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Preparing to Capture Those Niche Markets

Copyright © 2018 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in February 2019, Volume 44, No. 8 of The Engravers Journal
The TagCUBE from Gravograph is a stand-alone rotary engraver designed to engrave items such as pet tags, ID tags and other small tags.

    Niche markets are my bread and butter. I love finding and working with new niche markets. Sometimes I can pick up new customers in new market areas using equipment I already have. Sometimes, however, in an effort to pursue new opportunities, I have had to invest in a new piece of equipment. Sometimes the investment has been small and produced huge returns. Sometimes the investment has been large and produced little (oops). In either case, when I make that investment, I have a new piece of equipment I can use to chase other markets.
    In my mind, a niche market is a tiny little bit of repetitive business that no one else really wants to fool with. Case in point: One client came asking for some highly specialized engraved products. Although it appeared to be “more trouble than it would be worth,” I saw it as a challenge and took the job—win or lose. Over the years, they have discontinued the engraved product, but I now do sublimated labels for them to the tune of $10,000 per year. As I said, it is just a tiny market, but it has expanded to include several clients in the same industry and adds handsomely to the bottom line.
    Most niche markets are not going to bring in $10,000 a year but you never know. I once met a man who bought a 5' x 10' heat press so he could sublimate slat boards. It seems Nike was remodeling a bunch of stores and wanted their logo on the slat board. This could have been done using other methods but for whatever reason, they wanted it sublimated so this guy bought a wide-format printer and this huge heat press so he could fulfill their request. At the time, he told me he had easily paid for all the equipment and orders were still coming in from Nike and others as well. No one else was offering this service, so he had little to no competition. I don’t know where he is now or how his business has held up, but any time you can buy that much equipment, pay for it from the profits and still show a nice percentage to take home, you are doing alright.
    Several years ago, I invested a lot of money in a fiber laser as an adjunct to my two CO2 lasers. The idea was to chase what was then a big demand for marking tools with barcodes. Although I am happy that I bought the laser, I doubt it has actually paid for itself yet, but it has allowed me to do a lot of engraving I could not have done otherwise. I have done tools, urns, knives and many other products but my favorite by far is personalizing gold brass. Engraver’s brass engraves fantastically, and I can charge a premium price for it. Things didn’t work out the way I had hoped for this investment, but it will eventually pay for itself and bring a profit so I’m happy.
    Not all investments have to be back-breakers. There is a variety of small “desktop” personalization equipment out there that, with a little investment, you can target new and underserved markets by adding to your offerings, and ultimately adding to your bottom line.


Universal Laser Systems offers modular air cleaner/cart exhaust extraction and filtration systems for its lasers like the VLS 2.30. The Punch N’ Press from Johnson Plastics Plus is an ideal POP marketing tool for selling custom key chains to impulse buyers. There are a variety of different attachments available for heat presses that allow printing on specific items like dinner plates. Photo courtesy of Geo Knight & Co., Inc.

    One example is the Punch N’ Press from Johnson Plastics Plus, Burnsville, MN, a desktop unit that allows you to make personalized key chains, refrigerator magnets or name badges in only a few minutes. I have one of these and I use it all the time. Best of all, the device is small enough to be taken on-site to a sporting event, car show, school event, etc., enabling you to offer personalized products on-site while the customer waits. With an investment of under $500, you can have the machine, a healthy supply of products and a little printer to boot.
    Another example is button badges. People love to wear the popular 2.25" buttons promoting their favorite cause, political leaning, school, sports team, company, brand, etc. They are also popular as promotional badges for employees in retail establishments, e.g. “Ask Me About…” for servers in fast food restaurants or “How Can I Help?” for employees in home improvement stores. They even have award applications, e.g. “Superstar” awards in an elementary school or even as low-cost participant awards.
    Button badge making equipment ranges from small plastic presses that cost only a few dollars to large professional models that cost thousands. For a “while you wait” low quantity service (ten buttons or less), however, an inexpensive tabletop model works fine. You can always have the customer come back to pick up larger orders.
    Sublimation is a personalization process that allows you to expand into a multitude of markets for minimal investment. Although our typical shop heat presses weigh 100 pounds or more and aren’t very portable, Geo Knight & Co., Inc., Brockton, MA, makes two small presses that are suitable for printing fabric and thin products, such as metal or FRP, which can be purchased for about $300-$500 depending on which model you select. These weigh in at only 65 pounds. Add to that a sublimation printer and inks, which is another $550, and for about $1,000, you can be up and running in sublimation with the benefit of having a system that is portable.
    For an in-shop sublimation setup, you can buy the same sublimation printer but you can upgrade to a commercial swing-away press for $1,550 plus shipping. This makes a really nice workable in-house sublimation system for about $2,100 plus shipping. Your return for your first set of inks should total several times your investment.

Trotec Laser, Inc. offers the Rayjet 50, a compact desktop laser. The 21/4" hand press button badge maker from Badge-A-Minit is an inexpensive starter unit. The Technotape 3D Vacuum Oven from Condé Systems, Inc. allows digital decorators to sublimate items that are not flat, such as dinner plates and one-piece phone covers.

