Four Views on Serving the Retail Segment
For the wide-format graphics segment, the opportunity to serve the retail space is both large and diverse. To imagine that opportunity, create a spreadsheet. In the vertical column, list all the types of retail settings you can imagine (e.g. grocery stores, big box, boutiques, car dealerships). Horizontally, list all the possible graphic elements you could produce (e.g. signage, floor graphics, windows, silicone edge graphics, electronic elements). Done thoughtfully, your spreadsheet should help you visualize the many opportunities in retail, and could serve to guide your path ahead. Call it your “matrix of possibility.”
But before you start selling these opportunities, or sourcing materials or equipment to expand your reach, experts offer insight into retail trends, retail graphics, and the key partnerships that make serving the segment possible.
One trend changing the retail playing field, says Carol Spieckerman, president of Spieckerman Retail, is that it is becoming more diffuse. Because of recent developments such as multi-format retailers, where retailers have different types of stores for different purposes — big box, condensed urban locations, even neighborhood markets — a lot of the terms to describe retail verticals have been rendered obsolete. Further, she says, the increased merging of services — such as financial and health services — have blurred the lines. “Financial,” she says, “is increasingly defining itself as retail.”
Spieckerman says the last two years have been profound for retailers, and she believes “we are at the beginning stages of the digital rethinking of brick and mortar.” The challenge therein, she says, is how to integrate the online experience into the physical store. She expects to see a renaissance of brick and mortar starting in 2022 led by innovation.
For the current state of retail — and for manufacturing — “inflation is on everyone’s mind,” Spieckerman notes. She says some retailers, mostly those with more clout and higher levels of diversification, will find inflation easier to manage. The good news on this front is that “there are other factors helping to mitigate its effect, and retail numbers look good.” She also adds that factors such as pent-up demand, the relaxing of mask mandates, and the current downward trend in COVID, all bring positivity to traditional retail. This, however, is tempered by supply chain issues, which “will be with us through the third or fourth quarter of this year.”
Asked about developments in high-end retail, Spieckerman says the luxury market has begun to offer more digital solutions. Further, she says, high-end retailers are creating experiential stores at their flagship locations. “Luxury brands keep you in line with what’s next because they’re stepping out,” she says. “Despite being late to market, these retailers are now at the leading edge of creating virtual store environments and are even tinkering with the metaverse.” She expects “wild stuff will launch this year when Facebook, Google, and others unleash extended realities into stores.” This includes interaction with wearable devices.
Spieckerman also finds interest in dynamic display, particularly to facilitate approaches such as variable, or even personalized, pricing. Electronic shelf pricing in some Kohl’s locations, for instance, can allow for virtual price changes and may also realize labor savings.
Spieckerman is still passionate about retail. “It’s become such a big tent. It used to be a niche and narrowly defined. Now it’s super exciting, teeming with innovation.” She says retail is leading the conversation on innovation.
Meeting Customer Needs
With more than 20 years of experience serving the wide-format space, Brian Hite, CSO, principal, and co-founder of Image Options (Lake Forest, California), has extensive experience meeting the needs of retail clients. Currently, retail-focused work — including significant big-box retailers and luxury brands — comprises roughly 65% of the company’s annual revenue. To further equip itself to serve its customers, Image Options recently invested in additional print capacity for both dye-sublimation and rigid substrates, and has added additional resources for fabrication, welding, and contour cutting.
During the pandemic, Hite says, his company’s retail-focused work stayed relatively steady because big-box stores by-in-large stayed open, and because luxury brands never really experienced a significant dip. That said, it was a time of less frequent, but more expensive, marketing approaches — a revenue-neutral development for Image Options. Hite also witnessed the move of some online-only retailers’ physical settings.
Asked how the retail segment has changed over the last five years, Hite says the customer expectation for unreasonable turn times “is no longer there.” Given recent rising prices and an uneven supply chain, which have led to some customer pushback, Image Options has had to work to maintain customer relationships. Further, Hite says, print buyers have changed: “The experienced people with the big salaries have been forced out or retired and replaced by people with less experience.” This has led to a need to reeducate customers. Further, he has seen a shift away from print buyers and more toward procurement officers — a less relationship-centric, more transactional approach.
