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Not Just for Holidays
Sublimation systems make photo gifting a hot prospect



Photo gifting, which has been seen as a nice add-on business for photo retailers, is poised to become the next big thing. With the onset of the digital revolution and the introduction of ever-improving sublimation systems, photo gifting is becoming a hot property.

"I think everybody should do it," says James Park, president of Colortek Image Shop, New York, NY. "There's an unlimited number of things [to] do. I can do 200 items without changing my setup. We have four stores and do photo gifts every day in every store. It's very popular, and very easy to do."

What makes it easy is dye-sublimation transfer-the process of taking an image that's been created digitally, printing it using sublimation inks onto paper, then transferring the image onto an object using a heat-transfer press. It may sound complicated, but with the right equipment, it's simple.

"People have this mindset that photo gifting is very difficult," says Park. "But it just needs a little bit of organization." That's where companies like Condé Systems and Coastal Business come into play.

The Setup

Wes Pickering of Coastal Business agrees that setting up a lab or shop isn't as hard as some may think. "All you need to do basic photo gifting is a heat press, any standard inkjet printer, and transfer paper."

But, Pickering adds, if a photo retailer really wanted to expand its offerings, sublimation opens the doors to hundreds of new substrates. "For sublimation, you need a heat press, an Epson inkjet printer with special sublimation inks, special coated sublimation substrates or 100% polyester fabric," he says. "This will allow pressing on hard and soft substrates, including (but not limited to) tiles, cutting boards, mouse pads, plaques, etc. While sublimation involves a little more knowledge with regard to color profiles, nozzle checks, and coated substrates, the end output of sublimation is amazing."

While the type of equipment used depends on the type of business being done, there are several basics that are recommended by the experts at Condé Systems. The ink used in the sublimation transfer process is a special mixture of water and heat-reactive dyes. So, for consistent, professional-looking results, Condé recommends ArTainium UV + sublimation inks. Epson offers a series of printers that can handle sublimation inks, including the Epson 4800, 4880, and 7600, which are designed for a fast-paced, high-volume production facility. The type of paper depends on what type of substrate is being printed on: ceramics, plastics, jewelry, and porcelain take one type, while mouse pads, tote bags, metals, and fabrics use another.

The heat press is essential. Laminating devices and home hand irons can't get near the required temperatures for reliable transfers, according to Condé. Standard transfers require temperatures from 375° to 425° F and pressing forces of 40–80 psi. Condé recommends George Knight heat presses.

The Process

Park did his research first. "What I was looking for was the photo quality on the products, and sublimation delivered the best quality," says Park. When he was ready to get started, Park called on Condé.

"I remember talking to [Park] when he was thinking about getting into photo gifting," says David Gross, president of Condé Systems, Inc. "He was a bit skeptical, but I told him we would make it work for him." Gross sensed that Park was a good businessman, which Park proved to be when he said he wasn't interested in buying amateur equipment. "He told me, ‘You tell me what to buy, and I'll buy it,'" recalls Gross. Park spent about $6,000 on equipment and $3,000 on supplies to get started and hasn't looked back. He even recently gave a lecture to other retailers on the virtues of gifting.

Gross claims the key to Condé's success, and the success of the companies they supply, is great instructors, a good tech-support department, and intelligent, cooperative customers. "I can do my job really well, but if the person on the other end is changing every couple of months or really doesn't take an interest in what they're doing, then I have a big problem," he states. "For us to make money, we must make the customer successful. It's just absolutely critical. To [Park's] credit, he's got great people, and this is an important part of Colortek's business now, so it makes our job quite easy. We make sure their equipment keeps going and feed them new ideas and new products to freshen their offerings."

There are also many more suppliers and products than just a couple of years ago, according to Bob Hanson, owner of Harold's Photo Centers in Sioux Falls, SD. "We've upgraded our printer almost every year to allow for new technology," he says. "We started with a mug and t-shirt press in conjunction with our first Kodak dye-sub printer about 10 years ago. We now use Epson printers with two different Sawgrass sublimation inks, and a laser-printed transfer paper for some products. We use an assortment of manufacturers' heat presses."

The Time is Now

According to Gross, the stars are aligned to allow massive growth. And all of this growth, to some extent, is being fueled by the digital revolution-with everything from digital cameras to the internet. "People today almost always have the attitude of ‘I want it my way, and I want it now,'" says Gross. "With that theme, we're just seeing sublimation appear everywhere-and so it just continues to grow."

The digital world, notes Gross, has also allowed distributors who specialized in traditional mass-market volume do two things that are great for business: "They don't have to stock any inventory. They print what they need based on demand." And he explains that they can customize products-options that hadn't been available in the past.

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