I have spent years serving tiny niche markets. I even wrote a book about it titled 125 Ways to Make Money with Sublimation. Had I not served these markets over the past 30 years, I would have missed out on getting to know a great many people and learning about so many different organizations—not to mention making a dollar or two. I might have made more money had I found some really big customers, but I wouldn’t have had nearly as much fun. And many of those small niche markets have really added to my bottom line!
So what do I mean by a “niche market”? The dictionary defines it as a “specialized market” but in our industry, I think we need to expand on that. I consider a niche market to be a very specific market (usually small) that no one else, or at least very few people, seems interested in.
Everybody wants personalized products and, as such, there are countless niche markets that a personalized products business can tap into. Here are ten that could be quite lucrative for your business.
One of the easiest potential markets to get started with is churches. Because churches are not required by the Federal Government to have ADA signage, they offer a nice little market for door and wall signs that you can make without any special equipment. Engraved plastic signs and/or sublimated signs can attract a customer that will keep coming back for more signs.
This is also a great place to offer a variety of products with a picture of their building. These can be sold by the church to members as keepsakes or, as I will discuss later, as fundraisers.
Church members are proud of their church and love to have things to commemorate various events. Offering coffee cups, travel mugs, license plates, wall hangings, shirts or Christmas ornaments can not only fill a void but generate some very nice business for you at the same time.
Consider, too, that in addition to denominational churches there are a great many non-denominational churches, worship groups and people of other faiths who desire to have these same products. Perhaps adding a prayer or saying that is specifically for the various faiths will make the products even more attractive. When I was teaching Sublimation University, I occasionally had a priest or other religious leader come to learn how to sublimate so they could make products just for their congregation or members of the entire faith. These groups might include Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Quaker, Greek, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. They all have buildings and they all take pride in their faith and their church, temple, mosque or synagogue.
2. Pet Products
The personalized pet products market is a niche that really can’t be considered “small.” People literally spend billions of dollars on their pets each year. I have made a number of products for one lady who has 19 cats! That meant 19 collars with name tags, a dozen pet bowls, mats to go under them and several signs warning people she had “Killer Cats” in her house.
The big market potential, however, isn’t selling to individual pet owners one at a time but rather through the places they go for other types of pet products and services. This includes veterinarians, animal groomers, pet stores, animal hospitals, pet cemeteries and breeders. Privately owned companies are a lot easier to sell through since they don’t have a corporate office that wants to control and profit from everything, and there are plenty of these around. You just have to search them out as many are run out of homes or easy-to-miss storefronts.
There are all kinds of products you can offer these businesses that can either be sold for use by the business or special ordered and sold to their customers through the pet business, allowing the owners to earn a percentage. Included in the product lineup are pet tags, bowls, pet feeding mats, personalized collars and leashes, items like plaques and keepsake boxes featuring a picture of the pet, picture frames, pet clothes (shirts, bandannas, coats, etc.), pet urns, etc. People who show their animals (of all sizes) also like to have signs for their cages or stalls.
Although laser engraved pet pictures on wood are desired by some, glass, metal and acrylic photo panels make great gift items as do shirts, license plates and many other sublimatable or UV printable products.
One of the best ways to sell this type of merchandise is to supply actual samples that people can see.
Whether you foot the bill for the samples or you charge the resellers for them is up to you, but one method I have seen work is to charge your cost but give them coupons that they can use as they send in orders so if they sell the products, the samples ultimately cost them nothing. At the same time, you don’t have to bear the burden of spreading samples all over town without getting any orders.
The wedding market is another “big” opportunity to make a lot of money. Weddings are more “personal” than ever before and people are willing to shell out extra cash to make the event extra special, providing you with great marketing opportunities.
Traditional personalized wedding items include toasting glasses, a knife and cake server, and gifts for the groomsmen and bridesmaids. More and more often now, people are giving gifts/wedding favors to all of the guests who attend as a thank-you for sharing their special day.
A product like a photo frame can make a touching memorial gift. Photo courtesy of Johnson Plastics Plus.
Gifts for the wedding party provide a lot of opportunities for sales as even for a small wedding, there might be a dozen or more gift items needed. Popular personalized items for bridesmaids and groomsmen include keepsake boxes, wine glasses, flasks, beer mugs, cuff links, pendants, etc. Of course, personalized travel mugs and tumblers are super popular right now for both men and women.
