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Signage Industry Trends Driven to Distraction

202110Rr Driven To Distraction Wanted Poster
202110Rr Driven To Distraction Poster

When we think of display graphics in the automotive industry, the first thing that springs to mind is vehicle graphics, be they consumer wraps for passenger cars or fleet graphics for commercial vans and trucks.

But display graphics are taking on new roles as a subset of experiential or environmental graphics for auto dealer showrooms. As the auto sales experience is changing post-COVID (as are so many things), and more auto sales move online to sites like Carvana, display graphics are also in a state of flux. 

Here in My Car

The auto segment is an important one for some industry vendors. Avery Dennison, for example, makes vehicle wrapping films, and as a result have a major presence not just at graphic communications industry events such as PRINTING United and ISA, but also at auto-specific industry shows such as SEMA (Specialty Equipment Marketing Association). 

“Industry shows, like SEMA, ISA and others have always been important to us as a way to connect face-to-face with our customers and the many signage and print shops that use Avery Dennison graphic and vehicle wrapping films,” said David Korvah, marketing manager for Avery Dennison Graphics Solutions. “For shops and converters working within the automotive aftermarket segment, SEMA has been an especially important showcase to demonstrate the range of color, performance and creativity of our films. While we don’t typically compare shows, as the market segments differ, we do value these shows and look forward to the return of in-person events, like SEMA this year.” 

It’s important to keep trade shows in mind, as one of the pre-pandemic trends in automotive dealership experiential graphics had been to more and more emulate a trade show environment.

“Just like healthcare migrated from an institutional environment to a patient-experience environment, when you go into an auto dealership, it was less institutional,” said Scott Kozaruk, senior director of experiential design, product services and solutions, Sign & Graphics Division of Alliance Franchise Brands. “So from an experiential side, there were large-format graphics. Take Audi, for example, and their pursuit for performance since the RS 6 back in 2000. And they would go from nostalgic Audi applications to relevant performance-based thinking using large format. When you walked into the dealership, you’d see large graphics on which an Audi was driving down Big Sur at a high rate of speed conveying the sensation of performance. The environment in the auto dealership was starting to emulate more of an auto show type of atmosphere creating a buyer experience.”

Kozaruk is based near Detroit, Mich., and thus is intimately familiar with the U.S. auto industry. 

One thing that changed during the pandemic and may or may not persist post-COVID (if there ever is a post-COVID) is that the car-buying process transformed from a visit to the showroom in person, take a test drive, and, if you found the right car, spend an inordinate amount of time in the dealership filling out forms.

“You were encouraged to sit in the car, touch and feel it, but the pandemic shut that down and created a situation where it was by appointment and only a handful of people could walk into a dealership at one time,” said Kozaruk. “The showroom environment was on ice. You could buy a car over the internet from an auto dealership and they would deliver it to your driveway. That’s not to say that that didn’t require some amount of signage—social distancing, curbside pickup, curbside drop-off. It was adaptive.”

Online Traffic

Buying a car online is nothing new, but sites like Carvana are driving a lot of potential car buyers away from their local dealerships and online. However, there can be a hitch to this—and display graphics providers are helping solve one of these folks’ problems. 

“As the car business develops and constantly is adapting to new technologies, signage will follow,” said Maggie Harlow, president and CEO of Signarama Downtown Louisville (Ky.). “Even Carvana buys signs. They may not have traditional dealerships, but they certainly have facilities.”

In fact, in some states, such as Kentucky, car dealers are required to have a brick-and-mortar location—sometimes even in the city in which they want to do business.

“It’s an interesting model for car dealers,” she continued, “because despite the online business model, in a lot of states, legally, they still have to have a physical presence.”

In fact, Signarama Downtown recently completed a project for a local Kentucky car dealer that was required to have a facility in Louisville.

“They have a facility here, and we did signage for them,” Harlow said. “We put graphics on their windows to literally cover the windows because they don’t have a traditional brick-and-mortar retail site. So while the model keeps adapting, we just have to keep adapting along with it.” 

202110Rr Driven To Distraction Pole

Dealing with Dealers

There are opportunities for sign providers in working with auto dealers, but there can be challenges in breaking into that market. For example, a lot of auto dealerships are franchises. 

“Their franchises provide a lot of signage, so that sometimes limits what you can do,” Harlow said. “What we try to focus on are things like if they’re doing remodeling or they’re doing a build-out, or maybe they’re trying to brand their waiting area or do something unique. That’s when we can have an opportunity to help. Or it might be direction wayfinding on the campus of the dealership. But it is a challenge because they do have a ton of resources at their fingertips.”

Another challenge is that the dealerships may already have relationships and agreements with the big national sign companies and franchises, so if you’re a small, independent sign shop, that can be another hurdle to clear. Harlow recommends a more local approach.

“It might be visiting with the dealership staff who might need the actual help,” she said, “and stopping in at the used car lot to find the sales manager to talk about specific products. Maybe it’s pole banners, or maybe it’s an A-frame sign with their hours of operation, maybe stopping into the service shop and looking for the service manager and asking if they need any parking signs or decals for window or floor graphics to help direct traffic or for COVID. You might actually look at going to the locals on the ground and talking to them.”

Harlow identifies another opportunity, one that is more on the construction side, and working directly with a large sign company that may be handling the project.

“Talk to some of these large sign companies that might be opening a new facility—it seems like they’re building new showrooms all the time,” she said. “The manufacturer requires these dealers to constantly upgrade their facilities, so if you see construction start, reach out to that construction company, get an introduction to the provider of the signs, and find out if they need help with installation or help with site surveys and that kind of thing.”

Kozaruk has been tracking a new kind of auto showroom that has emerged: “boutique” dealerships, not unlike boutique hotels. For example, there is the Marriott, and then there are several lines of smaller Marriott Bonvoy boutique hotels. A boutique dealership operates on the same basic principle.

“A smaller venue, higher-end, better level of customer service,” said Kozaruk. “Here in the Detroit area, I’ve seen these boutique dealerships where they might be a Jeep dealer or a Ford dealer and they have an experiential environment, which might not have more than 10 or 15 cars in it at any given time. But it’s a sales venue, and I’ve done several of those interiors using large-format graphics, creating an environment that has actual artwork, and a more highbrow presentation and experience for the client.”

Recovering from the Recovery

During the year of COVID, there was a sense that all the trends that COVID had spawned—work at home, accelerated e-commerce, etc.—would continue post-COVID. In some cases, that hasn’t been the case—e-commerce as a percentage of all retail spiked in 2020 but has been returning to the same basic rate of adoption as before the pandemic. Are the trends we have been seeing in auto sales likely to continue? 

“I think people in general—myself included—want to sit in a new car and be able to experience it,” said Kozaruk. “I see things in recovery going back a little bit old school, using graphics and signage and printable material to create an experience to encourage people that it’s OK to come back into the dealership environment, to get people to come back in the door, that they feel that it’s an environment that they’re protected in.”

(All images courtesy Signarama Downtown.)

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