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The Markets for Personalized Products

Copyright © 2016 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in April 2016, Volume 41, No. 10 of The Engravers Journal
The pet market represents an enormous opportunity for selling personalized products. Photo courtesy of Laser Reproductions, Inc.

   I hear it all the time. “How do I find customers?” Perhaps you have said it yourself. I probably have too. Yet, potential clients are all around us as this article will demonstrate. All we have to do is look up!
   People are all about personalization. Various research over the years has shown that personalized products are routinely the number one selling product in the United States. They are everywhere: airports, gift shops, at the mall, online, in magazines, direct mail and in the newspaper. Personalized products include everything from rubber stamps to hats and shirts. One company reports that they offer 880,000 different products that can be personalized (forgive me if I don’t try to list them all)!
   But the question remains. And it is a fair question. “Where can we find new clients—new markets, if you will—for our products?”
   I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, “It’s difficult to see the forest for the trees.” Sometimes I think that applies to those of us in the personalization industry. There are so many markets, we either try to tap into all of them (the forest) and fail or we can’t focus on any of them individually (the trees) because we just don’t see them as individual markets.
   The truth of the matter is the markets for personalized products are everywhere. Just look up. Have a hobby? That’s a potential market. Know someone who has a hobby? That’s a potential market. Know someone who has a job? That’s a potential market. Almost anything a person does opens the possibility for a new market for some form of personalization, from business cards to weddings to graduations to bar mitzvahs to new babies to awards to safety products to eateries to funerals. Literally, from the cradle to the grave, we have endless market opportunities for selling our products.
   A few years ago, I wrote a book entitled 125 Ways to Make Money with Sublimation. In that book, I discussed 125 different potential markets for sublimated products. The manual needs to be updated (hopefully this year), but it illustrates just how many markets there are and these only reflect markets that I have personally toyed with at one time or another. Although it was written specifically for the sublimation industry, most of the concepts apply equally well to almost any form of personalization, from screen printing to laser engraving.
   One suggestion I give in the book reflects a tactic I tried when I first went into business in 1989. I stumbled onto the concept but in the end I think it has served me well through the years. I call it the “three finger approach to marketing.”
   We all should know that we cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. Too often, we try to multitask and although many people swear they can do this, the truth is, our brains can only focus on one thing at a time. This being said, I found that one way to grow my business was to select three potential markets. The idea is to focus on reaching out to whichever market seems to have the most potential at the moment. Once you have done what you can with the first market, move immediately to the second potential market and work on that. Then continue with the third.

Items such as industrial tags are always in demand. Photo courtesy of Mimaki USA.

   By the time you have finished sending out samples or making contacts for the third potential market, you should be seeing some response from the first. If so, go after any leads you might have. If nothing is happening, move on to the second market. With any luck, you should see some response from at least one of the three targeted markets. That’s where you focus most of your attention. As for the other two, put them on the back burner and identify two new markets to approach in the same way.
   You can’t expect all the potential markets you try to capture to respond but if you use this method, you should find at least one lucrative avenue fairly quickly. Why some markets respond to one company and not another I don’t know, but they do. Find those that respond to you and go after them. I’ve had experiences where I wanted a certain market so badly I could taste it—but I just couldn’t break into it. That’s okay. Don’t waste your time. It may come to you in the future. Right now, focus on the markets that do respond.
   There are many ways to market personalized products, regardless of how they are personalized. One of the most promising ways to sell merchandise right now is through Amazon.com. We all recognize Amazon to be a huge opportunity to reach loads of potential customers, but the company has never encouraged selling personalized products and although some of us have adapted the way we run our personalization businesses to fit Amazon’s business model, it hasn’t worked the best.
   What you might not know is that Amazon is currently running a test market specifically for personalized products. Recognizing that their existing model doesn’t accommodate personalization very well and that the personalization market is huge and they are missing out on most of it, they have adapted their model to better accommodate it. Perhaps you have been part of the experiment as I have.

UV digital inkjet printing can be used to personalize many different products. Photo courtesy of Direct Color Systems.