As mentioned, in many weddings, each guest who attends the reception receives some sort of wedding favor to take home with them. This can be as simple as mints in a personalized tin or more elaborate like a personalized wine glass engraved with the couple’s names or a catchy phrase like “Eat, Drink and Be Married, Matthew & Lily, June 10, 2019.” Items like personalized coasters, bottle openers and Mason jars stuffed with treats are popular as well. Wedding favors can include just about anything, depending on the budget. Your personalization services such as engraving, printing, sublimation or sandcarving all offer an opportunity for making money here.
Another growing trend in the wedding market is the use of a variety of personalized extras. Wedding signs with the bride and groom’s name displayed outside and/or inside the reception area are very popular today as are items like personalized cake toppers and table place cards.
In addition to selling directly to individual customers, another good way to venture into the wedding market is by creating an alliance with local wedding shops and photographers, giving them a piece of the action. This can often prove a good move since you can not only sell some things the photographer doesn’t sell but also items with his or her pictures on them after the wedding is over.
There are also lots of wedding/bridal shows where vendors for dresses, food, cakes, etc., display their services. These shows are well attended and often occur two or more times per year in local communities. It is a great place to network with people in the industry to see if you can be a wholesaler to them or to show your products and sell direct to the public.
4. Hobby Groups
One of my favorite niche markets is hobby groups. They are fun because the people who belong to them are so passionate about what they do, plus there is a group for almost everything—just take your pick—or start with a group you belong to. Groups that build model airplanes, cars or trains come up with some really unique requests. Sewing groups, especially those that make quilts, love the custom sublimated panels you can provide for them.
History related groups such as the C&O Railway Historical Society or the New York Central System Historical Society like to offer all kinds of specialized products such as dinnerware, stemware, key fobs, signs, photos on metal or lasered images of locomotives on wood. Mouse pads are a hot item for these groups as are coffee cups and travel mugs. Just in my area of the world, there are groups for railroads, cars, old radios, boats and ships, Navy vessels, various wildlife groups including birdwatchers, dog and cat shows, motorcycles, RC airplanes, model railroading, gun shooting, photography, gardening and probably 50 more I don’t know about.
Hobbyists make up an interesting market for a variety of personalized gifts. A personalized wooden sign, such as this one from Mr. Train, is perfect for the unique railroader
5. First Responders
Local first responders are another potential niche market right in your own community. These include fire departments, police departments, EMTs and specialty responders such as water rescue and Hazmat teams. The people involved in these groups, especially the volunteer groups, are proud of what they do, and rightly so. These people love to have items decorated with their fire truck, ambulance, boat or truck or their badge. Shirts, hats, pictures, key fobs, coffee cups, travel mugs and plaques are all hot items.
To get it started, stop by a local volunteer fire department and ask to see the chief. Show him or her what you can do and describe the personalized products you can offer. For example, you can take pictures of their trucks, firehouse or whatever else the men and women might like and put them in a personalized picture frame or on a custom T-shirt, coffee mug, key chain, etc. You won’t knock the ball out of the court every time, but most stations will be very receptive, especially if you can spread the word to the spouses around the holidays. Once you are established with one or two stations, they will begin to talk among themselves and may even come to you for the same deal you struck with the other stations. Once you have a few fire departments, expand into police and EMT by offering products they might be interested in.
While you are talking to fire and EMT departments, show them an engraved or sublimated frequency channel chart they could have made for each of their vehicles. Most emergency vehicles have radios that reach different departments on various channels. Some units may only have a few while others can have a dozen or more and they can get confusing, especially to the new guy or gal. These are small things but helpful and some stations might have a dozen vehicles. Even at $20 each, they add nicely to your bottom line.
6. Memorial & Donor Walkways
Memorial and donor walkways are a big thing everywhere in the U.S. Most communities search out someone who can sandblast brick pavers and paint fill them, and that’s fine—but is it you? If you have a laser or sandblasting capabilities, you could be making these and turning $20-$30 profit per brick! In my area, those I don’t make are made by a gravestone provider. He sells a half brick (only half as thick as an ordinary paving brick) for $35. I offer a full-size laser engraved brick for the same price. I also offer a sandblasted brick but once people see the laser version, they always seem to go with those. A lasered version doesn’t have to be paint filled and there are no indentations to trap water, freeze and crack the letters or catch high heels.
