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Forecast 2021

Almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we reached out to industry insiders—three suppliers and two retailers—for their thoughts on what they learned from 2020 and what they predict for 2021. Over the next several pages, read about the types of products we could see, the importance of flexibility, and whether to expect a busy season this year…

Forecast 2021

SUPPLIERS AND RETAILERS OFFER INSIGHTS INTO WHAT YOUR BUSINESS COULD EXPECT THIS YEAR

By Julie Rogers

forecast 2021 apa retailers and supplier

Almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we reached out to industry insiders—three suppliers and two retailers—for their thoughts on what they learned from 2020 and what they predict for 2021. Over the next several pages, read about the types of products we could see, the importance of flexibility, and whether to expect a busy season this year…

SCOTT SLETTEN, JDS INDUSTRIES, Sioux Falls, SD

scott sletten

COVID-19 vaccines hold promise that things are going to get better, for the industry and the world, but we have to wait, said Scott Sletten, president and CEO of JDS Industries. A supplier to the personalization industry, JDS has 14 locations in the United States.

“The first quarter will be like the last few months—it’s a tough time with people indoors. There will be secondquarter improvements, but it’s going to be third quarter before a good rebound,” he said.

COVID-19 vaccines have been developed with unprecedented speed but aren’t an immediate fix. Inoculating everyone will take time, and current vaccines must be taken in two doses 3–4 weeks apart. “They have to roll through the high-risk recipients and front lines before the mass population,” he said.

The speed of the economic recovery is more than a matter of medical science. “The biggest factor is going to be the psychology—not just ‘did you get the vaccine’ but ‘do you— the average person—feel safe going out and attending the events we need to happen for our industry to let us return to any normalcy?’”

That confidence should return in the third quarter, Sletten anticipates.

2020 PRODUCTS FOR 2021?

Nearly a year ago, in February 2020, Insights interviewed Sletten and other leading suppliers about the emerging coronavirus’s potential impact on personalization product manufacturing. That was almost 3 weeks before the fastmoving virus was declared a global pandemic. A lot has changed since then. Back then, coronavirus had killed nearly 3,000 people worldwide; today, more than 1.5 million have died due to coronavirus. Lives have been turned upside down, and the economy has suffered.

“Back in February, this was a supply issue, a problem with vendors, mostly Asian,” Sletten explained. Many industry products are manufactured in China, which was hit first and with no warning by the new virus. “It turned into a demand issue. The factories were ready for orders, and we didn’t have events. What was a supply issue turned into a demand issue.”

That demand issue meant that the products with which suppliers had filled their warehouses in anticipation of the spring busy season had nowhere to go. The suppliers we spoke with in 2020 had record amounts on inventory on hand just before demand shifted dramatically. “I still have a lot of my inventory—like from baseball,” Sletten said.

The good news for suppliers who have a glut of inventory is that most potential end users never saw the products that debuted in 2020. Industry retailers were introduced to the new lines at the 2020 International Awards & Personalization Expo in February in Las Vegas, but most didn’t have a chance to purchase them for their customers.

“We had just brought out our new product in February and it never had a chance to hit the market,” Sletten said. Luckily for suppliers, those products will essentially be new to retailers and consumers for 2021. Having those items in stock reduced the number of products suppliers like JDS had to order for 2021.

They have still manufactured products for 2021, including new lines, so retailers can look forward to some debuts. “We are doing more products this year, but they are highly focused in the areas with much growth,” he said. “Normally, we have 1,000 to 1,500 new products per year. We’ll probably have 600 new ones in the catalog this year. ... There will be a lot new in signage and giftware, some in corporate.”

The reduction in new products isn’t just about using 2020 inventory. The pandemic also disrupted suppliers’ normal methods of sourcing new products, including “trade shows, where we’d shop and look for new ideas around the world.”

Just as industry retailers worked with their trusted suppliers in 2020, our industry suppliers tended to work with their existing manufacturing partners. That means it’s likely that we’ll see “line extensions and new colors” of existing products more than entirely new products.

DIVERSIFICATION

As Sletten sees it, companies that have weathered the pandemic the best in our industry are those that have done what JDS has been preaching for years: diversify. “We’re a more diverse company than most, and that has helped us tremendously,” he said.

Product diversification offers a steadier stream of income and more stability when there is upheaval in one or more product areas. Product focus is one of the ways to look a the effects of the pandemic on industry businesses.