    Purchasing a specialized heat press could help you tap into new markets as well. A 3D sublimation vacuum oven allows you to print on all sides of 3D items like phone covers. There are also hat presses, mug presses and attachments for existing presses that allow you to print items like dinner plates and shirt sleeves.
    With an in-house sublimation system, you can make about 1,000 different personalized products. These include: ceramic tiles, glass cutting boards, name badges, key chains, wall pictures, outlet covers, shirts, towels, purses, checkbook covers, Christmas ornaments, keepsake boxes, phone covers, phone cradles, trays, clocks, water bottles, cups, steins, hats, flip flops, wine boxes, trailer hitch covers, ties, oven mitts, bandanas, mouse pads, coasters, pet bowls, pet tags, picture frames, clipboards, puzzles, signs, license plates, trivets, bookmarks, slippers, socks, scarfs, arm sleeves, notebooks, 2" disks, and a few hundred other products. Consider how many of these would be popular at a golf outing, car show, sporting event or school event or used as wholesale or fundraising products.
    A hot selling gift item this past Christmas was socks sublimated with a photo of your pet. The point is, by simply combining the capabilities of personalization equipment with a product, you can reach countless niche markets.
    More and more personalization business owners have invested in a UV printer to service various niche markets. Digital UV-LED printers allow printing golf balls, phone covers, ceramic tiles, glass, tape measures, pens, signs, acrylic, lighters, hundreds of promotional products, industrial and commercial products, labels, dials, control panels and photos on just about anything. There are a couple of fairly small UV printers that could be portable, but you trade a lot of features for the portability. In-shop printers start at several hundred pounds, are the size of a small pony and cost in the $15,000 to $80,000 price range. Still, if you can find the right market, even these can easily pay for themselves.

Several laser manufacturers offer large format laser systems. The LaserCELL from Kern Laser Systems features a 52" x 50" work table.

   If there is any piece of equipment in our arsenal that is sure to make money, it has to be a laser. And today, your options in laser equipment abound. All of the major laser manufacturers in our industry offer budget-friendly desktop lasers with a small footprint. Many of these lasers feature tables that are approximately 12" x 18" and are relatively lightweight, e.g. around 100 lbs. This small footprint makes these lasers ideal for small shops and retail environments. Their compactness requires little, if any, floor space and many are designed to be tabletop units. In addition, because of their small size, some of these units are portable, making it easy for you to transport the equipment to on-site locations like mall kiosks, home shows, wedding shows, craft shows, sporting events, etc. Some of these systems, like the VLS 2.30 from Universal Laser Systems, Scottsdale, AZ, can be equipped with a modular filtration system/cart that stacks under the laser making a single, compact unit that can be easily moved around.
   Another way to grow your personalization business with laser engraving is with a setup like the “Personalized Laser Engraving Station” from P. Graham Dunn, Dalton, OH. Designed for a retail environment, this is a turnkey solution to offer personalized products on the spot. This system includes a LS100 laser from Gravograph, Duluth, GA, a smoke collector, software, an all-in-one touch screen computer and a barcode scanner. Customers in your shop can select a product, scan the barcode into the software and then set up the personalization. Either the customer or an employee can laser engrave the product while the customer watches. Awards & More, LLC, Enfield, CT, has had great success growing their personalized gift business with this system, and they also take it on the road to home shows, local malls at Christmas, etc.
   If you are going to invest in a laser for your everyday business, you want to consider something big and powerful enough to bring a return and for me, that translates into a 12" x 24" 50 watt laser. A machine like this allows you to tap into a variety of markets. And if you take a small laser on-site, then you can take orders for items that the laser can’t handle and complete them with your larger laser.
   Speaking of larger lasers, most of the laser manufacturers offer large format lasers which have a work area of up to 4' x 8' or larger and typically a very high wattage. There are literally a ton of highly desirable and highly profitable cutting and engraving applications including, but not limited to, wall décor, large panel photo murals, thick acrylic cut-outs, architectural models, and lots more.

Enduring Images offers a ceramic printing system that allows printing on a variety of ceramic items. This beautiful slat board wall was printed with a full-color image to create a backdrop for displaying products available at a gift store. Photo courtesy of Spacewall International.