Choosing the right brick is important to your success in this market area. For sandblasting, clay paver bricks work best as opposed to concrete. You can usually find them at businesses that sell stone. LaserSketch Ltd., Romeoville, IL, sells brick pavers designed specifically for laser engraving. These bricks are specially made to react to the heat of a laser (there is glass mixed in with the clay prior to baking). The cost of the bricks is about $3.75 each and you can ship six via Priority Mail for $15.95 making the final cost less than $6.50. (For more information on these laserable bricks, read “Following the ‘Engraved’ Brick Road” in the May 2017 issue.)
7. Memorial Products
Along with memorial walkways, the memorial market in general is a significant—and growing—niche market in the personalized products industry and one that you could easily tap into with little effort. There are a wide variety of items available in our industry alone that can be personalized and used as memorials and memorial gifts to celebrate the life of the person or pet that has passed away.
In the past, loved ones who passed away were traditionally memorialized with a personalized urn or a monument, tombstone or marker at the grave site—and that was basically it. In recent years, all of that has changed. In keeping with the increasingly growing demand for personalized products in our society, people want more and different ways to remember those who have passed, and this includes their beloved pets. People today are purchasing all kinds of products that are personalized with the deceased’s name, photo and a sentimental message.
There is a large, ongoing demand for personalized urns, which is a memorial product that you most likely can easily handle in your shop. The good news about offering this service is that by establishing a relationship with crematories, you could set yourself up for years of perpetual work.
An increasingly popular option for personalizing memorial tributes is to include a cameo portrait of the person being memorialized. In some cases, a photo of the loved one is engraved or carved directly on the headstone. As another option, marble, granite and porcelain memorial plaques are available that can be customized through laser engraving, ceramic imprinting or sublimation. Typically oval or rectangular shaped, these can be mounted on monuments, markers and headstones in addition to a variety of other items like urns and keepsake boxes. These can also be used as stand-alone memorial tribute plaques.
Casket inserts and casket pillows featuring a photo and loving message of the deceased are becoming increasingly popular. Casket inserts can be sublimated on polyester or digitally printed on photo paper and displayed inside the lid of the casket. After the funeral service, the family can take the insert home as a lasting memento. Personalized casket pillows can be sublimated with photos and endearing messages.
Flag cases are an excellent memorial item to offer customers for military memorials. Popular pet memorials include personalized garden stakes, garden stones and stone sculptures.
The beauty of the personalized products industry is that you can take an ordinary product and turn it into something very meaningful for a very specific occasion, including memorials. There are countless products available that can be turned into memorial gifts by adding a person’s name, photo, special sentiment, endearing message, scripture, etc. By being just a little creative, you could open up an entire new market for everyday gift items that you already sell, including ornaments, picture frames, memory photo books, plaques and more.
Dog tags and jewelry items like lockets and pendants can also be meaningful memorial gifts when they are engraved or decorated with a photo, name and other meaningful text. And remember, virtually all of these products can be used to remember both people and pets. These items will truly keep the loved person or pet close to the wearer’s heart.
8. Clubs & Organizations
There are lots of organizations you can sell to. Fraternal organizations like the Masons and Kiwanis occasionally use plaques, flags and gifts, and they all use name badges. Even if they don’t buy their awards from you and opt to buy through their headquarters, they may still need engraving.
Other organizations include clubs for everything from astrology to gardening. If left alone, many of these will eventually find you for their engraving needs but why not go to them first? If you show a little interest in their club, you might be surprised by how much business they can generate for you.
9. Educational Institutions
Education is one area where a lot of personalization businesses in our industry already do business, but are you getting all their business? Sure, the football, soccer and basketball teams may buy from you but there is a lot more to be had if you look for it. Since most high schools don’t trademark their logos, you can offer things like license plates, shirts, water bottles, coffee mugs, key chains and all kinds of promotional gadgets decorated with the school’s logo or mascot. If you work by special order, you can even include their name. (HINT: High schoolers love to have things with their boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s name on it along with theirs.) Consider, too, offering things like shirts to the various clubs. Even if the club doesn’t have enough members to make screen printing profitable, you can use DTG or sublimation to create personalized shirts for each of the clubs. (And don’t forget that moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas and other friends and relatives will be interested in these shirts if they know someone in the club.)