“What has been hit the worst is anything sports oriented,” Sletten said. “We’re down 60% on anything to do with sports more than 6 months after this started, and we haven’t seen any recent improvements. After April and May, everything was getting better, but sports plateaued in September and hasn’t improved since.” Because sales of personalized sports products like awards are event based—hinging on teams, leagues, and tournaments—the sports market may not rebound until a vaccine is widely distributed and people have the confidence to return to close-contact events and activities, Sletten said.

“The next major area in our business is corporate. That is right now only running about 20% down—but compared to 6 months ago, I’ll take it,” Sletten said. “Corporate America was in crisis mode and said, ‘Don’t spend money you don’t have.’ They got more confidence. PPP (the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program) money helped. The psychology changed in corporations. ‘We need to thank our achievers and reward our employees.’”

Signage, an area that JDS started investing in heavily a few years ago, “saw some very strong demand in the early parts of the pandemic. People were having to repost store hours and use signage to say ‘Yes, we’re open’ and floor signs to get people to distance. That’s calmed down now to a more normal pace and back to being driven by new construction. It’s relatively healthy.”

A new area for our industry, and many suppliers, retailers, and consumers, is personal protective equipment (PPE). “Acrylic for face shields and barriers, personalized masks, hand sanitizer—none of those things were carried in our industry. That went nuts for 90 days, but people started to accumulate those things,” Sletten said, which has slowed demand. Face mask sales, for instance, were down about 75% in the past 90 days when Sletten was interviewed.

The sudden demand was another disrupter. “People bought these from whoever they could, and that opened the doors for a lot of nontraditional suppliers to get orders. Now, suppliers have restocked, so people have gone back to buying from their usual vendors.”

Gifts, however, performed well before and during the pandemic, and demand is expected to maintain or grow. “Gifts, premiums, drinkware, corporate giveaways, gifts to employees, gifts to customers. We’ve expanded into that dramatically, and that’s helped us so much,” Sletten said. “A lot of companies have realized they can’t hold mass events, so they are giving gifts, mementos, and gift cards. This year, that’s going to take a different form. They still need to do something to show people they care.”

JDS is big enough and had the foresight to diversify throughout the years. That has been possible for retailers, as well. “The biggest thing that has helped people and will help them is diversification. The medium and bigger companies have done better because they’ve diversified,” Sletten said.

That might be cold comfort right now to a mom-and-pop shop that only sells awards, but this lesson should inform future business goals.

“A retailer who only does trophies is probably hurting badly due to no fault of their own,” Sletten said. “But if they do a fair amount of corporate, gifts, and signage, they are probably doing OK. It depends on how much you have diversified. We have been promoting this for so long.”

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

There are several factors that industry businesses need to consider as they forecast and plan for a rebounding economy.

First, an important question for judging how a recovery will benefit business owners, Sletten said, is “How much pent-up demand is out there when things improve?”

The travel industry, for instance, will experience too much pent-up demand and not have enough capacity to accommodate all of the people who want to travel when restrictions lift, he said. But sporting events and tournaments that were delayed due to the pandemic are “lost ground” because organizers will move on to the next scheduled event when the pandemic subsides. But in some other areas, you can go back and do things you missed when times were tougher, like sales awards. Companies can think about pent-up demand to forecast sales and plan marketing efforts.

Remote Work and Trade Shows

Another factor to think about now is what will be changed in the long-term due to the pandemic. Think about airport security procedures that were created after September 11, 2001, in the United States. What changes will be part of the new normal long after the pandemic, and will those changes create opportunities for agile businesses?

Nearly a year of remote working has prompted some bigname companies to pledge a remote working environment for the future as well. “Does remote working mean fewer name badges? Will they present the same awards when people are in different locations?” Sletten asked. (This reality could present new opportunities for retailers who offer shipping to the individual homes of corporate customers’ employees.)

The industry gets a lot of business from trade shows, Sletten said, such as signage for booths, logo apparel for exhibit staff, and promotional products for booth giveaways. “There will be good demand that will help a lot of companies,” as both exhibitors and attendees plan trade show attendance to get caught up on everything they missed out on during the pandemic.

However, trade shows that found success in a virtual environment may continue with this model, Sletten said.

Online Ordering

The shift to online ordering was already happening, but the pandemic threw it into warp speed, as consumers ordered online to protect themselves and employees from risky contact. Many retail stores, restaurants, and grocery stores offered curbside pickup options that enabled customers to order online and have their products brought out to their car.