   Personalized products fall into a unique category. They are popular because they show the recipient the giver did more than stop by Wal-Mart to pick up a gift. Personalization typically requires both fore-thought and time. Regardless of how the gift is purchased, time is usually an element and although some engravers will personalize some merchandise “while you wait,” most of us do not. Even buying from Amazon requires time.
   Personalized products, of course, are certainly not limited to gift items. Some of the most lucrative markets include products that are made for groups rather than individuals. Shirts for volunteer fire departments, for instance, don’t necessarily include the person’s name but rather a picture of their new fire truck or station house.
   Likewise, churches are potential clients for all kinds of products. I recently sold a big order of custom shirts to a church, and in the past I have sold them license plates, dinner plates, Christmas ornaments, name badges, bookmarks, cups and picture plaques, to mention just a few of the products they have purchased from me.
   Remembering that there are many types of personalization, and ways of doing it, leads me to recommend that you don’t focus too much on just one personalization process. If you can do it, diversification is key. Lasers are great but they can’t do shirts (actually they can, but it’s not very common) so sublimation, heat transfer, embroidery or direct-to-garment printing will likely come into play. Likewise, personalization doesn’t always translate into small quantities. Sometimes large, even huge quantities are called for which, for example, might be the case with a business ordering promotional products customized with their logo. Many times, these items can be screen printed or printed with a UV digital inkjet printer.
   Most of us, however, will likely be working with much smaller quantities and that is just fine since there are a lot of big companies that can handle large orders. What many customers are looking for is a source to buy small quantities of personalized products—especially onesies or twosies or dozens—and that’s something that we can easily do.

The ability to reproduce photographs is a huge plus in the personalized products markets. This photo was laser engraved on a black marble plaque from N & R International, Inc. Personalized products are not limited to gift items. There are many other lucrative avenues, such as promotional products. This crystal flash drive is available from GW Crystal.

   One market that has been particularly lucrative for me is wholesale fulfillment. In one month alone, I had two customers rake up over $10,000 in sales for personalized products. Both of these customers were acting as resellers of 100 or so products at a time. I mention this because the beauty of working with resellers is they do 90 percent of the work. They sell the job, they deliver the job, they deal with the client and they are responsible for collecting the money. All I do is design the product (in many cases, they do the design work as well) and complete the order. True, the profit isn’t as great as it would be if I had sold the product myself but the truth is, 99 times out of 100, I would have never had the opportunity to sell the product in the first place. Thus, by selling wholesale, I get a percentage of what I never would have gotten otherwise and I don’t have to do much of anything to get it.
   What types of companies make good resellers? It depends on what they have a market for and each one is different in that respect. A few I have sold to over the years include gift shops, sporting goods stores, picture framers, sign shops and other people in the personalization, engraving and awards businesses.
   Another lucrative market for me has been built around selling industrial labels. Some are sublimated, some laser engraved, some printed with a UV printer and some I farm out to national fulfillment houses. Some orders are for only one or two pieces while others are in the thousands. These include safety labels, control panels and product labels of all kinds. To try and acquire some of this business, call on small manufacturers in your area. My customer base for this type of business spans to a radius of about 200 miles but they pass on orders from customers as far as 2,000 miles away. Becoming a member of your local chamber of commerce is probably the easiest way to make contacts for this type of business but making a personal visit is very effective as well.
   Although very competitive, the signage market has been important to my business. I find there are two ways to sell signage and there is no reason you can’t do both at the same time. One is retail. Contact potential users of small interior signs such as hospitals, nursing homes, banks, churches, schools (especially colleges), architects, commercial interior decorators and industrial companies. The second way is wholesale. Most big sign companies I have worked with don’t make small interior signs but they like selling them along with big exterior signs. They know there is money to be made in interior signage, especially ADA signage, but they don’t want to invest the money or manpower to make them in-house. These companies make a perfect wholesale customer. Just don’t try to go around them and capture business from the companies they already service. If you don’t make ADA signs in-house, there are sources that will make them for you at prices that allow you to serve as a middle man and still make considerable profit.

Reunions and outings are a good market for personalized products. Laser engraved coaster courtesy of B.F. Plastics, Inc.

