Looking for a sign of the times? According to VM+SD's most recent reader survey, 50 percent of our readership purchases or specifies signage and graphics for retail environments; only lighting and store fixtures ranked higher. The fact is that environmental graphics and signage continue to be important facets of a store environment and increasingly powerful tools for conveying a retailer's brand image. And digitally printed graphics have emerged as the most versatile, cost-effective and dynamic method of keeping retailer's images fresh and innovative.
Now that large-format graphics are firmly established in the retail milieu, savvy store planners and visual merchandisers are challenged with finding unique ways to differentiate their store environments from those of their competitors. Manufacturers are taking advantage of the latest technology to develop new and interesting materials. And large-format service bureaus are outputting those images as quickly, efficiently and smoothly as possible.
According to Drew Evans, sales director at Andrés Imaging & Graphics, a digital-graphics service bureau in Chicago, higher-end, image-oriented retailers are pushing the technology. Evans says, "High-end retailers want to do edge-lit acrylic, 3D, lenticular - movement - to garnish attention in a very busy marketplace. And they're willing to pay more for the impact." He also credits Guess? with design foresight at its new Chicago flagship. The store design includes a three-level track system in the windows to allow hanging graphics, drapes and layers to be easily and quickly changed out.
Barbara Beggs, marketing director at Meisel Visual Imaging (Dallas), says she's seeing fewer graphics as merely signage. "The whole emphasis now is different: Images are all about ambience and mood and feeling." Others agree. Ron Waters, marketing manager for Output Systems for Kodak Professional (Rochester, N.Y.), says environmental graphics are being used to convey an attitude. "Retailers are starting to think of imaging as not just a picture of product but as a way to create a feeling in the store," Waters notes. "And different substrates and media can accomplish that quickly and inexpensively."
Graphics are such an important part of a retailer's strategy that some well-known brands have prototype stores in warehouses to test out how graphics will look before installing them in stores nationwide. And though there is no scientific way to prove the impact of digitally printed graphics, one retailer completely scrapped and replaced a five-day-old graphics installation after sales dropped dramatically.
No matter how you look at it, large-format graphics are cropping up everywhere, and they're here to stay. But how they are used, what materials they're printed on and how bureaus are streamlining the process are issues that keep the industry on its toes.
Not long ago, end-users were simply fascinated that a photo-quality digital image could be output on vinyl. Flash-forward to today: It seems virtually every surface and substrate has been tested, from wood and metal to chicken wire. In reality, though, while applying digital prints to chicken wire may be Levi's cup of tea, it's not for every retailer.
Waters says that digital laser writers have been a boon in developing new materials for digital graphics. Materials such as Kodak Professional Metallic Paper and holographic materials give the illusion of texture and depth to what is essentially a flat graphic. Meisel won accolades for its Zales graphics program using Kodak Metallic Paper. The four-color image was changed to black and white except for the gold jewelry, which sparkled against the shimmering material.
Substrates that are visible day and night are also finding their way into retail. For example, Colorlucent Backlit UV film from Hewlett-Packard (San Jose, Calif.) was used at Nashville's Opry Mills Mall to create marquee images lining the entranceway to the mall's Saks Off Fifth and Black Lion stores. During the day, the 4-by-8- and 4-by-12-foot images withstand the humid Southern climate; by night, the images are backlit to create a virtual lightbox effect. In a similar vein, Magic Light thin composite material from Rexam Image Products (S. Hadley, Mass.) acts like a backlit material but without a light source. Ed McCarron, product manager, Display Electographics and Grand-Format Media, for Rexam, says the substrate allows graphics to be placed where a backlit sign normally couldn't be displayed.
Digital wallpaper is another up-and-coming application. Graphics are actually printed onto Type II wallpaper and installed in the same way. The advantages are that the pattern can be totally customized for each retailer, it's cheaper than a handpainted mural and it's graffiti-resistant. Rexam Graphics' Magic® Unusuwalls wallcovering, for example, acts, looks and feels like wallpaper and has a five-year life span. However, Meisel's Beggs recommends using a vibrant color palette that will hide dot patterns.
Retailers are also making use of soft, translucent fabrics to add drama to or warm-up a store environment. "Fabrics have a softer appearance," McCarron notes. "They don't jump up and slap you in the face." IKEA, for example, incorporates digitally imaged canvases that blend in with the design and product displays, while creating a relaxing environment intended to encourage spending.
Digital asset management is a service many large-format bureaus offer their retail clients to help streamline the graphic-buying process by archiving and reusing digital images and content. Digital asset management refers to the digital storage and transfer of images across the Internet. Instead of chasing film around, says Beggs, you can manage images online. Meisel offers Imagelink as a value-added service to its larger retail clients to help them track and order prints easily and remotely from around the world, without picking up the phone or sending a fax.
Three years ago, Copytone Visuals (New York) began offering a similar service called Visual Management Account when Tommy Hilfiger needed control of its image use. Each client is given a code number to log onto a web site, view an image and fill out an order form. Copytone's president Mark Bevilacque says, "It's a win-win for both sides." The program allows retailers to track how and where their visuals are being used and makes it easier for Copytone to handle the workload.
Andrés Imaging created a database-management program called Store Profiler Plus that allows it to profile a store from the hooks and clips to the engineering drawings, floor plans and elevations. Using Store Profiler, Andrés can individually pack and kit each store for major national campaigns, and keep track of individual store accounts. What essentially started as an internal database has evolved into a graphics-management solution for retailers and has even helped the bureau win a few accounts.
In the digital-imaging industry's quest to create "better, faster and cheaper" graphics, Beggs says that the next step in digital printing technology will be increasing speed, output and color saturation. But while turnaround time for graphics can be as quick as one day, she notes, "Nothing is ever fast enough. It used to be that faxing was fast enough. Soon the Internet won't be fast enough."
Bill Loeber, marketing manager of Designjet Media at Hewlett Packard, says advances in technology will drive more customization at a local level. For instance, rather than printing thousands of banners for a seasonal promotion - half of which are wasted because they're not all installed - a retailer can use local printers to tailor the number of posters printed and make the message relevant to the community.
And Evans predicts that retailers will increasingly be challenged to push the digital envelope to appeal to technologically savvy young consumers. "If you're selling to teenagers, graphics are boring," he says. "A black and white sale sign is not very exciting to a kid who's downloading MP3s. The graphics will differentiate the hip retailers from the others."