While Image Options has experience in digitally-driven, interactive elements such as automated measurement of “views” in retail spaces and projection systems triggered by shopper interaction with products, Hite still stands firmly with the power of the company’s core: printed, static graphics. “They (dynamic systems) are not a panacea,” he says, “and they don’t necessarily drive sales.” Among traditional retail applications, Hite says he is witnessing a continued increase in the use of printed fabrics, particularly for SEG, and a decline in the use of standard, low-cost, vinyl banners.
For other graphics producers serving — or planning to serve — the retail segment, Hite has advice that transcends retail, wide-format, and printing in general. “Be persistent,” he says, “authentic, and in the service of the customers. They appreciate that.” Further, Hite adds, “do what you say you’re going to do.”
Serving at a Higher Level
As an opportunity for graphics producers, serving the retail space is scalable. While many focus on providing printed elements for, say, signage, others take a deeper dive to offer a stronger, more comprehensive experience for their customers. In many cases, scaling up does not mean doing it all in-house. It instead speaks to the value of professional partnerships. As a trade-only provider of elements including dimensional signage, ceiling elements, and UL-approved electric signage, C. G. Witvoet & Sons (Wyoming, Michigan) provides what Eli Everhart, the company’s chief customer officer, says, is “an extension of our partners — we add capabilities most don’t have in-house.”
Asked about the changing nature of fixtures for retail settings, Everhart says, “We’re seeing a lot of energy, money, and creativity being put into buy online/pick up in store elements, and square footage is being put into stores to address that.” While this development has been significantly boosted by COVID-related shopping behavior, it has become “something [retailers] want to highlight.”
Asked, from his viewpoint, how the retail space is changing, Everhart says retailers are working to add flexibility to their spaces. He sees turndown — such as 2008 and COVID — as times when retailers experiment with different ideas. “By taking advantage of the temporary feeling of things,” he says, “they can create an environment that necessitates innovation.”
In his experience working for a company that maintains partnerships with some of the top graphics producers serving the retail space, Everhart says that those who do it best, “are really good at listening to what their clients need — and that’s beyond what they say they need.” He says it takes a special amount of passion and discipline to help customers achieve their vision. “They listen without fear,” he says. “They’re open with us, and we’re able to be open with them.” They are nimbler, he says, more open.
Placing of Elements
Serving the retail sector at a higher level can also include installation, and the number of installable elements for retail graphics is vast. Unfortunately, sometimes overlooked by producers, quality installation is truly the important, final step in many graphics project, and may be the only human contact that takes place between graphics producer and retailer.
Over the past several years, says Krystal Miszewski, owner of Candy Wraps Orlando (Sanford, Florida), her company has seen a huge increase in the installation of wall covers. This can include, she says, elements such as barricade wraps for stores under construction, custom wallpapers for theme parks and hotels, and custom wall wraps for breweries, for instance. She says the focus of these elements is heavily on branding, as opposed to decorative elements. “Branding is where it is right now,” she says. She is also seeing an increased use of spot graphics, floor graphics, and bright, bold storefronts to attract customers. “It’s refreshing to see it all come to light,” she adds.
Miszewski says the key strategy for companies providing or contracting graphic installation is to ask the right questions. She says, “When selling for interior retail spaces, there are so many variables. The texture of the wall, the type of vinyl. You need to understand the customer’s end goal.” Further, she says, pre-installation site visits are essential so client measurements can be verified, and the installation team is aware of obstacles and architectural elements that need to be removed to facilitate installation. “Don’t leave any questions for the installer to have to answer on sight,” she says. Effective retail installs require communication on all sides — from producer, installer, and retailer. This includes, she says, knowledge by the retailer that an installation team will be on-site, a reality that she says happens about “50% of the time.”