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Fabrics enhance look and feel of retail environments

May 1st, 2007 / By: / Category: Feature, Graphics

From simple banners to complex displays, printed fabrics change the appearance of retail environments.

Despite the media buzz surrounding the tremendous increase in Internet shopping, the retail store is still king when it comes to consumer purchasing behavior. Retailers account for 12.4 percent of all business establishments in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Annual Retail Trade Survey, Americans spent an estimated $12,456 per capita in retail sales in 2005.

As the number of consumer retail choices has increased, marketers have placed more emphasis on the presentation of their retail environments. White vinyl signs with 2-foot tall red letters proclaiming “On Sale” at the storefront have been replaced with sophisticated store layouts, theatrical lighting systems focused on featured products, and a new array of display materials.

“Not only is there a lot more retail space than there ever has been, but the really good retailers have learned the importance of great P-O-P,” says Terry Corman, ceo of Firehouse Image Center, Indianapolis, Ind. “When you look at the great retailers in America, it’s no mistake that they have the best P-O-P in the industry.”

Retailers are turning stores into destination spots as opposed to places that consumers happen to drive by and stop in, says Paul Lilienthal, president of Pictura Graphics, Minneapolis, Minn. “You have to draw [consumers] into your facility or retail location in order to capture their attention and get them to buy,” he says.

Printing companies that serve the retail arena see marketers’ investment in retail environments as an opportunity to expand existing client relationships and capture new accounts.

Greg Hildebrand, director of digital operations and quality assurance for GFX International Inc., Grayslake, Ill., explains his company’s approach: “We’re setting up test markets for clients who are testing different signage and colors. From what I see [retailers] are putting more forethought into how the store looks.”

Increasingly, fabrics are being used to enhance the look and feel of a store’s interior space. Gary Teich of New York, N.Y.-based Color X, which specializes in large-format printing and digital graphics for major retailers, explains why fabric appeals to retail designers. “There has always been a need for it, but it’s changing because the end user always wants something new and different,” he says. “I see people moving toward fabric because it is different and a little higher end than a hanging paper print.”

Fabrics in the store

The variety of fabric applications for point-of-purchase displays is limited only by the imagination of the designer. Color X created 10 x 13-foot transparent-printed fabric banners to divide product sections in an upscale furniture retailer’s 50 locations. A year after the promotion ended, customers were still inquiring if they could purchase the banners to use in their private homes.

Fabrics require a form to give them shape and structure. Color X developed custom stretch frames for Bloomingdale’s that store employees could wrap with fabrics in a quick three-step process. The frames offered store managers the flexibility to hang them over apparel selections or lean them against walls.

Pictura Graphics created fabric banner systems for Best Buy’s Geek Squad technical support service. Also, Pictura-created canvas banners and backdrops have been used to promote an organic foods section at an upscale local grocery chain. Other assignments from footwear manufacturer Doc Martens and Janzten apparel reflect the range of retailers incorporating fabric into their displays.

Innovation drives the market

Influences in point-of-purchase and store design come from advertising agencies, marketers, and printing suppliers. “We’re being challenged by our clients to come up with innovations,” Hildebrand explains. “They are looking to us as the expert to come up with different ideas. They want us to move away from traditional signage to better impact the point of purchase. The look of the store reinforces brand image and consumer perceptions.”

The most aggressive print companies actively pursue retail decision makers. Lilienthal says that Pictura works with design firms that really try to “push the envelope.”

“We offer our recommendations and bring them in here for first-hand looks,” he explains. “They can see something that they may not have ever thought they could incorporate into their design. Digital [printing] is great because you are not locked into one certain technology like litho or screen. We can handle so many ideas and concepts. The buyer and end user, whether it is a designer or retailer, . . . are starting to open their minds to bring in new concepts like digitally printed wall covering that is customizable for their brand. They couldn’t do that before. It is a very popular item right now.”

Corman of Firehouse agrees that clients now have available to them designs and looks that they never dreamt about doing before. “It’s not just putting type on a poplin—now you can use four color with digital printers to get a photographic look and do it very quickly,” he says.

At Color X, Teich spends a lot of time researching fabric applications. “In most cases, the end user doesn’t know what is available unless it is shown to them,” he says. “We present to the customer so they know what is available and what can be used. They have no idea. We often hear, ‘Wow I didn’t know you could do that!’ They may have ideas that they bring to us, but a lot of it is driven by our own research. We try a lot of what is new to give ourselves an edge.”

In Corman’s experience, retailers are familiar with all the materials available to them. “Most of the big time high quality retailers know their business cold. They know what works and what doesn’t work and they know where to use different types of materials. There is a place for the use of fabric materials. As digital printers can do more and more short runs, fabric will come more into play.”

