Windows present valuable real estate for retailers and brands to showcase products, create impressions, and entice customers. In turn, they are a valuable market for print service providers (PSPs) for producing graphics and displays that help brands achieve their unique visions and needs through the range of capabilities enabled by wide-format printing.
So, what are the current trends in the retail window display market? A group of PSPs weigh in and share how digital printing has changed the game.
The Window Effect
“In almost every window covering or window display that I’ve seen, there’s some kind of product that is involved from the large-format graphic industry,” says Nelson James, co-founder of Signs.com based in Salt Lake City.
Echoing wide-format’s role in creating eye-catching window displays is Nick Titus, president, Minuteman Press International, headquartered in Farmingdale, N.Y. “Businesses should take full advantage of their window space, and make sure their signage, posters, window clings, and fabric displays are fully branded with the appropriate colors and messaging,” he says. “From a practical standpoint, it’s also vital to remain in season and promote the right items and discounts at the proper time to maximize impact.”
And to measure that impact, according to Stan Lucas, wide-format business development manager for DCG One in Seattle, merchandising managers will evaluate the number of impressions. “That is, does the general public see your message, does it see your invitation to peruse your goods, and, of course, eventually buy?” he says.
But a display — and its message — doesn’t always have to be direct, as Derrick Ableman, marketing manager of Northeast Color in Atlanta, shares it’s a chance to create a moment of discovery, prompting the question of “What is happening here?” as passersby look in.
“Often when we see window displays, you may have a banner that says, ‘Free until this,’ ‘Sign up now,’ or some form of brand messaging,” he says. “I think there’s an opportunity, and probably more with maybe the more temporary [displays], of creating a question and pulling someone’s attention in a way that is unusual.”
Whatever the messaging or a brand’s goal, one could say there’s an even larger window of opportunity for this market amid the pandemic, as James notes the increased attention to this space with stores offering pickup options, and forming socially distanced lines outside for capacity limits. “There’s just a huge opportunity to display your most popular products and advertise right in front of somebody where you basically have the full attention,” he says. “Before, [as people walked by], you had 10 seconds; now, you’ve got five minutes.”
However, with the pandemic also comes window signage and messaging that not only states a store’s COVID-19 precautions, but as Ableman notes, emphasizes empathy and an experience that ensures people feel safe in the space. “This is a moment where a brand has an opportunity to not necessarily shift the conversation to be about COVID, but to be about caring for their client,” he says. “Having your customers’ health and safety in mind has always been a part of your value prop, and you are going to emphasize it now.”
Capabilities, Trends, and Considerations
When it comes to what can be accomplished for retail windows in wide-format, the possibilities seem endless, from frontlit and backlit displays, to the use of adhesives and perforated window film (window perf). “Window displays are really difficult to define because what you can do is so broad,” says Lucas.
And a variety of applications means a variety of considerations. In the case of increasingly popular translucent graphics, Lucas says, one must look at the source of light on the inside and outside, and how a graphic reads from the outside looking in and vice versa. “It can be tricky, and it usually requires on-site evaluation and frequently more than one round of proofing as you adjust your levels of ink saturation, use of white percentages, those kinds of things,” he adds.
Lucas also notes different effects that can be considered depending on the space, such as hanging graphics from a ceiling structure, or creating the illusion of motion, whether it’s how the light is programmed across a backlit graphic, using a motor to spin a portion of the display, or utilizing an HVAC unit above to make a banner flutter.
Another trend he notes that’s still fairly new and relatively expensive, but powerful when utilized, is the incorporation of electronics and programmable displays.
Similarly, while James believes silicone edge graphics will continue to take the retail window world by storm due to how well fabrics display and “pop,” he has seen a trend toward more photo prints and digital photos with frontlit or backlit LED frames. “As digital print has gotten better, and more vibrant and photorealistic, I think you’re starting to see those types of graphics integrated in them,” he says.
He has also noticed an uptick in integrated technology, such as the use of QR codes and how brands display their websites and social media accounts. “The world is changing, and the way people are purchasing is changing,” adds James. “They want to interact online; they want to interact with their phone and look at stuff, maybe even before they enter the store.”
Another popular trend for the retail window space is window perf, which has been a primary application for both Northeast Color and Signarama OKC in Oklahoma City, owned by Brad Webb. “For us, it seems like more and more people are calling and requesting window perf. We have dispensaries popping up on just about every corner, and so [they] want a lot of privacy looking in and they want to be visible from the street,” says Webb.
Ableman also notes the opportunity with the cannabis industry where, depending on the different rules and regulations, they must provide some sort of visibility to the interior. “You often see a lot of blackouts,” he says. “That could be a way to create a new sort of experience, or sort of a tension between that requirement and reality.”
Another application with which retailers and PSPs can push the boundaries with a creative and impactful display, Ableman says, is the use of optically clear vinyl. Though, he notes, it is a level of investment for which a brand needs a clear vision and direction for its execution. In addition to replicating frosted surfaces, he says “What we’re able to do in terms of being able to print something at different levels of opacity and depth on one side of the glass, or on one side of the optically clear vinyl, and put that outside. And then you could put another set of optically clear on the other side, and the design is such that you’re able to create this really incredible tension between those two glass surfaces. You could really create something dynamic that has not been seen before. The only limitation there is the direction of the client, and the creativity of the operator,” he says.