Before the pandemic, a retailer without ecommerce might be considered old-fashioned or quirky in the eyes of many consumers. But during the pandemic, ecommerce became essential, especially in areas with very high infection rates. Industry suppliers had long since adopted ecommerce— while keeping great customer service representatives to handle calls and emails—but some retailers were caught unprepared. They may have had to catch up with ecommerce solutions and offer curbside pickup while also learning which products would sell during each stage of the pandemic. Does that go away during the recovery?

“Some (pandemic) innovations will stick. They found a better way and found out people liked it,” Sletten said. “A lot moved online during this crisis and will remain online.” This applies to how customers order from retailers and how retailers order from suppliers.

Quantities

Another pandemic lesson that could have lasting consequences involves order quantities. Do you dread one-off gift orders from consumers while marketing to organizations that can purchase 100-plus quantities of an item with identical personalization? Everyone loves a big order, but there is money to be found in those individual orders, too.

“Our customers who are doing the best right now are selling to consumers: drinkware, cutting boards, things that can be consumed. Consumers can’t go out. They have idle time. They have time on their hands to shop. Customers who built their websites to sell to consumers have ridden a wave,” Sletten explained.

Selling individualized personal products to individual customers “can be a tough business,” Sletten said. “It’s a different model. But that model is hot right now. Look at Amazon—the number of people who are buying onlineonly right now. Personalization is going consumer based to a certain degree. There’s a lot of market to be had.”

FORECAST RISKS

Forecasting is an art, not a science. Acting based on forecasts can seem risky, but you aren’t alone in assuming that risk. For Sletten and other large industry suppliers, that risk is magnified compared to that of retailers.

First, the scale of their investment is larger—they’re buying enough trophies to supply thousands of stores that supply thousands of teams. That ties up a lot of funds.

Second, the industry shifted some years ago from having retailers buy and store enough products for a season to having the suppliers buy and store the products, shipping them out to retailers as the retailers place orders for specific customers. That move shifted all of the risk to the suppliers; retailers aren’t left holding the bag when something goes wrong, with warehouses full of illiquid assets they can’t move.

Lastly, the timeline for supplier versus retailer investments is totally different. Retailers can receive a customer order and place the product order with their supplier that day. They’re only out of pocket between placing the order with the supplier and getting payment from their customer, which should be a matter of weeks at the outside. Forecasting months ahead helps retailers and suppliers plan their business decisions and marketing, but only suppliers have to use that forecasting to make costly product investments months in advance.

Because many industry products are manufactured overseas, suppliers don’t have the luxury of ordering products just before they need them. They use their forecasts to predict what their customers will order months in advance. That’s a hard job in a normal year, made infinitely more difficult by the unprecedented events of the pandemic.

As retailers plan for 2021, perhaps with a spring busy season, “We’ve already had to place our bets for summer,” Sletten explained. “By October (2020), we had to have our orders in and ‘place our bets’ (by ordering products that will be sold through) about June.”

“If things are suddenly great in March, we’ll have a lot of outages,” he said. “If we think things will be good in June but aren’t until October, I’ll have a lot of excess.”

MANAGING RISK

How do suppliers deal with all of that uncertainty and risk? Sletten makes forecasting part of his daily job, gathering information from sources everywhere and deciding how it could affect JDS and the industry.

“For 2 hours a day, I read articles from all over the world, because the more information you have, the better the decision you can make,” he said.

Having so many sources of news—both through media and contacts—ensures Sletten is relying on good, accurate information and is able to filter out biased news.

When COVID-19 was emerging as a threat in February 2020, Sletten used this same method and was able to offer some eerily accurate predictions before a pandemic was declared. How did he do it?

“Back in February, I was looking to newsfeeds from across the sea—what are they saying in Europe, what are they saying in Asia? I was emailing all my vendors to ask what they were hearing, what they were seeing, and what their governments were telling them.”

Throughout the process, Sletten asked himself if what he was hearing made sense, especially in the context of the other reports he’d gathered. It essentially allowed him to triangulate in on the truth and confirm conclusions he was making.

That same process has enabled Sletten to forecast the state of the industry in 2021, and he’s placing his bets on a brighter year ahead, especially as consumer confidence returns in the third quarter. That sounds like a bet we’d all like to back!