Traditionally, point-of-purchase display elements were created from rigid substrates installed in a fixture system. When retail designers incorporate fabric, they can significantly change the appearance of the display and the consumer’s perception of the featured products. “With fabric, you can create many interesting looks with dimensions and layers,” Lilienthal says. “Fabric creates a distinctively different look and feel, particularly for the younger generation and female buyers. They are the ones in the stores shopping. Fabric offers a softer, more sophisticated look when it comes to retail environments.”

In general, Hildebrand of GFX sees clients moving away from rigid materials to more flexible fabrics. “It allows us to get away from a rigid sign or banner and move to a softer fabric that could be used to sell cosmetics or soft goods,” he says. “In the past it really didn’t fit [the retailer] to have a heavy vinyl banner. That allows us an opportunity in a market we didn’t have before. It offers creativity in terms of hanging and installation of banners in storefronts, ceilings, sidewalls, and point of sale.”

Educating the buyer

The process of introducing new products and services usually includes addressing a client’s perceived ideas and misconceptions. Lilienthal identifies the issues he’s heard: “There were a lot of skeptics about fabric in the past. It wrinkles and it doesn’t perform well. Every material has weaknesses and flaws, but now they are building the hardware systems around [fabric] to address the potential weaknesses. Now [retailers] are interested in incorporating fabric as much as they can.”

From Lilienthal’s perspective, customers have to see a real point of difference to change their purchasing habits. “Because buyers tend to stay where they are at, we have to understand there has to be a service interruption that is very negative for them to look for other opportunities or we have to be pushing what we can do very hard.”

Adding grand format printing equipment has helped Pictura overcome a client’s reluctance to use fabrics, Lilienthal says. “It’s opened a lot of doors for bigger projects. Historically retailers have not adopted fabric. Their perception was that it was very expensive. With today’s technology and speed we can deliver the look and feel they want at a price they deem acceptable. Our ability to make recommendations helps keep projects on line that we can execute very well.”

Hildebrand notes that dealing with incomplete information is important inside the company as well. “We need to educate ourselves and our sales force so we can talk to our clients about a smart solution,” he says. “We are constantly in touch with different fabric suppliers so we can run samples. We’re constantly testing internally so we can go out and sell to new markets and to our current clients. It’s a fun opportunity for our sales group to sell a product that we didn’t really have in years past.”

The internal learning curve

Adding fabrics to a list of service offerings requires more than changing the copy on a salesperson’s pitch brochures. Investments in equipment and education are necessary steps to deliver high quality materials.

Pictura Graphics began offering dye sublimation-printed fabrics two years ago. Lilienthal spells out the challenges his company faced: “People wanted to buy from us so it was an easy decision to get into it; however, it was difficult to execute. It is very labor intensive. You are printing, then transferring the paper through a heat press, then manually cutting it with a hot knife. You have many different materials to understand. In Minnesota, humidity can play a major part of temperature control. We were able to figure out the technology and then just expand upon it.”

Pictura Graphics began offering dye sublimation-printed fabrics two years ago. Lilienthal spells out the challenges his company faced: “People wanted to buy from us so it was an easy decision to get into it; however, it was difficult to execute. It is very labor intensive. You are printing, then transferring the paper through a heat press, then manually cutting it with a hot knife. You have many different materials to understand. In Minnesota, humidity can play a major part of temperature control. We were able to figure out the technology and then just expand upon it.”

As with any print project, the recipe for success includes equipment, ink, substrate, and a well-trained operator. Levos notes that while equipment improvements have had an impact, the operator is still the key ingredient. “We can print to one fabric and get an amazing product out of it, then go to the next one and it doesn’t give you what you are looking for. The people that we have are very good at printing to fabrics. We’ve got it dialed in. In the end if you don’t have good people, it’s just a piece of equipment, ink, and fabric.”

Hildebrand says that as GFX was challenged to be innovative, the company began to take a look at textiles and tried to incorporate them into its indoor signage. Newly available equipment allowed the company to explore fabrics, but getting all the operational details worked out took some time.

“Going from a vinyl that has better surface tension and ink holdout, there was a slight learning curve to see where the [fabric] products are on the production and equipment side,” he says. “I thought it would be a much deeper curve. We got through it pretty quick and I attribute that to the products we’re printing on. They are coming into us ready to accept the solvent-based ink.”

Exceeding expectations

After making thoughtful decisions to purchase new equipment and teach employees new processes, there is nothing quite like an enthusiastic response from a satisfied customer. Levos describes a common reaction: “Not many people think you can get the image that you can actually achieve on fabric. I still walk by the production area and see images laying out where I still go, ‘Wow, look how amazing that looks.’ We can hit skin tones and PANTONE colors. It’s just amazing what you can achieve. Fabric is something you can wash, you can wrinkle it up in a ball, and then stretch it back out and have a nice product. We’re educating our clients and letting them know what is available to them.”

