Volume 11, Issue 1 - January/February 2007

Sign Language
Breaking into a New Part of the Business 
by Les Shaver

Tommy Pike, owner of Automotive and Solar Accents in Greenville, S.C., remembers when his first commercial customer came in asking to get their demo van wrapped with graphics. So what if Pike’s shop had never done one of these before? When a representative from Little Caesars requested this service, Pike answered “yes” without missing a beat.

“I had never wrapped a van in my whole life, but it was no problem,” Pike said. “We got into the plotter thing and it just sort of happened. We were able to produce what they needed.”

Since that first van for Little Caesars, Pike’s business has blossomed. Through word of mouth, he’s found a growing number of corporate clients that need graphics work. Other film dealers have used Pike’s model. With the advent of computer plotter machines, it’s easier than ever for film shops to become sign shops. But there are still some dealers who don’t want to push into this business.

When Bill Stewart, current national sales manager for Film Technologies International in St. Petersburg, Fla., had his film business in Georgia, he ended up doing so much signage that he built his own sign distributorship. It’s no wonder that he sees the sign business as a natural fit for film shops.

“The guys with plotters do it [signage],” Stewart said. “It’s a no-brainer. You almost have to. The general public knows you can cut vinyl.”

Spreading the Word
For Pike, after his company wrapped the first Little Caesars van, things skyrocketed. 

“Little Caesars was the first big-time [job],” Pike said. “It blossomed after that because we began working with a lot of large corporations.”

Pike was actually surprised with the way things took off. Instead of marketing his companies to large businesses, the customers started coming to him.

“We did one deal and someone heard about it,” Pike said. “They called and they told a couple of people about it. Then it just sort of snowballed.”

For Ted Lacina, owner of Sunglow in Tulsa, Okla., the introduction to the sign business came at the same point that he entered the film industry. He bought both businesses two and a half years ago and has worked to bring them closer together since then.

“They work hand in hand real well,” Lacina said. “A lot of times when you’re tinting a window, there’s vinyl that needs to be reinstalled or you go and sell vinyl and sell the window tinting at the same time. Thirty percent of the time we cross-sell.”
Stewart sees the value of cross-selling, as well. When customers come in for auto tint jobs, they may want signage across the tops of their windshields. 

Then there are the commercial and office opportunities as well.

“A lot of times, when a company does a commercial job, the vinyl is on the window and they’ll scrape it off,” Stewart said. “They’ll redo the graphics and put it on the outside. That kind of signage is what they get into.”

While this kind of business can pad the bottom line, it isn’t a big-ticket item.

“If you’re already there, you’ll do it [same jobs],” Stewart said. “To go out and do it, there’s no money in that. If someone wants ‘office hours,’ it will be a minimum charge and it will cost you $300 to do it.”

Lacina sees much of the same thing.

“If you can do it all [at] the same time, like tinting the doors and putting the vinyl on, you make a little extra profit,” Lacina said. “It’s not very much. It’s just an add-on type of deal.”

When customers don’t ask for sign services at the shop and Lacina’s crew has to revisit a site to do sign work, the price tag grows a bit heftier.
“You have to sell the signage at the same time you sell the film at the tint shop,” Lacina said. “If you get there and they want to add the lettering, it will cost double because you have to go back out.”
Different Scope
You can’t pass up all signage jobs, though. That’s what separates the people who just dabble in signage and graphics and those who push strongly into the niche.
The film guys with plotters can handle things like office hours signs and small graphics. And there are plenty of places people can learn to operate this 
equipment.
“They have classes that teach that type of stuff [graphics],” Lacina said. “Tech colleges and junior colleges have reasonably priced classes that will teach the plotter and running graphics programs.”

After things get bigger, signage becomes a slippery slope, though.

“The little stuff you can handle, but when you get into buying substrates and applying vinyl to that, a lot of the guys don’t do that,” Stewart said. “They’re not sign men. They’re window film guys.”

Pike is pushing so far into signs that he doesn’t really even want to do the lower-end jobs.

“When the teeny-boppers come in and want their name[s] on the window, they give you $2 for it,” Pike said. “Am I going to fire up a $10,000 plotter to do a $2 window graphic? I don’t think so.”

Sure, the bigger jobs sound good, but are they worth it? Once customers start asking for logos and things like that, Lacina says things can get tricky.

“If they want you to create a logo, like a guy standing with a paint brush and painting, it takes a lot of work,” Pike said.

“That’s when you need to bring in a graphic-design-type program, outline things, draw it and do different types of work. If they have the file, it’s different, but a lot of people don’t. They come in with a neat idea or a picture and want you to put the picture on there and cut it out in vinyl.” 

Not everyone can do that kind of work.

