Turn your specialist subject into a fruitful proposition

By Simon Creasey, Monday 08 May 2017

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All printers are constantly on the lookout for an edge – that little bit of something that lifts them clear of their competition. One way they can achieve this is by targeting a specific niche market.

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It might be a business sector – for instance, financial services or the property/construction industry. Or it might be a particular type of printed product, such as photobooks and calendars. But regardless of the niche area individual printing companies choose to target, the aim remains the same: boosting the bottom line. 

So what do printers considering developing a niche market need to consider before they take the plunge? PrintWeek spoke to companies who have already successfully carved out their own niche to discover the pros and cons of taking this approach.


Showcase Creative

Specialisms: High-quality presentation folders, ring binders and luxury packaging

The majority of the work that Camberley-based Showcase undertakes is for the commercial market – particularly for graphic art agencies – with the company in recent years developing its product range around a core offering to include tabbed dividers, content and fulfilment. This approach has significantly increased its average order value, according to director Paul Batey, who says Showcase’s product range has evolved over time and it wasn’t a conscious strategic decision. 

“We added products as and when we saw that there was demand in our current customer base,” explains Batey. “Basically, if enough people ask for it we assume there must be some money to be made.”

He adds that the company doesn’t target specific industry sectors and that the company’s products naturally attract a wide range of customers. 

“Our short-run ring binders have found a niche within the engineering and energy sectors where presentation of tender documentation is important. They have also become popular with training companies,” says Batey.

‘Staying niche’ has been key to the business’s recent strong financial growth. “We don’t compete so much on price and our margins are healthy,” he says. “Our product knowledge and understanding of our few niche products is greater than it would be if we spread our focus over significantly more areas. By producing more of one product we take advantage of economies of scale when ordering materials, even though we are a small business. 

“This allows us to compete with larger more generalised companies. We can also offer a wider range of niche products and a more tailored experience as opposed to a one-size-fits-all solution. Plus once you’re established in a niche it becomes more difficult for newcomers to compete against you.”

While targeting a specific range of products has paid off in spades for Showcase, that’s not to say the tactic isn’t without its downsides. “Sometimes you are priced out or have to turn down work that you’re not geared up to do. That’s always painful as nobody wants to miss an opportunity. It can be difficult to stay focused on your niche when you see other opportunities arise. Also, to really know a product niche you need years of experience or it can be a steep learning curve,” says Batey.

As for what advice he would offer a printing company looking to go after a particular niche market or product, he proffers forth the following sage words. 

“Being the best at one thing is better than being a Jack of all trades. As the industry stands, it’s my view that for smaller businesses like ours it is a case of go niche or go out of business. Choose your battles as you can’t compete with the big boys on everything. But stay out of our niche!”


Harrier Group

Specialisms: Photos, photo gifts, personalised print

Newton-Abbot-based Harrier Group started out as a mail order, analogue, photo film processor, but with the decline of analogue and the rise of digital it made sense for Harrier to specialise in this latter area going forward. According to Julian Marsh, commercial business development and photo products consultant at Harrier, the strategy has paid off handsomely – today the company is the largest photo printing business in the UK. 

“By focusing on this specific niche we have been able to concentrate all our resources on delivering excellent products, at excellent value with excellent customer service,” says Marsh.

Although the focus on photo printing clearly has upsides he concedes that one downside is the business is very seasonal. 

“We produce up to 40% of our work in just a few weeks of the year during Q4,” says Marsh. “This creates all sorts of challenges from being able to efficiently scale up during that busy period to how do you manage the risk of having a poor peak period through reasons out of your control.” 

Harrier mitigates some of these challenges by offering a commercial print service throughout the whole of the year meaning the jump-up in peak is reduced.

In terms of what advice he would offer other companies looking to specialise in a particular niche area, he thinks that given how commoditised the printing industry has become over the last few years with far too many companies looking to only compete on price, it’s a sensible strategy to adopt. 

“By developing a niche service or product you get away from focusing on price and have the opportunity to add value,” says Marsh. “My advice would be to research carefully, be sure there is a market for your offering and then stick to your plans.”


FLB Group

Specialisms: Diaries, notebooks, Bibles and Filofax products

FLB has a rich history. The present-day company was formed after Letts (221 years old), Blueline (100 years old this year) and Filofax (100 years old next year) came together in 2014. The company, which invented the first diary back in 1812 and prints more than 1 million bibles per year, has two divisions: FLB Branded Products, based in Sussex, and FLB Bespoke Products, located in Dalkeith, Scotland. 

“We target retail customers, business to business in both UK and international markets, publishers – particularly religious publishers – and printers, where we offer a trade book manufacturing service,” explains Linda Shiels, commercial manager at the FLB Group. She adds that even though the company has an impressive heritage it ensures it doesn’t become overly reliant on a particular business sector or industry by “continually developing new products through design and innovation”.


Octink

Specialisms: Branded marketing suites for property and construction clients

Although Brentford-based Octink works across a broad spectrum of different industry sectors in a deliberate attempt to maintain a balanced portfolio of clients and types of work, Mike Freely, managing director, says the company has a vast deal of experience in dealing with clients from the property and construction industry. 

He explains that this “leaning” has evolved over the past 30 years and today Octink’s “knowledge and capability means we constantly target growth in this sector,” says Freely. 