   Large format lasers are kind of pricey and they take up a fair bit of space, but they open up a panacea of highly profitable niche markets that are not typically available to shops with more typical-type lasers.
   Another equipment option to consider in your quest to find new markets is a stand-alone rotary engraving machine. A stand-alone engraving machine is essentially “compact mechanical engraving technology.” These machines are small and designed to fit on a desktop or small stand. What differentiates them from other desktop engraving machines is that they are self-contained, including a computer, LCD display screen and software all in one compact unit. Some models also feature a touch pad or touch screen so you don’t even need a keyboard or mouse. These machines are touted as being “plug-and-play.” You basically just plug in the machine and you’re ready to go.
   Stand-alone engravers are designed for specific applications that mostly involve engraving small items like pet tags, ID tags, small plates, jewelry and other small engravables. Equipment costs are low and these machines are a quick, convenient way to personalize merchandise at the point of sale. You can easily offer customers while-you-wait engraving for certain types of merchandise. Not only do customers receive their personalized merchandise quickly, they can watch the engraving in-progress or even operate the equipment themselves if you choose to go that route. And because the machines are small, compact and self-contained, they easily fit in retail environments and they are portable as well. For example, one company that specializes in off-site engraving once engraved scissors for Fiskars, Inc. at their booth during a trade show, while another company offers on-site engraving on promotional products at corporate retreats and other events.
   Speaking of on-site selling, a cowboy (he really was a cowboy) I met in a training event went to horse shows and offered sublimated name badges to people for $15.95. I remember the price because it was, at the time, twice what anyone else was getting for a badge. He had an RV and he had taken an area of it to house his sublimation equipment (printer and full-size heat press). When he got to a horse show, he would roll out his awning, set up a table with samples and start taking orders. For several months out of the year, he would spend every weekend at one show or another. Most of his expenses were tax deductible and he was pulling in a very tidy sum.
   For someone who wants to be portable, this might be the ideal concept. Buy a reasonably priced RV or trailer and either mount everything inside or fix it so it can all be rolled in and out without having to struggle with the weight of the equipment. In this scenario, you could have just about anything you wanted to use—lasers, sublimation, UV printing, heat transfers and more.

Socks can be sublimated with full-color photos, text or logos to appeal to a variety of niche markets. Photo courtesy of Condé Systems, Inc.

   I will never get to follow through on it but while on vacation a few years ago, I found the perfect niche market. My wife and I were touring Colorado and drove to Silverton. Nestled in a valley in the heart of some of the most beautiful mountains in the world is this little town. It was almost a ghost town in the winter when we were there, with a population of fewer than 100 full-time residents including one policeman and one year-round restaurant which was on the only paved street. In the summer, however, the town comes alive with tourists who arrive by rail for this is the termination point for the famous Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and its stable of 100-year-old steam engines. Although the town is accessible by car in the summertime, most people travel there by train and spend a couple of hours touring the town which is made up of vendors selling food, candy, ice cream and souvenirs. I see a fortune to be made in tourist venues like this with sublimation, laser engravers or UV printing. Load a bunch of products on a trailer along with your equipment and drag it up to Silverton (or tourist traps near you) and rent a booth. All the other vendors sell the typical trinkets to the tourists, but no one offers personalized items, and especially not something with their picture on it. My guess is that for about three months a year, this place would bleed money. The rest of the year it is all but inaccessible due to snow.
   The point is, with the personalization equipment options available to us today, there are hundreds of niche markets that are unexplored and underserved in your part of the world—not to mention online. I met one fellow at a training event years ago who sold nothing but plant identification signs and he had a thriving business going. He has probably retired by now and if so, he has left a hole that is big enough for someone to take it over. Since it can all be done online, you don’t need anything more than a garage or basement to house your business.
   There are countless niche markets if you look for them. One guy I talked to at a trade show was installing sublimated ceramic tile murals on the bottom of swimming pools, another was sublimating cue balls. (Did you know cue balls are sublimatable? Apparently, they are.) Another bought a small air compressor and a sandblasting gun to decorate car windows and glass doors. Another laser engraves wood flooring with a company’s logo for entranceways. Another sandblasts bricks for fundraisers (this can be done with lasers as well).
   Several years ago, I wrote an EJ article about a company called Enduring Images, Golden, CO. They offer a process that allows full-color printing on ceramic that far exceeds the UV stability of sublimation or UV printing. These products are actually baked in a kiln and are UV safe enough they are often used on gravestones. Although this process requires a pretty significant investment, it is a perfect example of a market very few are working. Logo marked ceramic dinnerware, backsplashes, trivets and murals are only four of many niche markets that can be developed with this $10,000 to $12,000 investment.

One personalization professional found a niche market sublimating pool tiles. Photo courtesy of Bing Images. A UV-LED printer allows printing on items like golf balls which could lead to a great niche market. Photo courtesy of Roland DGA Corp.

   The Etsy website hosts a large number of businesses that cater to all kinds of niche markets. Most of these are run by small, home-based entrepreneurs but there are also well-established businesses that sell on Etsy. Some sell a few items per year and some sell thousands. Amazon and eBay are two other places where you can search out markets. For reasons I can’t explain, I sold dozens of gavels and sounding blocks to judges in California through Amazon. Although I haven’t sold one for some time now, for the best part of a year, they were selling like crazy. Is there no one in California selling gavels?
   There are literally hundreds of niche markets out there. Some are specific to locale like the companies that laser engrave the ear tags for cattle, while others are all around us like the companies that make lighted control panels for limousines or engrave medical devices or the companies that engrave handblown glass or make prototype control panels for the military.
   Even if you can’t find exotic markets like these, there are always churches, fire departments, military units, clubs, hobby groups, the pet industry, restaurants and hundreds more just waiting for someone to take an interest in their needs.
   Why not take stock of your equipment—both what you have and what you could invest in to further your capabilities—pick a couple of markets you can serve and see for yourself how much fun it can be to tap one of these niche markets for yourself? One thing is for sure, once you find one, you are sure to go after others.