KELLY KAVA, Awards Plus,Grand Island, NE

kelly kava

“COVID-19 started to affect us back in December (2019)  and January (2020),” said Kelly Kava, owner of Awards   Plus in Grand Island, NE. “We had a couple of orders being produced in China, which almost didn’t get to us in time due to the shutdowns there. For most of the first quarter of 2020, business was good, and we weren’t too worried about coronavirus. Obviously, we didn’t have a clue what was lurking ahead, and I never dreamed I would have to deal with something like this. I always expected the possibility   of being wiped out by a fire or tornado, but at least with  that type of thing, insurance covers it. I really think it’s criminal that insurance companies are not covering loss of business caused by this disaster,” Kava said. “A disaster is  a disaster. Loss of business is loss of business, no matter what kind of disaster caused it. That’s the whole reason we have insurance in the first place,” he said.

“When things started getting bad, events were getting canceled all over the place, which was hitting our sales hard. We are primarily an awards and screen-printing shop, so the majority of our sales are dependent on events happening. We closed the shop the entire month of April, and we opened 2 days per week in May. We got a PPP loan and opened back up full time in June. The PPP loan didn’t last long, but luckily sales have been gradually rebounding. We’re still nowhere close to where we should be or need to be, but I’m grateful we’ve been getting enough business so far to keep the doors open.”

Though many retailers report finding success with selling PPE, gifts, and signage, Awards Plus didn’t make that transition. “We didn’t make much effort to sell masks, partitions, or COVID signage because we didn’t expect it to drag on this long,” Kava said, as he was seeing prices online for these products that he felt he couldn’t compete with.

For Kava, COVID-19 isn’t just a financial threat. “I personally caught the virus in mid-October and proceeded to infect my two employees, which caused us to be closed  for another 2 weeks. One employee had mild symptoms, but the other one and I both got fairly sick. The coughing and fatigue was horrible. I didn’t have the energy to hardly move. Fortunately for us, it seems we have all recovered and are back to normal, hopefully with no ‘long-haul’ effects. I would urge everyone to do everything you can to avoid catching this virus. Even ‘mild’ symptoms are miserable!”

Recovering from the virus allowed Kava to return to work, but what that work will look like is far from clear. “It’s so hard to predict how business will be from here and into 2021. Nothing like this has happened in our lifetimes. It looks like there are very promising vaccines on the horizon, which I think will be the turning point in all this. But it will still take time to distribute, slow the spread, and finally crush it. Until then, I don’t think all events will be canceled. Life will go on to some degree because so many people are  so tired of this situation. But I also think a lot of events still won’t be taking place at least until mid-2021.”

Awards Plus store 

Kava expects the industry’s busy season—when awards sales spike in spring—will happen this year “but on a significantly smaller scale.” For many personalization retailers, that would still be an improvement over 2020’s busy season. “A lot will also depend on how many baseball and softball leagues decide to have a season in the spring.”

Kava feels let down by the government and insurance companies, for not protecting people and businesses. Instead, it’s up to him to find a way to “hunker down and weather the storm.” “This whole thing turned so political, and the partisan bickering has resulted in small businesses like ours not getting anywhere near the help we need to get through this. So many of the politicians acknowledge that we are losing our livelihoods through no fault of our own, yet they can’t get out of their own way enough to actually help us. I will cut every expense I can, sock away every dime I can, do all the marketing I can afford to, and hope like heck this whole mess ends soon,” he said.

Still, Kava is optimistic for a better future for his store, the industry, and the world. “I don’t think there will be long- term changes. People have short memories about things  like this, and once this virus is gone, I do believe things   will get back to normal in almost every way. Hopefully,  what will change is a better way of dealing with any future pandemics,” he said. “I also think there very well could be an explosion of business for us due to the pent-up demand for events, socializing, and other needs for our products.”

AMY BROWN, Johnson Plastics Plus, Burnsville, MN

Amy Brown

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel with vaccines in   the pipeline, and we’re optimistic there will be a permanent, positive economic turn sometime later in the third quarter   of 2021,” said Amy Brown, vice president of sales and marketing at Johnson Plastics Plus. A Rowmark company, Johnson Plastics Plus is headquartered in Minnesota—the state where the company was founded 50 years ago—and has four distribution supercenters across the United States to serve customers fast nationwide.

“There’s an inflection point out in the future where we may start to return to ‘normal,’ but we don’t know when that will be or, more importantly, what ‘normal’ will look like,” Brown said. “The Q1 and Q2 of 2021 will probably continue to be a challenge as far as the overall economy  is concerned, as states struggle to contain infection rates and community spread. States learned from the first set of lockdowns last spring. We may not see the full ‘shelter in place’ orders that happened then, but some form of restrictions are likely to remain even if they are pared down from previous versions.”

Knowing that a recovery is in sight may help many of us weather new or renewed restrictions in the meantime.