Hildebrand recommends carefully managing expectations. “We do get both the ‘wow’ and the ‘didn’t think it looks like I thought it would’ comments. We had one image printed on four different types of textiles from different manufacturers. It was ‘holy smokes—that one popped,’ ‘that one looks great,’ and on one or two of the others the image faded into mud. That’s where the testing comes in.”

GFX uses a Fuji proofing system for projects on styrene, static cling, or vinyl. On those substrates, Hildebrand says, “I can play with the color curve, proof it on the Fuji, and with 100 percent confidence say to my client, here’s what we’re going to match.”

Fabric, however, requires a different approach. “Each fabric is different,” he says. “I need to get the material, run it, and show it on the actual material.”

More fabric features

Fabric’s ability to reinforce brand images at the store level and present products to consumers with fine photographic detail drives many designers’ purchasing decisions. Two additional but increasingly important factors also play a role.

First, like all businesses, retailers are constantly looking for ways to control costs. “In many applications fabric is becoming more accepted because of the costs of transportation and shipping,” Lilienthal explains. “It’s very expensive to ship flat, heavy pieces. Today, point-of-purchase applications can accommodate the use of a fabric system that can fold down into a much more effective shipping system.”

Lilienthal mentions that benefit in Pictura Graphics sales presentations. “That’s how we drive a lot of our flexible media sales efforts. Fabric doesn’t have to be shipped flat. At the same time it delivers a nice look without being wrinkled. The materials have come a long way.”

Fabric also has storage benefits for a business where every square foot counts. Hildebrand explains the day-to-day challenges faced by store managers: “If you go in the back of any department store, their storerooms are very tight for space. Two things will happen. The hard rigid signs are going to get damaged because there is no place to store them or they will get tossed. Fabric banners can be rolled up on a tube. They take less space, you aren’t going to damage them, and they will be ready for the next promotion. If you are in front of your client and there may be some hemming and hawing you bring up the storeroom area. I think that will tip the scales.”

Teich of Color X reinforces those opinions. “For a multiple chain store it’s a lot easier to roll up a fabric banner than it is to ship flat items. It’s a fraction of the cost.”

A second factor driving a preference for fabric is a small but growing consumer segment that is pressing manufacturers and retailers alike to become more environmentally conscious. Hildebrand has seen “green” issues added to buyers’ lists of purchase criteria. “One of our clients often comes back to discuss our green practices. What can we do to save landfill space? They are probing a little more to ensure we are thinking about it and doing the best we can.”

Lilienthal also sees fabrics contributing to environmental concerns. “When retailers are pushing into green consciousness, that’s where you are going to see more and more people incorporating fabrics in combination with environmentally sensitive inks,” he says.

Corman adds, “UV-curing printers do not put VOCs [volatile organic compounds] into the air, and the reusability of images on fabric is another benefit. You can roll the fabric up and use it again in another promotion.”

Market potential

Retailers specializing in products like apparel, fine furnishings, jewelry, and cosmetics have significantly increased the use of fabrics for point-of-purchase elements and retail environments.

Printers are poised to take advantage of the opportunity. “I think the business is booming because of the sheer number of [retailers] out there,” Lilienthal says. “Fabric has been by far been the most significant growth vehicle for us in the last 12-18 months. Do I see it growing? Absolutely. Now that we know we can do it well and we know where it works, we are going to leverage our quality and value.”

According to Firehouse’s Corman, equipment improvements are also contributing to growth. “In a past project printing on canvas with dye-sublimation process was too expensive. Screen printing was too slow and the quality coming off a solvent-based printer wasn’t good enough. The solvent-based printers don’t do a very good job because of the dot gain that happens. With UV-curing printers that’s not a problem.”

Firehouse recently added a Durst 350 printer. “The Durst 350 is 11-foot wide and we can print 5-point type on that,” Corman says. “It’s a very high quality printer at 1,000 square feet an hour. A client has an order for fabric backdrops that they need at a drop of a hat. In the past it was virtually impossible to get them. Now we can knock them out quickly.”

Lilienthal has a similar opinion concerning equipment. “The investments have created a leapfrog effect for us because we have come online when the technology is at its best,” he says. “We are at the cutting edge of the fabrics. Our quality is significantly better than competitors with older, dated equipment.”

Teich of Color X notes that with increased opportunities comes the pressure of delivering a quality product. “Anyone can print on fabric but when you look at the quality, that’s what separates a printer from a good printer,” he says.

Lou Dzierzak is the editor of Fabric Graphics.

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