Commentary & Analysis
Wide Formant and Packaging are "Digital Proof" But But Where are the Real Opportunities for Printers?
You can’t protect an iPod in a digital box and you can’t replace vehicle wraps with email. Sure, there is some encroachment of digital technologies on the sign and banner industry, but there are limits based on the role that these products play. This article looks at some of the statistics on the current state of these two industries.
By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: August 15, 2017
What do wide-format signs and graphics have in common with packaging? They are, to some extent, digital-proof.
You can’t protect an iPod in a digital box and you can’t replace vehicle wraps with email. Sure, there is some encroachment of digital technologies on the sign and banner industry, but there are limits (at least for now) based on the role that these products play. Hence printers’ growing interest in adding this product category into the mix.
Let’s look at just some of the statistics on the current state of these two industries.
Earlier this year, the International Sign Association (ISA) released its report detailing the above average growth of the sign, graphics, and visual communications industry for 2017 into 2018.
The report assesses four segments: two supplier markets, printing and electrical/digital signage; and two end markets, electric/digital signage and architectural signage. “The two end markets in particular are strongly above trend for 2017 with the supply side catching up in 2018,” according to the press release.
Looking deeper, we see that the majority of the growth is in digital signage. ISA notes that, in the electrical/digital end market, 2017 remains very strong, and while growth will slow in 2018 and 2019, “it will remain well above the historical trend through the end of the forecast.”
In the packaging industry, we see steady if not outstanding growth. In 2015, the last year for which complete figures are available, according to Packaging Strategies, the folding carton market was down slightly (.09 million tons), but the value of shipments was higher by an average of $23 per ton. Not great, but still a growth industry:
In the five-year period between 2015-2019, the industry is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 1.3% in sales and 0.5% in tons. The average value per ton per year is expected to rise 0.8%, according to RISI. 
According to RISI, the corrugated industry is not faring quite as well as folding cartons. Corrugated had declined in the early to mid 2000s, although the numbers have climbed slowly since 2009—in part, RISI analysts say, due to the large number of online order returns. Like folding cartons, the value of shipments is up — .2% — and while small, this is reported to be part of an overall upward trend.
Overall, another research firm, Smithers Pira, expects the global packaging market to grow an annual average of 3.5% through 2020, although growth will vary significantly by market segment. The largest growth is expected to be in areas where most commercial printers will not play, however, such as aluminum and multi-layer plastics with barrier properties for food packaging.
But the mix is changing, and there are parallels to the sign and graphics industry, as well to commercial print: among them, growth in niche packaging, customer-specific packaging sizes, growth in digitally produced and more sustainably sized packaging, and increased adoption of technologies that provide easy access to information through scan codes and dedicated mobile apps.
All of these could easily be trends for the sign and banner industry, as well: more niche signage, customer-specific signage, growth in digitally produced and more environmentally friendly signage, and increased adoption of technologies that provide easy access to information through scan codes and mobile apps.
Not all that different from commercial print either!
What’s my point? For years, printers have looked to sister markets like signage and packaging as uncharted opportunities for profit. The reality is, those markets are mature, too, and all of the players are doing exactly what you’re doing—refining their business models, their workflows, and their competitive edge in the digital age. It’s as competitive there as it is here.
Not to mention that the growth numbers are not crazy high. Sure, those markets are growing, but it’s not as if they are off the charts, with more growth occurring than can be handled by the existing suppliers. There’s opportunity, but not a surplus of it.
So where are the opportunities? They aren’t in “packaging” or “signage,” in themselves. They are in the adjectives—niche, customer-specific, and digitally produced (translated short-run, personalized, and targeted), just as they are in commercial print. It’s signage for the boutique pet store that sells organic pet foods and pet toys made out of reclaimed materials, or the packaging for the store-branded sauces and burger spreads at the solar-powered café on the corner.
These are the opportunities—doing what is already being done, but the slice where the skills of commercial printers can do it better. Opportunities to serve a client base not optimally served by the traditional suppliers or who didn’t know the possibilities open to them. You know, the “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that!” kind of thing.
The opportunities are in finding the need, the hole, and meeting the need in a way that traditional packaging and signage/graphics suppliers aren’t yet optimized to do. In other words, that’s not really about packaging or signage. It’s about having an eye for the unmet need.