in this shrinking, highly competitive market.
   Obviously, you can’t have all of these processes, but you can combine several and not be too overwhelmed. And there are other ways of incorporating many, if not most, of the ones I’ve listed without having to invest in the equipment yourself, nor the real estate to support it. Many of the processes can be farmed out. There are companies that will do embroidery, cast signage, ceramic imprinting, acrylic embedments, etc., for you.
   You can also broaden your business by building a relationship with the best screen printer, picture framer, etc., in your community and drive work to his shop while he, in turn, drives work to yours. I specify “the best” because if your name is going to be associated with that business, you only want “the best.” I have done this for years. If you visit their shops, you will see a display of my products. People buy my products from him and his label goes on the work, but I actually do the work and make a handsome profit selling to someone I probably would never sell to otherwise.
   Someday, I believe we will see most, if not all (and perhaps some we haven’t even thought of yet) of these businesses under one roof. In the meantime, here are some concepts to consider when planning how to get your piece of the profitable personalization market.

The Metal Image process from Gemini Inc., Cannon Falls, MN, can be used to create personalized products with incredible detail and durability. Sublimation is an excellent process for personalizing a wide array of products, such as these bracelets from Conde Systems, Inc., Mobile, AL.

A Critical Mass of Attractions
   To start, you’ll need to establish a “critical mass” of attractions for your business. This begins by layering in related, complementary products and services to expand your customer base and establish your business as a true destination for all things personalized. It might involve using your laser and rotary systems, sublimation equipment and embroidery machine, and then expanding your product offerings based on these processes.
   For example, just think of what you could offer in the realm of baby gifts alone: custom embroidered items (blankets, totes, diaper bags, shirts, etc.), rotary engraved keepsakes (pewter baby cups, rattles, picture frames, etc.), laser engraved gift items (customized wooden baby blocks, frames, plaques, etc.) and full-color sublimated mementoes (baby bibs, burp cloths, changing pads, etc.).
   And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for one market area! Each of these processes, as well as those mentioned earlier in this article, has many, many applications, all of which people will buy as long as what you offer can be uniquely personalized for them.
Call it “Cool, Neat & Unique”
   With the right combination of equipment, products and creativity, you can set up your business to be able to offer really different, unique and “cool” products—uniquely personalized products and gifts items that the big retailers either don’t sell or can’t personalize, and that most small retailers don’t either, for that matter. For example, one of the most popular items at one personalized products business is an embroidered sympathy throw blanket that can be given as a condolence gift or personalized as a memorial tribute. You can’t find that at Target or a Hallmark gift store.
   Thanks to today’s personalization technologies, you can become the store that can personalize virtually anything. Remember, too, that “cool” is in the eye of the beholder. I ran across a company that laser engraves custom wooden ear plugs—maybe not a mainstream product, but a really cool gift for members of a band.
   And also keep in mind that the product doesn’t have to be a “gift” in the true sense of the word, i.e. it doesn’t have to be purchased by someone and given to someone else. There are countless uses for personalized products beyond gifts which expands your marketing reach, whether it’s business use (desk accessories, business cards), home décor (sublimated murals), for a fundraiser (lasered donation bricks) or just because “I want one for myself,” (direct printed golf balls with my name on them).
Value Added By Personalization
   One of the best aspects of the concept of personalization is the fact that you can add incredible value to products, and that is a major selling point. Today’s consumers want much of what everyone else does when it comes to mass products and services, and that isn’t going to change. However, the value of “the same thing” is enhanced exponentially when it is personalized and customized because people still want to be individuals. For example, Apple supplies the must-have iPhone, iPad, iPod, etc., but you have the ability to allow consumers to make these products their own through personalized phone covers, skins, ear bud covers, cases, etc.
   Another case in point: You might recall a few years ago when “Crocs” became a wildly successful fad in footwear. But the real genius came when a company began designing charms that cleverly fit into the holes of the shoe, thereby allowing the wearer to personalize their own shoes. The Schmelzers started a business called Jibbitz in their basement to sell mini faux flowers, buttons and charms in all kinds of designs for Crocs. In December 2006, the company was purchased by Crocs for $20 million.
   Another concept to consider is that growth in the personalization market can also be driven by getting consumers to think of traditional products in new ways. With today’s technology, you have the opportunity to re-conceptualize “old” gift ideas. For example, perhaps you remember the popularity of engraved humidors, Zippo-style lighters and flasks (especially popular for Father’s Day, groomsmen’s gifts and holiday gifts for men). In addition to being able to personalize these items with laser and rotary engraving, there are now sublimatable versions available, allowing you to print any full-color image on these products, including photographs—a very new and unique take on traditional gift items.
Photo Gifts Are Huge!
   And speaking of photographs, personalized photo products represent an enormous portion of the personalization market and one that only continues to grow in double digits. Once again, thanks to the technologies that are available to you today, you can print or engrave a photo on just about any product imaginable, and you can do it very quickly and very easily. Show just about anyone a product with a photo and you’ve got a sale

Personalized products such as key chains can be used as gifts, souvenirs, promotional products and more. Photo courtesy of Blank Wood Products, Fort Collins, CO.

Gifts for a Lifetime
   Developing and sustaining a business based on personalization involves setting up your business to handle it and creatively marketing your products and services along the way. Done right, you can set up your business to provide your customers with “gifts for a lifetime” and that can be an invaluable marketing strategy.
   Perhaps a customer comes to you for a graduation gift for his nephew. When the nephew graduates from college, he remembers your store and comes to have his prized diploma engraved on a plaque. When he gets married, he seeks you out for wedding party gifts, champagne flutes, reception favors, etc. When the couple’s beloved dog passes away, they come to you for a memorial plaque. When their first child arrives, they think of you for a commemorative wall hanging and a personalized baby blanket. And in between all of these milestones, they come to you for all of their personalization needs along the way—personalized gifts for other people in their lives, trophies and uniforms for the Little League team they are coaching, business cards for their new business—you get the idea. Once you are established as a true “personalization” business, you’ll have no problem finding customers for your business—and for many years to come.
   To be sure, our industry is certainly changing. Since the 2008 crash, one report says we have lost over 900 award/engraving shops in the USA. A number of suppliers and distributors have suddenly disappeared or been bought up by larger fish. Clearly, if we keep going the way we have been, we’ll lose more companies. Those who survive will be the ones that are constantly reinventing themselves, trying new things and keeping in tune with the pulse of the industries we serve.
   We all want to be among the group that survives. If we are, many of us are going to have to change the way we do things. The business model of the 1980s and even the 1990s doesn’t work anymore. We need to make ourselves available to what is happening NOW and right now. Social media, consolidation and diversification are the buzz words of most successful companies.
   But most important of all is a change of attitude about our industry—an inherent change from it being a trophy industry or even a trophy/engraving/award industry to an industry that specializes in personalization—any kind of personalization—be it on soft goods such as fabric or on hard goods such as a sign or plaque to anything in between. The personalization industry as I have described it is huge compared to what we generally consider our awards industry. It’s growing in double digits. Why on earth would we not want to get a piece of that? Currently, we are a very small niche industry that has the opportunity to take the leadership role and mature into a huge and powerful conglomerate of businesses—personalization businesses. It’s the wave of the future! It’s fun! The stuff we can make and sell is “cool”! Our customers love it and are willing to open up their wallets to possess the neat stuff we can offer them! What’s not to like?





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