By Michaele Birney Arneson
As the owner of a 50-year-old trophy business redefining itself within the custom gifts and awards market, the exponential growth of the sublimation products industry is a godsend. With hundreds of products to use as blank canvas (including blank canvas), the only limit is oneâ€™s imagination.
Therein lies the problem.
We have found our customersâ€™ imaginations to be â€” well â€” a little less than imaginative.
Excited when new products are released, we would purchase a few blanks to display. Sometimes we would sublimate a sample, either to experiment with the exact process needed for that particular product or because we were so eager to see a finished product that we couldnâ€™t wait for a customer to place an order. But we were been reluctant to sublimate too many blanks for store displays because we were obviously not getting paid for those.
So we had a scattering of completed examples around our retail store, along with many more blank products for customers to create custom gifts from.
One of my favorite completed samples is a rectangular SubliSLATE featuring my shop dog and constant companion, Shadow. Shadowâ€™s SubliSLATE was displayed prominently near our payment counter to ensure that customers saw it.
Customers did see it, and often asked if it was the dog behind the counter eagerly waiting for them to notice her. However, what we really were hoping for them to say is, â€œWow, thatâ€™s cool! We want one with our favorite picture on it!â€
As intuitive as it seemed to us that customers would see a finished sublimated product and understand that they could order one with their own image and/or message applied, that connection was not being made. However, we had also found that a lot of customers started to â€œglaze overâ€ when we tried to explain to them that we could take their image, which they could email to us, but it had to be a high-res image, or we could scan a print, but it should preferably be a glossy print, and then we would transfer it to our design software, and then we could add their message, in thousands of different fonts and colors, which they could pick out, and then we would sublimate it, which is a process of applying specialized inks that vaporize when heated and become one with the product, and yadda, yadda, yaddaâ€¦.
We also know through experience with selling youth sports trophies that customers often donâ€™t read store signage. How many times have we put our last three trophies of a particular style on our sale table with a prominent sign explaining that they are on sale because they are discontinued and the last we have available, yet still the customer brings one over to the order counter and says â€œI want 10 of this styleâ€ ? Too many to count.
So if intuitive connection was not being made, and technical explanation was too complex, and signage went unread, what was left to do?
The answer â€“ amazingly simple â€“ was right in front of us in our own marketing materials and allowed us to demonstrate concept and illustrate product all at the same time.
Think back to grammar school: your composition teacher told you to â€œshow, donâ€™t tell,â€ and your math teacher told you to â€œshow your work.â€ We needed to â€œshowâ€ our customers what we wanted them to do. And how do you show without getting too wordy? Use pictures. Because a picture is worth a thousand words.
Thus the concept of our Illustrative Instructional Displays was born. With very little verbiage, we use a mounting board (hint, sublimatable aluminum) and attach actual photos, blank sublimatable stock, and completed items to show customers how their pictures on our products result in one-of-a-kind gifts and keepsakes. Each display illustrates just one particular product. However, easing our concerns about creating too many examples for â€œfree,â€ we have found by strategically placing these displays throughout our store and near groupings of similar sublimatable products that our customers now do make the intuitive jump from seeing how one particular product is created to applying it to others where just blank product is displayed.
In creating our illustrative displays, we also took typical customersâ€™ behaviors into consideration. First, despite the fact that customers always want to know what options are available (e.g., sizes, shapes, colors, compatibility with accessories) and how much it costs, we deliberately left this information off the display. Including it would add much more text, discouraging some (many?) from taking time to scan the display at all. Furthermore, such information would necessarily require updates of the display if/when product options and/or pricing were to change. Instead, we simply tape a dated index card to the back of the display, listing options and prices, for use by store personnel as a â€œcheat sheetâ€ for talking with customers. If the date on the card is more than a few months old, we know we need to check with our suppliers before promising options and quoting prices.
Second, customers like to touch. They like to pick things up, turn them over, experience how they feel. For that reason, we â€œattachâ€ both the blank product and completed example to our backing in such a way that they can easily be removed and examined by the customer.
Third, customers want to know how to display. Again, while this may seem intuitive to us, who have seen the products in supplier catalogs and know that the plank with cup hooks is a key holder or the rectangular piece of metal is really a magnetic dry erase board, showing the completed example in a manner that illustrates its end use subconsciously assists the customer in reaching a purchasing decision.
SubliSLATE is still one of my favorite products, and my finished sample featuring Shadow is still one of my favorite examples in the store. Shadow still waits eagerly from behind the counter for customers to notice her. The only thing that has changed is our increased sales of sublimated products due to our customersâ€™ understanding that their pictures on our products creates a one-of-a-kind keepsake. And that smile on their face when they see their unique item for the first time, thatâ€™s a picture thatâ€™s worth a thousand words.
Michaele Birney Arneson
5423 S. Tacoma Way
Tacoma, WA 98409