How Digital’s Changed the Game
While these are just a few of the many capabilities for retail window graphics, it’s important to note how the progression of digital printing technology has expanded the possibilities in this market.
“The maturity of digital print has come in like an asteroid and just completely toppled and upset the large-format print industry relative to how it used to be,” says Lucas. “The physical properties of the presses and the inks allow for tremendous adhesion to a wide variety of materials, and the inks themselves — once polymerized — are really durable. They’re extremely durable both indoors [and] outdoors, they’re very bang-resistant and weather-resistant.”
Sharing in these sentiments, Ableman says, “For us, it’s a matter of having the dexterity to be able to print on such a wide array of different substrates with an incredible amount of control and accuracy in terms of the amount of color we’re putting down. The machinery is far more impressive.”
In addition to the ability to print on sheets up to two inches thick, Lucas notes the low setup fees that come with software and digital printing, allowing for printing low quantities and still being economically feasible. This minimized setup is what James says makes “digital printing fit in perfectly with the extreme customization and localization that’s happening in the world right now. That’s where we’re able to come in and say, ‘Yep, we can personalize [the graphic] to this location or this store,’” he adds.
Speaking to digital textile printing, Titus notes how it “allows for vibrant custom fabric displays that are versatile, durable, and easily replaced. They can withstand sunlight, and offer a high-definition look. Right now, PSPs can provide clients with fully customizable fabric displays and fabric backlit displays that provide extra illumination. One other benefit [is] that once the displays are replaced, they can be easily stored and reused at a later date (for regular seasonal items).”
He also notes the option of retractable fabric displays that can be shown in not just the window, but anywhere inside the store is another benefit to keep in mind.
For Webb, comparing digital printing to cut vinyl — Signarama OKC’s alternative for window graphics — is comparing apples to oranges, as he notes the high-quality images that can be produced on window perf and be seen from long distances with vivid colors. “Just the quality of image that you’re able to do and the attention that it grabs ... it’s just a night-and-day difference,” he says. “The digital printing and the quality of the graphics and being able to really reproduce anything that our customers can envision — that’s absolutely a game changer versus the alternative.”
While Lucas notes new and better features will continue to be added, he says “the print quality, speed of printing, elasticity of print possibilities, varied applications — it has grown so quickly. Keeping up on all of that, of course, is important if you want to remain competitive and offer new and improved things for your clients, your architects, your designers, your retail merchandisers — all the people who like to stay up [with the latest], and even be first with the new thing.”
Being a Resourceful Partner
As with any industry market, it’s important for PSPs to be a collaborator and a source of knowledge for brands. “It’s easy for us to think that we just put ink on a substrate, but in fact, if we put our mind to it and realize not only do we have a responsibility, but we can be part of the solution by thinking creatively, by understanding architectural and interior spaces, by understanding materials, by understanding things like smoke and flame and adhesion and gravity, and how you solve for gravity — all of that,” says Lucas. “If you become an expert in that, then you can bring in some good business for your company.”
James adds, “Window graphics in particular are such a creative medium, and so I think PSPs can help retail stores understand the creative role they can help play in these spaces by showing off some work and by helping them understand what places their work can best be used, or is often used.”
To make the execution of high-end materials like optically clear vinyl successful, Ableman notes, “What you need is that really creative person from the marketing team at the brand. And then, correspondingly, you need a really creative person at the operator level. Someone that has experimented with this that isn’t going to just run and Google ‘optically clear vinyl’ and try to figure it out.”
Having the experience and knowledge base, he notes, also extends to understanding different city and state regulations for how much of a business’ window can and cannot be covered. “So, the project itself is legislated by budget, material, operator expertise, then how does the township feel about it. All of those things need to be considered before moving forward on any project that would be of a significant investment.”
Being a resourceful partner is also evident in the push for brands to utilize sustainable materials, which Lucas says has been a trend for some time but has rapidly increased in the last two to three years. “More and more corporations are directing their personnel to talk to suppliers like us about what their options are with regards to sustainability,” he adds.
The challenge, he notes, is that it’s not about delivering the most sustainable product, but rather the most sustainable product that will work in the client’s setting and with what they’re trying to accomplish. Thus, comes many factors that need to be resolved, such as whether the piece is hanging or standing, its physical properties, and the effect of gravity in causing standing pieces to warp, or bow, or sag.
Sustainability is also weighed against how window graphic materials can last in extreme weather conditions. “It can experience high levels of humidity and condensation, so choosing your materials for a window display wisely so the window display doesn’t degrade in short order is important,” says Lucas. While there is a strong movement away from petroleum-based products — plastics like styrene, polypropylene, and polyethylene — he says much of the time clients aren’t sure what they’re asking for when indicating they want a sustainable product.
“There’s a relative scale of sustainability. A cellulose-based product (paper) is probably the most sustainable option, but in a window graphic, it’s not always the most stable in those extreme conditions,” says Lucas, though he adds there are unique manufacturers strengthening these materials so they are functional in a retail window’s potentially extreme settings.
Whatever the applications and considerations, the significance of the retail window — and its lucrative possibilities for PSPs — is likely to continue following the COVID-19 vaccine rollout as brands rethink their brick-and-mortar store experiences.
“I am of the opinion that there will be a surge — I’m not saying an immediate spike — but I think there will be a surge of retail shopping, of people wanting to be out and be together as they are able to, and as things start to open back up,” says James. “So, I think it’s going to be all-the-more important to have those displays be attractive and help attract customers to your store.”