Brown knows that this industry’s businesspeople have the grit and spirit needed to get through this and into a  better future this year. She’s seen evidence of that in how Johnson Plastics Plus’s customers have seized opportunities in the pandemic and added products that appealed to consumers in 2020.

“The most impressive thing about our industry is the resilience of retailers and their ability to adjust to changing times. We’ve seen countless customers quickly pivot to   offer new products using their existing equipment, such as face masks and COVID-related signage,” Brown said. “We also saw an uptick in equipment sales, and I think we can attribute that to customers who’ve wanted to try sublimation, giving it a shot to expand their product offerings.”

Throughout 2020, Johnson Plastics Plus offered an impressive array of virtual events, promotions, sales, and marketing help to connect with customers even when they couldn’t be together in person. A vaccine will make in- person events safer, but Brown expects it’ll take a bit before people feel safe doing so. That initial reluctance could delay the return of some event orders, but it doesn’t mean they won’t be back.

“While we certainly miss speaking to customers in person,   I think the big question for large events will be if people are personally going to feel comfortable in those settings in the future,” Brown said. “Will people be willing to jump back into being in large groups, or will there be an adjustment period? That’s what we’ll all be waiting to find out once widespread adoption of the vaccine happens.”

‘YEAR  OF FLEXIBILITY’

Even with part of 2021 looking a lot like 2020, there’s reason to believe it will be a better year. Sure, pandemic fatigue may have set in, but we’ve got almost a year of experience to use when predicting and adjusting to what would otherwise be unprecedented.

“If 2020 was the year of sudden change, I think 2021 will be the year of flexibility,” Brown said. “This past year caught everyone by surprise and forced us all to make fundamental shifts in how we do business. Now that we’ve made that adjustment, we’ll need to put what we learned in 2020 into practice in 2021. We don’t know when ‘normal’ will return or what it will look like when it does. So being flexible will be key, and as a supplier that’s what we’re aiming for.”

BUSY SEASON FORECAST

2020’s busy season was anything but busy for awards retailers.

Trophy and awards shops have been particularly affected by such things as school closings and event cancellations. For that segment of the industry, this drastically  changed their busy season if there was one, Brown said. “Traditionally, they’d spend March and April ramping up for end-of-the-year awards for schools. In 2020, that was significantly less than previous years—if it happened at all.”

Busy season may not get off to its traditional start in 2021, but Brown expects that it could be salvaged by customers who had time to plan for this year’s awards, even if they are socially distanced. “This year could be some of the same throughout the first quarter, but I think we’ll see a rebound for end-of-the-(school)-year awards. Just as suppliers and retailers have had to adjust to their traditional timelines, so too have schools. What happened at the end of the 2020 school year caught everyone—retailers, schools, parents, students—by surprise. Everyone is more aware of where we are in 2021, so it shouldn’t be as much of a surprise for the end of this school  year, regardless of whether students are in school or at home.”

Though packed events aren’t in the forecast for summer 2021, the vaccine’s spread could bring back some summer events and, with them, demand for personalized products. “County and state fairs, car shows, softball and baseball  tournaments—all  of those events traditionally had custom shirts, trophies, plaques, and other awards that they’d order that just didn’t happen in 2020,” she said. “We’re hopeful that with the planned vaccine rollout many of those summer events will return to some capacity, and that will have a positive impact on awards and recognition retailers.”

PRODUCTS TO WATCH

With suppliers predicting a slow improvement until the third quarter, how should retailers plan for 2021? They can take a note from suppliers’ expectations.

“We’re planning for 2021 to really be two parts. The first part of the year will be much like most of 2020, with a focus on the products retailers wanted for the bulk of  the summer and fall,” she said. “Of course, face masks were popular, particularly for retailers with sublimation and heat transfer. But we also saw an uptick in home décor items and products for home offices. This is a result of the shift of people working from home and spending more time there. We anticipate that it will continue through the first half of the year.”

The second half of the year takes a little more work to forecast, but Johnson Plastics Plus has done so and has new products to launch in anticipation of the recovery. “We think there will be a continued demand for new and interesting items for sublimation and heat transfer, as many customers added those technologies to their businesses or started home-based businesses. Our product development team is working on an entire offering of products that we think will excite that segment of the business,” Brown said.

“We also saw a renewed interest in engravable products, particularly with customers adding small format lasers to their home-based businesses. We believe that will continue, and we’ll be adding products specifically for laser and rotary engraving.”

TRENDING IN 2021

Brown noted some trends to keep in mind in 2021.

