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Trying to Make Sense of the Graphics Market Mess

Understanding Your Business: Part One in a Series of Three

By Michael Flippin

Since you are reading this article, I will assume that you have an interest in the U.S. graphics industry. Perhaps you work for a sign shop or a graphics screen printer or one of the many traditional markets that have since adopted inkjet as its main imaging technology.

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  • It may be that you are a supplier ­ or even a manufacturer ­ of products to the graphics industry. So whoever you are and whatever role you play in this increasingly messy market for signage graphics, I thank you for reading what I have to say and openly welcome your comments regardless if you agree or not with my observations.

    As an observer of the wide format graphics industry for nearly ten years now, I have seen technologies come and go, products succeed and others never get off the ground. But now more than ever we have change ­ and lots of it. So to try and make sense of this market, the technology trends and where you might want your business to be in a few years, I am writing a three-part series that I hope will shed some light on future trends and answer some questions on market conditions. This first edition will be on understanding your business and how it may compare to other shops in the industry as well as to the overall market. The second edition will focus on the development of signage and graphics markets and where the market is today. The final edition will provide some market insight and other trends that I hope will help you plan your business for the future.

    Understanding Thyself
    Yogi Berra said that “You can observe a lot just by watching.” And while I am a Red Sox fan, I still believe that what he said is true. Web Consulting’s business is collecting market data and information understanding why that is important to a specific company. And to do that Web Consulting provides market models, forecasts and other tools to help size and analyze markets. We do a lot of watching. Why? Well it’s our job. It is also our job to make sure companies can better answer two questions - “Why?” and “What does it mean to me?”

    Over the course of any given year we visit or interview or survey or speak to more than two thousand U.S. companies that participate in the markets for signage & graphics. And while we have to classify each shop into one of ten business categories for our research, every shop is different and has some quality that makes it unique. And some businesses are honest about their market focus while others may be less honest about their strategic direction and future success.

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    It’s like this roadside stop in Indiana. I have to believe that this place’s sign was meant to simply advertise the multiple services that they offer travelers. But perhaps they are the most honest place I have ever come across ­ openly admitting to the quality and side effects of their cooking. Either way the sign grabs your attention.

    According to how Web Consulting views the market there are approximately 45,000 shops that produce signage or graphics in the U.S. And that number is shrinking. And each segment of the market is behaving differently ­ in many cases also for unique reasons. For example the volume of graphics screen printing in the U.S. (which in 2005 by volume terms was the largest producer of printed wide format graphics) is in decline. Traditional signage continues to increase but at decreasing growth rates since the banner year of 2003. And inkjet printing is growing. Has it taken over the world as was forecast by some? No. In fact many traditional markets (like cut vinyl for example) are still growing in the U.S. despite the rapid adoption of wide format inkjet printers.

    So what about your business? Well if you are a sign shop or screen printer just by reading this article I might suggest that you may already be in the minority. Resent research shows that only 12% of sign shops and screen printers prefer to read industry news online while 65% still prefer to read industry news in printed form. And do you have a wide format inkjet printer? Well only 40% of signs shops and graphics screen printers have adopted this technology. And what if your shop has a UV-curable flatbed inkjet printer? Well then you operate one of the 490 total flatbed inkjet printers currently installed in the U.S. market.

    There’s been a lot of talk about inkjet and its forecasted “boom” and imminent take over of the graphics industry. Well that printing genocide has not happened, but inkjet, in February 2006, accounts for nearly 20% of global wide and grand format graphics printing. And that number will only continue to increase. Inkjet will continue to capture market share and market attention, but it may not be for everyone. But you do need to know your business model and whether it makes sense to add inkjet capabilities.

    I have a favorite African parable which says that “Every morning, a gazelle wakes up knowing it must run faster than the fastest lion. Every morning a lion awakens knowing it must outrun the slowest gazelle. It doesn’t matter if you are a lion or a gazelle. When the suns comes up you’d better be running.” In this market everyone has to keep moving to remain competitive.

    Web Consulting
    Michael Flippin is a newlywed and the president of Web Consulting, Inc. Founded in Oxfordshire, U.K. in 1993, Web Consulting ( is a leading global consultancy to the digital printing, screen printing and industrial decoration industries. Web Consulting provides a flexible range of services including primary market research, market modeling and forecasting as well as strategic analysis and supporting services such as implementation, training and project management. For more information on the nine annual industry reports on the U.S. graphics market or three global reports, please contact Michael Flippin at (617 536 5925) or at In addition to its head office in Boston, MA, Web Consulting has regional offices in Shanghai, China and Oxfordshire, U.K

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