“You need to have pretty good initial experience for that [graphics],” Lacina said. “Since we have a sign shop, it can come together pretty easily. But if I just had a window tint business, would I do the signage? No.”

The reasons? The investment to start a top-niche sign shop can be very steep.

“If you wanted to start a signage business to pick up extra money, it’s not worth it,” Lacina said. “There’s too much time involved in setting up some of these extra graphics.”

Prices range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, according to Stewart, depending on what tools the shop already has available.

“Well, if they already have a plotter then it’s just a matter of the correct software,” he said. “Good sign software can run from $200 to $8,000. If they need a plotter they run from $4,000 to upwards of $12,000, or they can buy everything used from a sign industry magazine.”

You have to have some graphics design experience to do it or have someone on staff that has that experience. A person that doesn’t have experience could spend a lot of time working on that. If they were out tinting instead, they could be tenfold more productive on the tinting side.”

Personnel Matters
Since doing complicated signage and films are two totally different things, shop owners who do both say it’s best to split up their workforces in some way. The key? Specialization. It all starts with the plotter, according to Pike.

“Having the plotter [has] made us more efficient,” Pike said. “I’ve taken on a couple of people, but only one to run the plotter. It’s an all-day thing. You’re just cutting patterns all day. You’re putting them on as fast as they can get them on the window film side. I think it does make you more efficient. It’s not like you have to hire an additional three or four people. It makes the people you have more efficient.”

Outside of that, Pike also splits the distribution of labor between his guys who do film, vinyl and wraps.
“One window-tinting team can do vinyl stuff,” Pike said. “We do a lot of vinyl installations.”

Lacina takes the same approach, though he says vinyl is only about 3 percent of his business.
“We have cross-trained the tinters to be able to put the vinyl on,” Lacina said.

But wraps are a different story. In fact, if Pike’s company can’t handle its wrap workload, it ships the work out.

“We have separate people that do just wraps,” Pike said. “The wrap thing is a different beast than regular vinyl graphics. It has its own quirks. I try to keep specialized people on that because it’s expensive to reprint. It’s all about the training. If we wanted to spend more time, we could have everyone do everything, but it’s just a pain the butt.”

Lacina has 11 people in his company and more of them work on film than signs. That’s just fine with them, he says.
“The other tinters don’t want to mess with signs,” Lacina said. “They’re just strictly tinting. They do auto, some residential and some commercial.”

Irvin “Blank” Blankenbacker, owner of Reflecto-Shield in Tucson, Ariz., finds this with his tinters as well. That’s why he stays away from the sign business.

“My installers are good at installing the film but they aren’t artistic,” Blankenbacker said. “We leave the signs to the sign people.”

Little Return on Investment
Blankenbacker’s rationale is not uncommon and is actually one of the main reasons that it’s tough to have both strong sign and window tinting operations. One Midwestern distributor thinks it’s nearly impossible to do both well.

“I don’t know of anyone that I have that’s really big in both signs and window film,” this distributor said. “There are a lot of window tinters that do signs and a lot of sign guys that guys that do window tint, but not a lot that do a lot of both.”
Why is this case? The distributor thinks it’s primarily an issue of focus.

“If you’re a sign guy, you’re just going hard after that part of the business,” the distributor said. “It’s really hard to go after both at the same time.”

Instead, film and sign dealers will choose one aspect to focus on and cherry-pick what they can get from the other side.
“A lot of times going after different segments of the market because of that one company will be really hard after one market and take what they can get out of the other,” the distributor said. 

Indecision over which market to focus on is actually what’s keeping Scott Evans, owner of Tint Guard in St. Petersburg, Fla., out of the sign game. He has a plotter and would be interested in using it for more sign business.

“It’s not that hard,” Evans said. “I just don’t push it that much. I don’t have that time and push it as well as my own business, but I would like to get into it more.”

Resources are one thing; the competition in the sign business in the St. Petersburg area is yet another. There are only so many people needed to put company names on small business vehicles.

“It’s real cut-throat in signs down here because there are so many people doing it,” Evans said. 
Lacina sees this in Tulsa as well.

“The sign business is much more competitive [than the film business],” Lacina said.
While Stewart encourages dealers with plotters to get into signs, he sees more of the transition from sign shop to full-fledged window film dealer.

“If you’re looking for a guy who turned [his shop] into a sign shop, it’s rare,” Stewart said. “We have found guys who turned sign shops into window tinters.”

While jumping into the full-scale sign business is hard, a smaller leap is possible if a film shop has a plotter.

“They use the same tools and it’s the same kind of application,” Stewart said. “With a sign you’re not looking through it. You’re looking at it. With window film, you look through it.” 

Les Shaver is the editorial director for Window Film magazine.



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