Sun, Nov

Dare to be different

Dare to be different

 To market its bespoke printed furniture Digital Plus is showing off its wares and taking orders at a bookshop. Co-founder Owen Russell explains the rationale.

It takes a certain amount of guts as well as determination to actively seek out new markets. Many are the stories of those who have spotted a potential opening only to find they waste months of management time trying to 'sell' the application into a would-be new customer base without getting very far. Yet the lure of higher margin niches cannot be ignored so how do you get your foot through the door and make people take notice of what you have to offer? As far as Digital Plus is concerned, it's about creating another entrance. The Leeds-based digital wide-format printer has opened a high street outlet within a book store to show-off its latest offering - bespoke printed furniture.

"Another banner is another banner and everyone wants the cheapest, so we decided to go out and create ourselves a niche where we could make a better profit," says Owen Russell, who formed Digital Plus as an early adopter of digital wide-format with co-director Chris Strigwell back in 1990. Now with a staff of 15 and a turnover of ?1m+ the company actively seeks out new market opportunities and invests in kit that will give it the chance to deliver something a little bit different - the most recent installation being the UK's first Oce Arizona 350 XT flatbed which Digital Plus has named Liberty because of the flexibility it gives the company in developing new print applications.

"We want to make the most of the Arizona and in an area where there is more margin. Printing flat-pack furniture seemed a good opportunity and when Chris and I first started talking about it a few months ago there was really no market so we had to look at the situation from every angle," explains Russell, who admits research has been a time consuming process. "It's been a real learning curve and we're still investigating how best to sell the service, but we think showing actual pieces of furniture that we've printed to the consumer in a store setting is as direct a marketing scheme as any and we believe it will create a real stir.

"Chris and I decided that we would actively go out and look for an established business with room to grow, that had lots passing foot traffic and that attracted customers with time to browse. And we found Browse Time, a well-known book store in the market town of Otley near the Yorkshire Dales where there is something of a tourist trade as well as local business," enthuses Russell. "The idea is that we'll have selected pieces of printed furniture in a section of that store and sell directly to the public under the brand 'Expressive Furniture', taking one-off orders for items printed with an image selected from a catalogue of options that customers can choose from. We'll also offer bespoke canvases etc. It will all be ready in good time for Christmas shopping."

This is not Digital Plus's only route to market with its flat-pack furniture print service. The company sees this as a great advertising medium and has already done some work with Carlsberg. It is also currently working on tables for use within a new reception for a homeless project at St George's Crypt near Leeds.

"We are talking to a whole range of people about the potential for this furniture. Some have already bought into it and others are trialling it," says Russell. "At the moment one of the most time consuming processes is finding decent furniture suppliers. Currently we buy the flat-pack furniture ourselves, image it and sell it on as a finished item. We want to take the pain away for people who would like to buy this bespoke furniture - they don't want to have to source the unprinted cabinets etc. - we have to handle the project from start to finish."

Russell and Strigwell understand that they need to raise the profile of Digital Plus and put its services right under the noses of those holding sway in what it sees as potential new markets, and with that in mind attends exhibitions within those sectors. The company has also taken on the services of a public relations company to get its message across in those markets. "We are switched on to the fact that we need to educate people about what we can offer them. We need to sell ourselves and get the message out there," accepts Russell.

For instance, in another niche market for Digital Plus - school interiors - the company approached a major specialist supplier of materials to the education sector and explained what it could deliver in terms of graphics - the idea being that the supplier will spread the word to the ears of those willing to listen.

"Sometimes you come upon niche markets almost by accident but then you have to work to make the most of them," says Russell, explaining that Digital Plus became involved in producing school corridor graphics via an architect that had seen banners produced by Digital Plus for schools. "He was working on a new build school in Pudsey and wanted a long blank wall covered in long lasting graphics. We came up with a solution that was hard-wearing and repairable which suited him so we produced 300m2 of graphics onto a vinyl with a special laminate. We've done more wall coverings in the sector since that 2008 project and now we're also targeting universities and colleges etc."

Museum graphics and retail shelving displays are yet other valuable niches for Digital Graphics, which has extended its creative team specifically to move the business on into new realms. "We have two designers now and they can create mock-ups etc. which make it much easier when you're trying to explain a concept to someone," says Russell. "We have to be creative, both in terms of what we offer and in how we get those offerings to market. We're beginning to see our bespoke/niche items pay off and margins are improving. If we were a posted printer we'd be out of business by noon."

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