Less in-person product pickup may change packaging needs. “We’ve really tried to be conscious of the new business models that many retailers have adopted in 2020 and carry that over to 2021,” Brown said. “Traditional brick-and- mortar retail shops are offering curbside pickup as well as shipping more items than ever before. We saw the impact of that on shipping companies, such as FedEx and UPS, who hit pipeline capacity well before the holiday rush this year. So offering products that can be easily shipped and come in their own packaging for easy delivery will continue to be a focus for 2021 and beyond.”

Off-site employees will reduce demand  for  some  products  … “For the awards and personalization industry, and really business as a whole, the shift to remote and at-home work will have an impact moving forward. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom said that up to 42% of employees moved  to remote work as a result of the pandemic, and most will continue to work from home after the pandemic is over. He also stated that, for the most part, the stigma associated with working from home is gone,” Brown explained. “That’s a major shift in attitude about where people work from, and the trickle-down to our industry can’t be understated. It’ll change what we consider to be the ‘office’ and all of the products that are associated with it, from signage to name badges.”

… And create demand for  others.  “However, there’s a positive for our industry that can come out of the work-from-home shift. In cities and suburban areas, there will be available office space that can be repurposed into retail and smaller conference-type settings. This means new signage and personal identification, both interior and exterior,” Brown said. “While people may work primarily from home, they’ll still want and need to get out and meet face-to-face with customers and business associates. Whether those meetings happen in a conference room they rent by the hour or a temporarily leased office, it can lead to new opportunities for the signage and identification industry for years to come.”

Revamped recognition  programs  will  be  needed.  “With employees working remotely, companies will want to try and maintain some form of business culture and connection to those who are home most of the time,” Brown said. “This is  a great opportunity for awards and personalization retailers to put together employee recognition programs for businesses in their area to help them stay connected and engaged with their now at-home workforce.”

LINDA DWYER, Bay Area Awards, Niceville, FL

Linda Dwyer

When life gives you lemons, you’re supposed to try to make lemonade. Linda Dwyer seems like the kind of person who would manage to craft them into a four-course meal and start a profitable fruit stand.

Dwyer co-owns Bay Area Awards in Niceville, FL, with her husband, and the couple has made sure the longtime business has deep roots in their small town. “We are a family business. We volunteer within the community. I sit on several boards. I volunteer for Little League even though I don’t have anyone in Little League anymore,” she explained.

Their long-time deep relationships and business acumen have led to success, and the start of 2020—before the pandemic—was on track with Dwyer’s goals. “We were looking forward to having a banner year. I’d projected  we’d be up 20% over what we’d done in the previous year. Instead we’re down about 20% overall,” she said.

Pandemic restrictions did close Bay Area Awards for a bit, before the store was able to reopen as an essential business because of the signage the company makes. In September, the company took another hit when damage from Hurricane Sally forced a renovation of the showroom.

Dwyer reached out to other retailers to brainstorm ideas together, and she and her Bay Area Awards team got creative to come up with solutions to obstacles presented by COVID-19. The Dwyers also invested in new technology to allow them to diversify their product offerings.

INDUSTRY CONNECTIONS

Dwyer and her husband have incredibly strong relationships in the industry, through the Southeast  Awards Professionals and the International Awards & Personalization Expo. “That’s what helped us get through— the relationships you build with other retailers,” Dwyer  said.

When COVID-19 struck the United States hard, Dwyer got on the phone to trusted retailers in her region, including Eddie Hill, Lisa Higginbotham, Sam Varn, and Brian Hershberger.

“I tried to keep communication going and share ideas. You have to remember that your competitors can be your friends,” she said.

The ideas and support they offered benefited Bay Area Awards, and Dwyer helped them with ideas, too. In fact, when Higginbotham came up with a plan to make massive numbers of face shields for local healthcare workers in   her area, Dwyer suggested the program’s name: Halos for Heroes. (Dwyer had a similar plan for Bay Area Awards, knowing it was a way to make a difference in the early days of the pandemic, but the demand wasn’t there in her area.)

She also got on the phone with her supplier as she planned ways to expand her store’s offerings. “Our relationship with PDS (Equipment) has been great. Their ideas are limitless—it’s how big you can open your brain up to what you can do. We’re not just a trophy business. We have to be more than that to help in our communities and to build our own business.”

SMASHING OBSTACLES

Bay Area Awards didn’t let the pandemic be the final say   in whether awards could be bestowed upon recipients, nor did it expect its customers to figure out how to make it possible. If they’d sat inside the store and waited for orders to come in, the results would have been bad for everyone.

