The Current Climate
How to adapt your interior décor print business.
As small businesses in the wide-format print community continue to push through the COVID-19 global pandemic through federal grants, having applied for PPP Loan Forgiveness, implementing new safety policies for employees returning from stay-at-home orders, and wondering what future normalcy looks like, it’s critical to understand the market you serve.
I’ve said this from the very beginning of my career in the print industry, especially when my curiosity piqued in creative markets like décor, understanding your customers’ customer is truly where the rubber meets the road. We’ve banded together to get through this global crisis, but it’s caused a massive ripple effect on nearly all industries, beyond our peers and wide-format print customers. In the A&D (architectural and design) market, commercial construction isn’t thriving as it once was, which affects verticals like hospitality, which correlates with the travel and airline industries. That could have a major impact on wallcoverings. When you start to do some digging, you also learn in large commercial construction projects, supply-chain constraints like material and product delivery halted from China have caused project timelines to be disrupted and plans to crumble. These details leave developers and managers almost no choice but to cancel jobs or stagger phases of the project so different teams can work within social distancing requirements.
There’s still a glimmer of hope to overcome, and help others overcome, through the tools and resources we already have. The tools I’m speaking of are definitely my favorite aspects of digital print: our creative technology and ability to customize, manufacture on-demand, print one-off projects, and produce entire product lines in large-volume runs. That’s exactly how PSPs with textile print capabilities have been able to respond to the crisis, by manufacturing PPE (cloth face masks or CDC-compliant plastic shields). Textile software companies and other technology-based companies in the print industry have teamed up with companies that complement their products, offering free webinars, training sessions, or other solutions to quickly adapt print systems to produce PPE on demand.
In the marketplace, Vida, a global ecommerce-based partnership of artists, vendors, and manufacturers leveraging digital print for home décor products and fashion, is manufacturing reusable, 100-percent cotton protective masks designed to be used with a PM2.5, six-layered, activated carbon filter inserted within the fabric. Vida has committed to donating 10 percent of profits from its Classic Masks and Cloth LA x SF Edition masks in collaboration with a Los Angeles-based maker to local COVID-19 relief funds. Its efforts have grabbed the attention of Vogue, BuzzFeed, Refinery29, and others. (To learn more about Vida, read the Beyond Décor column in the March 2018 issue.)
Plan and Pivot
In a year as unique as 2020, with multiple, complex obstacles thrown at us almost every day, there are key areas of the interior décor industry you should take into consideration for planning and pivoting your print business. Construction timelines and producing PPE may not be relevant based on your current customer base, but there’s a lesson to be learned. Even on a smaller, more local scale, your customers are likely experiencing budget cuts that affect what they can specify in a project, so your material expertise is important. If you’re planning for the short- or long-term, start thinking about add-on offerings like protective coatings with antimicrobial attributes or surfaces that have wash and scrub durability factors for stronger cleaning reagents. Designers and customers are probably going to be searching for this more and more because space usage is changing drastically. Especially in residential buildings – even condos or multi-family spaces – where functionality along with design is the future.
Building materials that resist the growth of bacteria like flooring or carpet that can be easily cleaned will be in higher demand. Being locked down for months at a time has proven that where we live needs to not only provide shelter and comfort but also transform into classrooms, workspaces, and gyms. How interior spaces affect the human psyche is also important; that means the use of space, lighting, and color.
The interior design community has also experienced major shifts in canceled design fairs like High Point Market, a mecca design fair that happens twice a year in the spring and summer. According to an article by Fred Nicolaus in Business of Home, the current COVID-19 numbers affecting the design community are alarming. North Carolina-based High Point Market has been cancelled twice (spring and fall), which is not just disappointing, it’s historic. As the largest home furnishings tradeshow in the world, it’s only been cancelled once before and that was at the height of World War II. Nicolaus quotes a recent ASID survey where, “...Veteran designers (those with more than 10 years of experience) think it will take longer than newcomers do.” These veteran designers are estimating roughly six months for their design businesses to bounce back.
According to Interior Design magazine, Sandow’s own ThinkLab research division has been conducting weekly surveys submitted by A&D, manufacturers, and industry distributors to collect various data points. In the first week of the survey, 30 percent of projects immediately went on hold and 10 percent were cancelled. Week to week over the course of five weeks, those projects in progress did see an uptick on hold to cancelled, but experts say the design industry will sharply bounce back.
What can PSPs do in the interim? Most importantly, connect with your customers and maintain strong, healthy business relationships. As someone once said, people don’t always remember what you say to them, but they remember how you make them feel. Work with your customers and see if adjustments on projects that are still in your job queue can be made to avoid cancellations. Providing clear communication and good customer service doesn’t cost money. If there’s a possibility they won’t have to cancel, work with them on quotes. Is there a more cost-effective material that can be swapped out from the current job spec? Do they have other needs that aren’t decorative but still provide value like wayfinding, signage, or perhaps temporary wall graphics? You can also use production downtime to reassess your pricing and profit margins for your décor print business. It may help retain loyal customers or prevent those quotes from being cancelled when they should become POs and invoices. Consult and think creatively.
Although rare in wide-format print because we don’t necessarily need to stock rolls and rolls of unprinted goods, if you do have extra inventory, use it to your advantage. It may be the right time to offer an unembossed PVC wallcovering substrate that may not be a hot seller, but is the perfect material your customer is looking for based on their COVID-19 budget. Pearlescent, Mylar, and specialty Type II wallcovering substrates are more than likely a higher cost from your vendor, but if your customer only needs temporary wall graphics, wayfinding, or other decorative elements, you could even consider repositionable adhesive-backed fabric, pre-pasted nonwovens, or vinyl.
Marketing during the COVID-19 crisis is an additional area of opportunity. Now is the perfect time to collect case studies of your good-willed efforts. While it may be challenging to think about marketing efforts, you can always go grassroots through social media. The most effective way to market your décor print business is through storytelling. Promoting customer and project success stories with your marketing and social media content is impactful and unique to your business. Remember, designers are relying on you to be the expert, especially when tradeshows and fairs have either been cancelled or have gone virtual. The tactile part of exploring new materials is on pause, in-person. Schedule video calls and send samples so this isn’t lost entirely.
What Lies Ahead
What does the future look like and how long will this really last? It’s hard to tell, but through difficult times we can often be the most innovative. Developing more eco-friendly and low-VOC solutions to maintain healthy air quality will be especially important, not only for how print is perceived but as a benefit to the end-user. After all, COVID-19 is a respiratory disease so anything installed in a space that could be a negative contributor will probably be taken into much more consideration. Environments will be changing so you’ll want to consider if you’re adding to the problem or helping.
Digital transformation in the wide-format print industry is needed now more than ever and not only for modernization in the workplace. It may mean more use of ERP systems, software technologies, and better ways for vendors and suppliers to stay connected. Or, what about smarter automation tools to allow presses to run with the least amount of staff? (Just don’t break your maintenance agreements.) Are you using manual practices instead of fully efficient digital workflows? The opportunity to fix dated practices is here but it’s up to us to use that to our advantage and propel the industry forward in case, dare I say, this were to ever happen again.
Rachel Nunziata is a digital print business and market development specialist with an undeniable enthusiasm for interior and home décor segments. She is a graduate of Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota, Florida, and has a knack for enabling synergies between artists, interior designers, and industry experts. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter @RachelNunziata.