“We are always looking to up-sell and add value for existing customers and of course add business wins and new clients along the way. Certainly this is familiar territory for our business and over the years we like to think that we have become genuine specialists and very good at what we do in this sector.”

However, he’s acutely aware that there are downsides associated with being too reliant on the company’s long-standing property and construction clients. 

“You never want to be too beholden to one specific niche or sector, and these are constant risks that need to be managed strategically on an ongoing basis,” says Freely. “Introducing our web-to-print offering, Print Guardian, in this sector is an area of market development that helps to reduce the risks as does breaking into or growing other sectors which we have managed successfully in recent months.”

He feels that other businesses shouldn’t hesitate to develop niches of their own and offers the following suggestion. 

“Putting the strategy and risk management to one side, being a specialist is absolutely what to strive for, and I would say that from our experience having and developing employees is a must to achieving this goal, harnessing their combined knowledge and developing skills continually to drive customer trust and recommendation,” says Freely.


Precision Printing

Specialisms: Business stationery, marketing materials, exhibition stands personalised wallpaper

According to Paul Mason, group commercial director at Barking-based digital print specialists Precision Printing, the company has deliberately segmented its business into three target areas over the last decade or so, namely commercial, online and integrated. 

“We feel that we specialise in all three of these areas and we have strategic teams to deal with each segment, from the beginning – sales – through pricing, production, delivery and invoicing,” says Mason.

He explains that this strategy started to take shape around 12 years ago when the company first invested in digital technology. 

“We saw a niche, we entered into it and this has proved the foundation to a significant amount of our business success and decisions from then on,” says Mason. 

In addition to forging a strong partnership with HP and its Indigo technology that has enabled the company to service the needs of B2B and B2C online print procurement customers, the company decided to create a new niche offering by entering the LED offset market in the last quarter of 2016. It’s a gamble that Mason is confident will pay off. “If you are one of the first, this delivers significant exposure and access to the market and allows you to benefit in increased volumes before it becomes mainstream. It also allows you to tweak your business model to be as effective and efficient as possible and sometimes dictate what the end-user may need, which in turn delivers a great result to both you and your customer. Also from a specific sector it allows you to offer the possibility of spin-off products, which again adds further value and benefits to the business and can attract additional customers,” says Mason.

That said, he believes the old adage about not putting all your eggs in one basket is advice worth following.

“Relying on one specialised niche sector, or one customer, to generate a significant amount of your volume/sales is perfectly acceptable for a very short period of time, but you have to have a robust business plan in place to remove this dependency as quickly as possible without it affecting the model that has allowed you to flourish and move forward,” adds Mason. “Also you must reinvest this success to sustain the business and to continue the momentum of moving in that direction. If you do not then the business will stall.”


Butterfly Print

Specialism: Design and print products for the education sector - from early years nurseries through to schools and colleges

The education sector has historically provided fertile ground for the printing industry, but over the last few years schools have become more like businesses and as such they have to market themselves better, which means there is an even greater opportunity for companies supplying design and print work. 

That’s why Neil Walsh, from Littleborough-based Butterfly Print, made a conscious decision to offer schools his services. Walsh is a big believer that due to the competitiveness of the modern printing industry it’s never been more important to develop a specialism and target a particular business sector.

“This enables you to understand the specific requirements, deadlines and possible pitfalls of that sector and adapt your business to not only suit the needs and demands but to also work with them to create printed products to suit that sector,” he explains.

While this strategy has worked out well for Butterfly in the education sector, with the company forging a name for itself as one of the UK’s leading providers of design and print services, it’s a niche that’s not without its pitfalls. For instance, there are large peaks and troughs based around school holidays and budgets. As a result, Walsh has to ensure there is a constant stream of other work coming through to iron out these troughs.

These little nuances are why he says that printers need to do their research, look at what opportunities might be available and work out how your business can maximise the potential of those opportunities, before stepping into a specialism.

“Collaboration is the key,” says Walsh. “Work closely with companies within the sector that you want to specialise in and initially look at ways in which you can help each other and find solutions to problems not just for the customer, but for yourself to enable you to crack that market.”


Denny Bros

Specialism: Multi-page labelling

Sometimes printers have to go that extra mile to capitalise on a growing niche market. That’s exactly what Denny Bros did in the 1970s when an agrochemical company needed a new labelling solution. The solution the company devised was Fix-a-Form - a multi-page label that combines a printed and folded leaflet with a self-adhesive label.

“We are the inventors of this product,” says Stephie Castling, senior marketing executive at Denny Bros. “No company had ever produced it before we did. Since then we have produced it in many shapes, formats, lengths, materials, etc, for many different types of companies.”

Fix-a-Form is ideal for any company that needs to put additional information on their product. 

“From pharmaceutical customers putting ingredients, warnings and usage details on their product so it stays with the product for its life time, to agrochemical customers with similar needs, to chemical companies again with similar needs, to other informational customers,” explains Castling. “Then there is the promotional market where they want to increase sales in a product and so offer a competition, but don’t want to change all the packaging artwork and so attaching multi-page label with competition details is an ideal solution.” 

Although the idea of dreaming up a whole new product to meet market needs thus servicing a particular niche may be a stretch too far for many printing companies, it’s clearly worked out well for Denny Bros. 40 years since it launched Fix-a-Form it is still a very popular product, according to Castling. 

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