“When the schools closed in the spring, there was still a need to recognize students’ achievements,” Dwyer said. A chorus teacher, for instance, wanted to honor students who had advanced to regional and state levels in competitions, but the pandemic made a traditional awards ceremony impossible. “I went to my team and said, ‘What can we do   to help?’” Dwyer said.

“We held a drive-through awards ceremony. We set up a tent outside the store. We had congratulations signs. We passed out their awards, handing them out through the window,” Dwyer said. “The kids were so happy. We took pictures and sent them to the teacher. It warmed her heart. ‘I got to see my students one more time.’ The kids appreciated that there was some normalcy of getting the award they expected to get at their final concert. It was very easy to do with a pop-up tent, a table, a timeframe that was after our normal business hours so parents who work can drive with their students.”

The drive-through ceremony was entirely Bay Area Awards’ idea, proof that retailers can take actions that save business that might otherwise be lost. “This was a team effort. We created this. We provided instructions to the teacher to email to her students,” she said. About 60% of the recipients came to pick them up during the ceremony.

In addition, Bay Area Awards began bringing out orders for curbside delivery. It’s a convenience to customers and a way to ensure  both  customers and staff are safe. “We closed our showroom and put up sign that said ‘Call our showroom; we’ll bring it out to you.’”

Though many events were canceled, “people had time to stop and think about things they might want to do in the future,” Dwyer said. Sometimes, that meant figuring out creative solutions and new ways to do things. Bay   Area Awards was up to the challenge. “We worked hard to answer requests for quotes quickly,” she said. “We thought of things that might be a little off the wall for them or creating a custom award for them to really personalize it. You just have to think outside of the norm of the normal award.”

INVESTING IN THE FUTURE

In a year of uncertainty, the Dwyers invested in their business, wanting to ensure a bright future for Bay Area Awards. They bought not one but two major pieces of personalization equipment: a Mimaki JV300-130/160 wide format inkjet printer/cutter and a fiber laser from Radian Laser. “It was a big risk in a down year to buy an expensive piece of equipment and figure out how we would introduce it,” Dwyer said.

The technology required not only up-front costs to purchase it but also work on their office to make room for it—the Dwyers had to build another room for the printer/cutter. But this was far from an impulse buy. Both the laser and printer/cutter were “intentional” purchases. “I spent a lot of money in a year I wasn’t making a lot of money. It’s an investment in my future to expand my business beyond being a trophy shop,” she said.

The laser will enable Bay Area Awards to personalize firearms without the use of metal marking compound, a big plus in an area with a lot of members of the military.

The printer/cutter was purchased through PDS Equipment, a supplier they’d already bought a flatbed printer from. “We felt like we didn’t know where we were going to be with corporate awards and team awards, but we could see that there was an increasing amount of requests for floor decals and window decals,” Dwyer said, so they decided to get into that. Banners are already offered by other businesses in their area, and Dwyer has no interest in stepping on toes in her small community. “But no one was printing stickers, so we bought what I call my oversize sticker machine,” she said with a laugh.

Some of the store’s military customers “like stickers with their emblem on them. Now, I’m not losing them to a quick online big guy.”

Having the printer/cutter also gives Bay Area Awards advantages over online competitors. “We can do short runs. I tell them, ‘I can do 1 or 1,001. You need it tomorrow? You don’t have to wait to get it from UPS. I can do it locally.’ We’re promoting ‘buy it local’ to help local businesses. These are the businesses sponsoring Little League or soccer. When we keep it local, it makes everyone happy,” Dwyer said.

A local nursing home is handing out Hometown Hero stickers to thank their employees who are stretched thin during the pandemic. Bay Area Awards’ sticker capabilities gave the business a way to express their appreciation and the staff a way “to exhibit some pride. It’s their badge of honor however they want to display it.”

2021 CONCERNS AND HOPES

Dwyer has concerns about events outside of her hands that could derail her 2021 recovery plans.

  • Business shutdowns: Dwyer doesn’t anticipate required closures, even if the vaccine is slow to improve COVID-19 numbers, but that’s largely because her business is located in Florida, where the governor has been reluctant to mandate shutdowns.
  • Tax changes: When a new president is sworn in, big changes are possible, and Dwyer hopes that increasing corporate taxes isn’t on the agenda. “Hopefully, we can keep that all in check,” she said.
  • Military budgets: Bay Area Awards benefits from “a large military influence in our area, and we try to do things   that are compatible with their mission,” said Dwyer. Her husband is retired from the Air Force, and they have earned business locally from the Air Force, Coast Guard, Navy, and Army. The Trump administration put an emphasis on military funding; if a new administration “draws back down any of those budgets, that will hurt us in a couple of years,” she said.