Class reunions are another place where you can build a niche market. Every 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 50 years, most high school graduating classes celebrate with a reunion and want souvenirs and mementos of the occasion. Even if the group has a tight budget, there is still money to be made. Personalized items like ornaments, sun catchers, bookmarks, paperweights, name badges, coffee cups and wine glasses are all popular and relatively affordable items you can offer.
Most colleges do trademark their logos, especially the larger ones. Dealing with college logo licensing is far beyond what most of us want to deal with as it can be complex and expensive. There is, however, a way around that: Sell directly to the school and let them resell the items.
Not all colleges and universities have trademarks on their logos and those you can work with more freely. This is often true with junior colleges, Christian or Catholic colleges and community colleges. You can offer all kinds of products to these schools and their students, alumni and boosters. Check with their bookstore about them reselling your products or taking orders for personalized versions of your products. Remember, too, they give awards for all kinds of things so don’t let that get past you. Wall signs in most schools are required to be ADA-compliant so, if you can make ADA signage, make a bid on that. If not, there are tons of signs, including wayfinding signs, that are not required to meet ADA rules.
There are other educational enterprises to consider as well. Adult learning programs, literacy programs (often sponsored by local libraries), CPR and first aid training for first responders and other such groups might like to give more than a certificate to those who complete some form of training.
One segment that I consider education but others might consider a sport or hobby, is scuba diving. People spend a lot of time and money learning to scuba safely and properly. I reached a level of Master Diver and both my wife and I trained as search and rescue divers. These advanced classes are not easy, yet the only thing we received upon qualification was a little paper card to carry in our wallets. I resisted making a plaque for myself but I have made a number of them for other people.
Scuba diving isn’t the only such endeavor, however. Ham Radio is another organization I take part in. This has proven to be much more difficult and more expensive than even scuba diving. There are three tests required to reach the top rank, and each one is more difficult than the one before. Ham clubs should offer plaques or other awards to those who pass the tests, win the contests or provide emergency public service such as the guys who went to Puerto Rico after the hurricane to provide communication around the island when all the emergency radios and telephones were inoperative. I even have a page of Ham radio products on my website.
A laser can be used to create custom ornaments for clients like churches. Photo courtesy of Smiling Tree Toys.
The final niche market we will consider is that of fundraising. Almost every group, organization, educational institute, nonprofit, etc., has some reason for raising money. Most are sound and serve a good cause but they don’t have the funds to do it alone.
Churches want to build new buildings or support mission efforts, hospitals want to buy new equipment or offer free healthcare to those who can’t afford it, schools want to buy new uniforms for a ball team or band. These and thousands of other worthwhile causes can be further supported by offering a variety of the products you make that groups can buy and resell, keeping part of the profit for their cause.
Every year we are all bombarded with Girl Scouts, school kids, ball teams, etc., selling cookies, candy bars, calendars, candles and wrapping paper. Why not help some of these organizations sell something people might actually want at a price that is fair to all concerned?
Consider the high school class reunion group that wanted to sell a plaque commemorating the school they attended (the building was going to be torn down). I offered to create personalized plaques featuring a photo of the building which they in turn sold to the reunion attendees. They sold like hotcakes and we each made $10 on each plaque.
My final tip is this: When it comes to fundraising, build a “pay as you go” relationship with each client. One of the big advantages of setting up a fundraising program with you is that, in many cases, you don’t need to require a minimum order and you can set the per-piece price the same no matter how many items they buy. (Unless, of course, you are doing a screen printing order or jobbing out something that requires minimum quantities and price breaks.) If they did a fundraiser with a larger company, they would likely have to order hundreds of items at a time and pay in advance. In many cases, you have the ability to offer a much better deal than that, but you also have to be realistic about what it costs to stay in business, so don’t be a bank for your customers.
As you go after your own niche markets, here is the one thing to remember: Personalization. These prospective clients can buy shirts with fire trucks on them from a hundred sources. What you offer is a shirt (coffee cup, plaque, phone cover, etc.) personalized with their fire truck or ambulance or school or church or hobby. To further prime the well, you can include individual names and perhaps the year. This makes the item truly unique and worth the extra money they may have to pay to own one of their own.
Whatever you make, whatever you charge and however you structure your relationship with each niche market you service, I fully expect you will find it to be a win-win relationship that not only builds long-term friendships, but also adds significantly to your bottom line.