"Developments in printing technology have allowed equipment to progress to printing directly on substrates up to 2-inches thick. This saves material costs, labor costs and increases our overall speed. We may still need to apply a mounting film, but overall it will help with our margins and price points, turn-around times and customer cost concerns," says Curran.
In the same vein, select the best substrates to present to your clients. The sheer volume of new products and substrates being introduced on a regular basis increases the difficulty level when selling to clients, but also gives shops the opening to "wow" them. Identifying two or three really new and interesting substrates to take into clients for a 15-minute presentation is a critical selling point.
Beyond substrates, what are commercial customers looking for these days? According to a study done by Hart & Associates for PMA, they are looking for faster turnaround time on jobs; recommendations on how to save money on projects; durable, high-quality print jobs; and good color matches. The study also showed that photo labs have key strengths in color management, expertise in imaging and high quality output and the ability to print on new substrates.
Customers also want the ability to see proofs online and access to better file delivery systems. Because of these requests, customers often need education on the new digital technology, just as the lab staff needs education in operating new equipment. Many customers need help in figuring out the best way to send photos to the shop.
Because of their ability to receive photos online, many shops have seen their customer list grow beyond their local area. Even smaller labs are getting more out-of-state business because of the Internet. The only drawback is that companies aren't getting much, if any, face time with their new customers and must rely on field reps or very good customer service to personalize their service.
Another observation is that because many customers' print or media budgets have been reduced, they are looking to their lab to become more of a partner in helping them achieve their marketing goals and reduce printing costs. That may involve recommending different materials for printing or using different printing methods in order to save time and money.
Finding a Niche is Critical
Because of the increasing number of competitors, a key strategy for commercial labs will be distinguishing themselves from the other players. To do this, companies must find a niche in what they do better than competitors in the area, and market that strength to new and existing customers. Or they need to acquire new equipment or technology that will enable them to provide a service that isn't already being offered. One avenue that firms have ventured down is adding services to provide a total graphics package.Another section for Busch Gardens was also created using Fujitrans and printed on their Durst Lambda 131 Plus printer. It was also mounted to 1/8-inch acrylic sheets using MACtac,s Permacolor.Photo courtesy of The Spark Agency for Anheuser-Busch.
"It's absolutely true that labs are becoming more full-service," says Curran. "We've offered design services and creative extension for almost 15 years at Group360, and can service customers from start to finish. We've seen our competitors enter the design arena, and most now offer image retouching and design."
According to Curran, the advantage of full-service offerings is the opportunity for shops to get in on the front end of projects, offer creative and design enhancement expertise to customers, and the ability to orient those projects to the lab's specific production capabilities. The same can be said of niche markets.
Whether your niche is outdoor graphics, trade show images or billboard-size banners, the fact is-not all labs or shops can do everything-so a void can usually be found in some area that has a market for that particular service. The important thing is pinpointing your company's strength or new niche area you want to pursue, and having the tools needed to capitalize on your services.
Some players in the commercial photo industry are predicting that they will be producing most of the same types of photo applications as they're doing now, but the change will be in the speed and quality of the images they're printing. They are also predicting that their trade show business will continue to be high and that demand for high-quality photographic images will still be there for customers involved in technical industries.
What has changed is the wide variety of substrates that can be printed on, thanks to digital technology. From pressure sensitive vinyl to fabrics, metals and transparent materials, new products are being introduced on a daily basis.
"For our customers in the point-of-sale and out-of-home markets who request applications such as bus shelters, in-store displays and large-scale building wraps, we use pressure sensitive vinyls for many of these applications," says Curran. "I've also seen a trend towards printing on fabrics in the wide-format arena, especially on sheer or transparent material."
So what do commercial and professional photo labs need to keep in mind as they plan for the future? If you haven't switched to digital, do it now. Make investments in equipment that's competitive and will help you automate and streamline operations. Keep up with new substrates and partner with manufacturers to maximize investments. Provide online file transfer, faster turnaround of jobs and train your staff and customers. Find a niche and market to broader range of potential customers. And finally, stay in front of the curve on trends and technology, and partner with your customers to find out what you can do to save them time, money and make them look good!
Elaine Jaye is an independent writer based in Hudson, OH.