Despite those wildcards, Dwyer is optimistic about 2021, thanks to her new investments and product additions. “We hope to be even or better (with 2019) for next year. A lot of it will strictly have to do with what happens in the first quarter,” she said, alluding to the new administration. “I don’t have all the answers. We have a family business, but we have staff who aren’t family members, and I want to continue to support them.”

For now, with social distancing and masks the norm, Dwyer has one disappointment about losing her usual interactions with customers: “The hardest part for us is that you don’t  get to see people’s smiling faces!”

WARREN KNIPPLE, Trotec Laser, Plymouth, MI

Warren Knipple

When the pandemic struck, Trotec Laser had to do  the same thing as many industry retailers: “We had to drastically pivot and change our approach,” said Warren Knipple, president of Trotec Laser, Inc.

Trotec Laser is a leading international provider of advanced, high-speed laser equipment for cutting, engraving, and industrial marking. The U.S. arm of the Austrian company has grown to 20 times its original size and has support facilities in more than 10 states.

“We quickly saw how the pandemic was affecting a large number of our customers—particularly those in the awards and personalization industries—and we knew we needed to provide as much support for them as possible,” Knipple said. “We were able to offer more digital content to our customers with suggestions and tips on how to keep their businesses open, as well as offering regular webinars to hone their laser skills and learn new techniques. Because of this change, many of our customers were able to keep their doors open and offer their services to their communities.”

As PPE sales spiked, Trotec went a step beyond, offering customers plans for lasering PPE. “We started offering materials for PPE, such as a modified acrylic and PET film, so our customers could continue to stay in business by offering in-demand products,” he said.

Looking ahead to what 2021 has in store for the industry, Trotec has some suggestions to help retailers make the best of an anticipated recovery.

RETAILER TIPS

  1. Retailers can take some time to “rework their business plans and product offerings if they are struggling,” Knipple said. That might include brainstorming new ideas and offerings for the technology and know-how they already have.
  2. “It’s a good idea to invest in your education and learn new skills on your existing equipment if your production volume has decreased,” he suggested. “As more businesses have pivoted towards webinars and online learning, check with the manufacturers of your equipment or industry professionals to take advantage of these types of opportunities.” Take this time to try out new techniques or products. The Awards and Personalization Association offers a number of educational resources at awardspersonalization.org/Education.aspx.
  3. Just as Trotec rolled out programs to help customers, retailers should “maintain communication with their customer base via email marketing and social media.” Remind them you’re there, and let them know about new products or services you roll out, especially as many consumers are shopping online from home.
  4. “It’s a smart move for awards professionals to consider branching out into other industries or to offer a broader range of products and services than normal, as it’s too early to say what the spring season will look like in 2021,” Knipple said. “Face masks, shields, and other COVIDrelated products may be a good option for some, but it’s also important to look to other areas that may offer additional business opportunities or a constant revenue stream, such as indoor and outdoor signage.” Because Trotec supplies equipment rather than a specific product, Knipple’s team looks at a bigger picture than a retailer who only sells one type of product to one market. A laser that’s used to only engrave plaques for schools in your area can also be used to engrave barcodes for industrial customers, gifts for any consumer, and signage for companies and organizations. “Laser owners certainly have an advantage due to the versatility of the equipment and the ability to process a wide variety of applications on virtually any material,” Knipple said.
  5. “Don’t lose hope,” Knipple said. Like other suppliers, Knipple knows that the new year isn’t an instant solution to the problems that plagued us in 2020. He’s optimistic about the new year and the industry, but he, too, predicts this year’s start will look an awful lot like the rest of the months of the pandemic, with the industry not seeing a rebound until later quarters. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned from 2020, it’s to have a plan but to remain flexible. We are optimistic about the direction that Trotec is heading in for 2021, but we are aware that a lot of the limitations and roadblocks we encountered because of the pandemic will undoubtedly be present at the start of the new year,” he said. “We remain hopeful that the economy will improve and those businesses in the awards and personalization industries will be able to get back to business as usual.”

Awards and Personalization Association

The Awards and Personalization Association is the organization for retailers and suppliers of personalized and customized items. By providing education, meetings, and access to a vibrant network of professionals, the Awards and Personalization Association is the one place to ensure the growth of your talent, your business, and your professional community.

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