   Two additional wholesale avenues you might want to pursue are the wedding and new baby markets. Getting a lot of direct sales from either of these markets can be fairly difficult unless you advertise heavily to these market segments. However, selling to shops that specialize in either wedding or new baby merchandise and letting them take orders for you makes it a slam-dunk. They have a constant stream of customers looking for gifts for babies or who are planning a wedding. Wedding gifts can include everything from engraved wine glasses to wedding cake knives to gifts for the groomsmen and bridesmaids. I sell a lot of flasks for the groomsmen, personalized wine glasses for everyone attending as a keepsake and keepsake boxes for the bridesmaids. All of these items carry enough profit margin to make them worth splitting it with a reseller.
   Class and family reunions are good markets for inexpensive personalized gifts. Popular items include pictures of the graduating class or family along with some text on paperweights, coffee cups, wine glasses, ornaments, ink pens and shirts. By the way, add a suction cup to an ornament and it becomes a window decoration so they can be sold all year round. Although these groups usually want something really inexpensive, they often make up for it with quantity. Most of my class reunion business has come by word of mouth.
   Hobby groups and organizations of all kinds form a perfect market for personalized products, whether the groups are large or small. If you are a part of a hobby group, regardless of what it is, chances are, they would love to be able to sell coffee cups, mousepads, key chains, shirts and other products featuring their club logo and/or information for special events. However, they avoid doing this because they would have to buy 144 of them at a time and they either don’t have the money or don’t have enough members for it to make financial sense. You, however, can produce them on an as-needed basis and can offer a wide variety of products for their club as well. Although you may only sell one or two at a time, I am reminded of what a very successful businessman once told me, “If it adds to the bottom line, that’s a good thing.”

Personalized items for babies and children are always good sellers. Photo courtesy of Laser Reproductions, Inc. Custom embroidered pillow cases make unique wedding gifts. Photo courtesy of Strikke Knits.


   One small hobby group may not bring much business but if you have several groups, clubs or organizations, things begin to look up. Included in clubs and groups are the Knights of Columbus, Kiwanis, Lion’s Club, Compassionate Friends, coin and stamp collectors, and many more.
   Schools are another hot spot for personalized merchandise. Most high schools have a school store where students can purchase spirit wear such as sweat pants, T-shirts, hats, jackets and similar items with the school logo or mascot on them. They have to buy these from someone, why not you?
   I especially like selling to small colleges. These institutions usually don’t have a mascot or logo that is trademarked like the big schools so it is easy to make products they can sell in their campus stores. Larger colleges not only have licensed logos that can be troublesome to work with, they also have the funds to buy in very large quantities from sources that own the right to produce their logos. Small colleges typically won’t enforce their copyright when items are produced for them nor do they have the funds to buy in large quantities, leaving the door open for small companies like most of us. Start by contacting the purchasing agent for the school and visiting the manager of the book store.
   The pet market is an absolute goldmine. Americans spend billions of dollars on their pets. Almost nothing is too good for them and although the pet likely drinks out of the toilet more often than not, people persist in paying $30, $40 or more for personalized water bowls. This persistence of showing our love for our pets keeps a market for pet products very large and very strong. Pet tags, collars, leashes, bowls, clothing, pictures of pets on plaques and urns or memorial plaques when they pass provide a wide variety of products that can be produced by a variety of processes.
   Likewise, custom cell phone covers continue to be a huge market for laser engraving, sublimation and UV printing. Some retailers have had great success selling covers at flea markets, mall kiosks and through resellers.
   Of course, eBay and other online retailers such as Etsy are wonderful opportunities for selling personalized products with little or no investment. Having a good website can also be a great way to sell, if you can find a way to drive traffic to your site. Likewise, social media such as Facebook remain great ways to get the word out and show off our products.

The wedding market in the U.S. alone is reported to be a $55 billion industry, making it an excellent market to tap into. Photo courtesy of Gravograph. There are many products available that can be used as wedding party gifts. This anodized aluminum deluxe pocket knife from LaserBits, Inc. can be laser engraved.

   Opportunities for marketing products and finding new markets are everywhere we look. From hobby clubs to the Internet to our friends and neighbors, they all represent some opportunity to sell our products.
   Here’s a tip: If you are trying to tap into a market for your products through a reseller, purchasing agent for a company or some other “real” person, always open your pitch with an actual sample. Preferably, it will have the person’s name on it along with a graphic that is applicable to them or their customer base. If you are using social media or an online outlet such as Amazon or Facebook, you will need good quality photographs of your products. You can take these with a digital camera or even your cellphone. The quality you need is certainly there but take the time to make the photo interesting, clear and focused on the product being offered. Although this may sound obvious, check out some of the products being offered through these media and you will quickly see what I mean. Shots are blurry, not cropped correctly, cluttered, poorly lit or just not complimentary to the product. Poor quality product images are just not acceptable in today’s market, particularly in view of the advances made in digital photography.
   Personalized products have never been hotter and their popularity just keeps growing and growing. As such, the markets for these products abound. Whether you are selling pet products, graduation gifts, wedding items, school memorabilia or interior signage, the markets are there just waiting for you to tap into them. So take a look around and get busy selling the hottest products around!