A World of Panes

Window graphics have emerged as a key advertising medium, particularly for retail firms. Print providers focusing on the niche know how valuable their output is for clients aiming to put promotions right in front of patrons’ eyes.

“It’s a major component of the retail campaign at street level,” said Steve Kinney, vice-president of sales and marketing with Portland Color, a 30-year-wide large-format printing company in Portland, ME. “If it’s done well and done right, and I’m speaking of the creative execution, not just the materials used, you’re bringing people off the street and into the store with the message you convey.”

Window graphics can be a profit center for your shop as well. But gaining those profits requires surmounting a learning curve, grasping the challenges of installation and fending off rival providers in an ever-more-competitive field.

Before exploring obstacles on the way to success, let’s examine some good reasons to step into the crowded realm of wide-format imaging.

One of the upsides is that window graphics, due to their changeable nature, can provide a very steady flow of revenues, said Chris Shadix, president of Belaire Displays, Inc., a 51-year-old family-owned company in Richmond, CA whose business is 50 percent comprised of window displays and graphics.

“It’s always a changing landscape,” he said. “We refer to it as temporary graphics. People dress their windows for a season, or for a promotion. So from a shop standpoint, it represents repeat business from the same retail base.”

Kinney agrees window graphics are something many print providers’ clients must acquire on a consistent basis. “Window graphics are a key element in any brand position or new campaign,” he said. “A very large part of the campaign’s presence is having that window to attract the customer.”

There’s also gratification derived from seeing your product splashed across a major retailer’s window, Shadix added. “It’s exciting to see your stuff up in retail space, and exciting adding to your clients’ appeal to their customers.”

Moreover, this is another niche where client demand is increasing even as the technology grows more efficient. So said Harlan Roberts, Phoenix-based national sales manager with Big Mountain Imaging of Philadelphia, which bills itself as “a complete solutions provider” for its large and grand-format clients.

Retail signage is among the fastest growing segments of the industry, and the equipment available to produce it is getting better and faster, Roberts said.

An example is the company’s newly-acquired Vutek QS3200, a seven-color flatbed printer, which offers the flexibility to quickly change graphics. That efficiency makes for outstanding quality with little wasted effort.

“Window graphics can be extremely profitable if done right the first time,” Roberts said. “They are eye-catching and an easy sell to any client trying to make a great impression utilizing a visual medium.”


Overcoming the Hurdles

Garnering great results and lots of repeat business is seldom achieved overnight, however. That’s the word from Terry Calen, special projects manager at Stella Color, a 26-year-old Seattle, WA provider where window graphics, including window banners, comprise 30 to 40 percent of the business.

Installation is one challenge, and one approached differently at different shops that provide window graphics. “Installation can be tricky,” Calen said. “If you’re covering the entire window, and it’s seamed...It can be hard to install. We work with specific installers we know. They’re not on staff here, but we know them. There are one or two people here locally who are excellent. And then we have people around the country we’ve sought out and found to be very good.”

Shadix agreed. “You can make the greatest thing in the world, and if it’s not installed right, it still looks like junk,” he said. “[Clients are] going to need some help in the early stages. That might mean providing the installers for them, and it might mean providing an educational center or instruction sheets.”

Installation is viewed as a critical issue at Point Imaging, a 20-year-old Hobart, IN company whose specialty is in-store retail graphics. Its clients include retailers throughout the country as well as major merchandise brands.

Point Imaging has its own installation teams, reported director of marketing Marco Perez. “I certainly recommend getting a team of professional, certified installers,” he said. “There are challenges to this type of installation, [such as] knowing to cut back a half inch off the edge of the window, and how to apply a clear tape strip to make sure there’s no curling. There’s definitely a quality control benefit, and we’ve had great results using 3M certified installers.”

The shop’s own installation team is specific to the Chicago market near Hobart, and to specific clients. In addition, Point Imaging uses a network of licensed, bonded 3M certified installers around the country to serve other areas.

Big Mountain also touts installation as a differentiator. Roberts said it’s proud to be part of 3M’s certification program for the nation’s most skilled graphic installers. Big Mountain also undertook a series of rope access and OSHA training courses to assure its clients that safety is the top priority of the company.

A complete and accurate site inspection, with detailed measurements, is critical for any installation, Roberts said, noting it’s the company’s job to educate clients about any issues that may arise. “We try to be cautious in the design stage to take into account window mullions, the size of the window, how text or images will look, and the quality of the image itself,” he said.

With many clients, increasing emphasis is being placed on graphics that are easy to mount. Portland Color’s Kinney said his company relies heavily upon clients’ regional visual managers to devise systems easy to implement. “With decreasing budgets, we’re finding there is no installation money,” he said. “The visual has to be easy to put up, and within the retailers’ financial resources.”

Another challenge is that technical and creative issues involving the actual print product are not easily mastered. Retail clients often call on Stella Color to print large panels and to print white. Both capabilities take time to hone.

“We’ve found the ability to print white is critical to us in helping us serve some retailers,” Calen said. “We print on clear film often. You can print a certain density of white that makes it look like etched glass. And if you can back up colors with white, it’s like printing on white paper. You can put white where you need it for effect, or you can use it as an opaque backing for colors.”

Accuracy is also key. “In some cases, we’ve had to span a graphic across more than one window, and across mullions,” Calen said. “You need to have it laid out so the installers can work with it, and fudge it they need to.”


Bragging Rights

As mentioned earlier, one of the positives about the window graphics business is that a shop’s work is typically displayed prominently. As such, it often becomes the best kind of advertising to promote the provider’s quality.

Talk to a few window graphics providers' marketing directors, and it’s soon clear they relish memories of favorite projects. For instance, Big Mountain Imaging’s work on a Las Vegas window graphic during the NBA All-Star game in Las Vegas several years ago drew fond recollections from Roberts. The project called for wrapping Mandalay Bay with a 225-by-225-foot graphic of NBA superstar Dwayne Wade for T-Mobile. The comparatively new Mandalay Bay had never been wrapped before, and therein resided a challenge, Roberts said.

“In between windows, it’s not solid concrete. It’s called EIFS, Exterior Insulation Finishing System, a kind of synthetic stucco. We had to test material first to make sure it would stick. And once we determined it was the right material, we went over that material with the window graphic material.”

As an example of his favorite work, Point Imaging’s Perez cites his company’s output for GameStop stores’ primary windows. Those windows are typically eight to 12 feet wide and eight feet tall. “The graphics of video game characters like the Mario Brothers almost jump off the window,” Perez said. “When you see them, it almost seems like a conceptual photo, like it’s not real.”

Among the distinctive aspects of Point Imaging’s work for GameStop is that in some GameStop stores, the mullion was wrapped, in others it was not.

Point Imaging also created another recent project for Orvis, an outdoor outfitter. The company had earlier approached Point Imaging about creating a less expensive alternative to using real stained glass in the entrances of some of it stores.

“Using clear window graphics and certain percentages of ink coverages applied by the company’s flatbed printers, we came up with a vivid, less expensive solution that closely mimicked glass,” Perez said.

“The percentages of ink changed per layer. It was a pretty complicated procedure. And Orvis loved it. They are still using it in some of their stores.”

For his part, Shadix said his favorite kind of window campaign is a three-layered visual in which a static cling decal is applied to the window, then a second layer that typically features an image of a person hangs in front of a third layer depicting a background scene. “The result is great depth,” Shadix said.