When it comes to photography, the received wisdom is that consumers rarely think big. While they will happily create a photobook full of smaller images, the thought of picking one photograph to blow up into a large canvas or poster seems to be a step too far.
While this could be down to modesty, the belief that their photography skills would not stand up to such large-scale attention or a simple lack of demand, it’s just as likely that it’s an issue on the supply side.
The technology or kit may not be there, for instance, to provide the quality and breadth, or, more importantly the price point, that the typical consumer demands. Or it may simply be that the capital investment for the sales, marketing and logistics for consumer products is out of reach for most wide-format producers.
Or perhaps, as some manufacturers claim, the market is in fact buoyant, but no-one really knows about it.
The latter is certainly the view of Francois Martin, worldwide marketing director for Graphics Solutions Business at HP. He explains that the market is a mature one, but that compared with photobooks "it has not received much attention in the media". He concedes that photobooks may be more numerous in sales terms, but says the comparison is largely irrelevant.
"In terms of unit numbers, comparing photobooks to photo canvases isn’t really the point. The key point for wide-format photos is that you don’t print as many as in smaller formats – repeat purchases are lower but the value per item is higher."
Nick White, business manager for Professional Graphics at Epson UK, agrees that the market is flourishing. "The consumer market for large-format photos is booming and companies that provide the service to consumers online or on the high street are very busy," he says.
Printers currently in the market suggest there is some truth in the manufacturer claims. "We actually have greater success with large canvas rather than photobooks," reveals David Whiteway, managing director at Pinders of Sheffield. Will Fisher, owner of Bigfishprint, agrees, saying he gets limited demand for photobooks, but is experiencing a growing demand for wide-format canvases and posters.
Yet if things are really so good, you’d expect existing photobook producers, looking to upsell their current clients to the higher value product, to be heading into this market – and this doesn’t seem to be happening. PhotoBox, arguably Europe’s largest photobook producer, does not currently offer products measuring much beyond a metre and felt the topic of the wide-format market was not really one it could comment on as it does not consider itself to be active in the sector. CeWe Color, another of Europe’s leading lights in the photobook market, is also unsure of demand for wide-format, but was more forthcoming on the reasons why.
Managing director Duncan Midwood believes the first issue is with the product itself. "Photobooks as a product concept are relevant to many more applications than wide-format products, which are largely wall decoration. Photobooks can be used as memory records, gifts as books, club or school records and even commercial products such as brochures," he says.
HP’s Martin counters, though, that the market is much bigger than most printers and consumers may think. He says: "Photographs are also printed on self-adhesive materials for displays in public places such as stations, hospitals, lifts and restaurants. In addition, they can be printed (either directly or laminated, depending on the printer) onto tabletops, floor and window graphics, and textiles. One Scottish company offers photographs on stainless steel-effect aluminium board, black graphics panels, PVC, paper or reverse-printed onto acrylic."
But while there may well be many wide-format photo applications, not many of these are consumer-oriented or, at least, not many are currently on the average consumer’s radar. And if you stick to just the current consumer side of the business, you hit a key reason Midwood says the market is perhaps not that attractive: it is difficult for a business to make any money because there are too many possible producers and not enough buyers.
"Canvases and posters are difficult to differentiate and the cost to operate is low, so the market has become saturated. It is easy to get into the market, but difficult to make money. If the products can be differentiated (with trendy designs, for example) than there is a greater chance of success," he explains.
If Midwood is correct, then a key issue holding back sales of wide-format consumer photo products may well be that there is too much supply and not enough demand. This means that there is not enough margin in the work to put back into the business to grow the marketplace.
There are, however, arguments to counter this theory: Adam Gildersleeve, managing director at Latent Light, which has been producing wide-format consumer photo products for many years, concedes that creating quality products at a competitive price is key to success in the market, but he argues it is no more competitive than for B2B wide-format sales. Epson’s White agrees, claiming that there is actually a lot of money to be made. "While it’s a competitive market the margins are still good," he claims.
Where both manufacturers and those currently providing a wide-format consumer photo service concede there are challenges is in the route to market. If demand is there, and the margins are there, that is all very well, but you still have to find the consumer and give them an easy way to buy. In photobooks, this means a web-to-print system and a comprehensive marketing and promotion strategy. Epson’s White concedes that the same would be needed for wide-format.
"Good access to the market is important. That means being online and/or on the high street, supported by active marketing and promotion," he says.
Martin says that many wide-format printers would have to adapt to develop this approach. "They would need to develop the required skills and knowledge to sell into new markets," he says.
Printers already in this market agree that this is perhaps the most challenging area. Fisher says the challenges in this area are "too many to mention" while Gildersleeve agrees that to make a
success of the market, you have to be prepared to invest.
"The costs of the software and other capital investments are high," he says. "Most firms that have wide-format printers are probably using them for signage and business applications. The consumer market is a slightly different market and getting in front of consumers is a lot more difficult."
Invest for growth
Yet if the demand is there and the margin is there, as many claim is the case, the cost of setting up the business for consumer sales and promotion should be within reach. After all, in order to make money in any market you have to be prepared to invest.Again, though, you’d have thought the photobook producers, with their deep pockets, would easily be able to make the leap. In the main, they haven’t. Nor are there many wide-format companies geared solely to this market, looking to dominate.
One reason why may be yet another potential issue: that the actual print and finishing process for wide-format consumer products is simply too complex for most printers to bother with. Certainly, managing to get quality consistent enough to serve the consumer market, while also getting the right print and finishing options in place, appears to be a factor.
"The biggest challenge is consistent quality and innovation," says Gildersleeve.
"Colour management and quality of finishing are key – no-one wants to have something on their wall that looks wrong or starts to fall apart. Good quality management is critical to get customers to come back and buy for a second time," adds Midwood.
White concedes that wide-format printers in this market need to have a substantial offering in place, too: "It’s a competitive market, but a good one if you can build a reputation for offering a fast turnaround, quality service, including framing. In addition to a wide-format printer that can print a range of sizes in colour and black and white, you will need to choose quality canvas and paper, and offer a choice of frames."
While most printers – and their kit suppliers – would like to think they could manage consistent quality and fast turnaround, White’s list of other stipulations for success is certainly extensive. For many wide-format printers it may be too extensive to run alongside a B2B business, and too costly to implement to ditch B2B work and concentrate solely on B2C. Meanwhile, for the existing photobook producers it seems too complex and requires too much human intervention to make the sums work for the models they tend to employ. However, the point remains that if the demand is there and the margins are there, then for both wide-format printers and photobook producers, the investment should be worth it.
Whether to invest your money in consumer photo products as a wide-format printer, or indeed as a photobook producer looking to scale up, then, all depends on whether you believe the manufacturers and printers already in the sector – that the market is both buoyant and growing. If it is, then the business, logistical and product hurdles should be easily overcome, but if the market is not as rosy as everyone claims, then choosing to enter this market may be a costly mistake.
However, the consensus seems to be that adding consumer-oriented wide-format products doesn’t have to be costly and it’s unlikely to be a mistake – the key challenge is having the required marketing reach to be able to open consumers’ eyes to the big picture. If you’ve got that, then the sky is the limit.