Surviving Campaign Signage

How can print shops withstand election season – and turn a profit?
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Depending on where you live in the country, the view out your window right now might look very different than mine. In Arizona, we’re just beginning to put on light jackets in the morning for our daily commute. But in Maine, there’s a good chance that more than a few people are digging out their cars from the latest snowfall. Regardless of your locale, for a time, the view out both our windows was most likely the same – a sea of red, white and blue election signs.

The 2016 presidential, state and local elections are done and in the books. Whichever way you lean politically, you were probably happy to see the many campaign signs dotting yards, streets and telephone poles across your city come down. The variety of sign shapes and sizes, and their many colors, names, slogans and promises, can be an eyesore, but according to a report released last year by a host of professors from Columbia, Binghamton and Old Dominion Universities, they do make a difference in an election, which is great news to the print shops producing them all across the country.

But as more and more campaign signs are produced each year for everything from local school board elections to state-wide propositions, how do signshops cope with fast turnaround times, tight budgets, cash-strapped candidates and campaign managers who need inventory produced yesterday? How do they stay competitive and nimble, and not lose their shirt in the 24/7 lead-up to voting day? To the signshops trying to survive until the next Election Day, it’s all about keeping customers happy, making sure they’re meeting demand – and keeping a healthy cash flow.

If the customer ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy
Think back 17 years to 1999. The world was anxiously awaiting the consequences of the infamous Y2K bug, the movie “The Sixth Sense” had everyone seeing dead people and John Elway led the Denver Broncos to a 34-to-19 win over the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl XXXIII. It’s also the same year Steve Grubbs launched his online signshop, VictoryStore.com (Davenport, IA).

In the world of campaign signage where candidates are looking for the best deal and fastest turnaround, Grubbs got creative to stay ahead of the competition. While half of the households in the country were still using America Online to dial in, VictoryStore.com was pioneering design-it-yourself online space for campaign and election yard signs, as well as sports team signs, realtor signs and more.

Giving campaigns the ability to customize their own signage using pre-built templates, like signs in the shape of an apple for teachers or a star for sheriffs, was a huge hit. “Giving [customers] more control over their order not only helped us to differentiate our business in the marketplace,” Grubbs said, “it also helped us save on back-end design time.”

To meet the demand for speedy turn times, especially on a national stage where quick-order mega-sites like Vistaprint have made it harder to compete, VictoryStore.com also built a system for same-day shipping in which an order of 100 signs or fewer placed by 10 a.m. will ship by 5 p.m. the same day. It’s a simple approach to gaining and retaining customers. And no surprise, they love it.

The company also purchased two high-speed, direct-to-print Novus digital printers, and makes sure to staff up for its peak season. “From August 1 to around October 20, we black out the calendar and run two shifts a day, seven days a week,” said Grubbs. “We tend to have a lot of OT during that time, but our clients come to us for exactly this reason.” They get the signs they need when they want them and, Grubbs pointed out, the staff appreciates the extra pay.

Meeting demand, one backbreaking day at a time
Just like tax season, when CPAs work days, nights and weekends for months straight, businesses producing campaign signage are slammed for months out of the year. It’s worse on even-numbered years, but that’s the election cycle.

“It goes like this,” said Jason Worrix, general manager and art director at My Campaign Store (Louisville, KY): “January through March, we’re running at around 50% capacity. For the other half of the year, we’re at 80-100%. But during election season, we hit 150% of capacity.”

Typically, a candidate’s campaign goes live sometime in June or July. They spend the next month or so fundraising, seeking donors to help cover the cost of not just the campaign, events and airtime, but also the signage. By the time they raise enough money to place an order, it’s nearly Election Day. So, missing a deadline for print projects isn’t an option.

But Worrix believes this time crunch can also be a benefit. “It’s a known quantity. Because I know when the cycle begins, I add extra staff before we need it, to allow time for training and get them up to speed.” During the last several seasons, the company has brought on 10 full-time temporary employees, usually for more labor-intensive functions like cutting, grommeting and mounting, and they work days, nights, weekends and even holidays to meet demand.

And it’s worked. For 23 years, My Campaign Store has quickly delivered high-quality political products at a reasonable cost to campaigns throughout the country. Worrix also attributes the company’s success to its desire to do right by its customers first, which sometimes means turning away business so other orders can be completed on time. “You can’t allow yourself to get overwhelmed,” Worrix cautioned. “You have to take care of the house first.” Mind your business, or you won’t have one for long.

Remember how many Republican candidates there were for President this year? Sixteen. Only one made it through the primaries, which meant there were 15 campaigns that simply dried up, some overnight. That’s a lot of election sign-age left in the trash. Or unpaid. And it happens all across the country.

“We learned early on to get money up front,” said J.J. Heim, owner and president of IMS Printing & Signs in Lone Tree, CO. For the first few years of the company’s 14-year history, they were taken advantage of by some local candidates and their campaigns – sometimes people they knew well. As a result, Heim said, they now require payment on all projects before any work begins.

More than 1,000 miles away, Steve Sommers, co-owner of Stamprint, a 51-year-old print shop in South Bend, IN, echoed Heim’s sentiment: “You can’t go to a restaurant and order food on credit. You can’t ask your material supplier to trust that you’ll pay them next week. They don’t put their business at risk, so why should you?”

Both shops have lost potential customers because of their upfront-payment policies, but as Sommers pointed out, that decision doesn’t cost them anything either. “Collection is a pain and a major waste of your productive time,” he said. “So be proud of the work you do, and charge a good price. If a prospect can’t respect that, you’re probably better off without them.”

How not to lose your shirt: Diversify
There’s a reason the adage “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” exists. There’s more risk involved with owning your own business if it only does one thing. “The election season isn’t long enough to sustain a shop,” Heim said. “You can’t let 20% of your year account for 80% of your revenue or you’ll feel that squeeze for months on end.”

His solution? Offer a diverse portfolio of products rather than being a one-trick-pony shop. “Find other products you’re passionate about. Seek them out and make them available to your customers,” he said. “It gives you something else to produce and find enjoyment in throughout the year.”

Grubbs couldn’t agree more. VictoryStore.com sells hundreds of customizable products, from school apparel and sports gear to laptop skins and life-size standups. And with more than seven million pieces shipping out each year, Grubbs and his crew don’t have to sweat the non-election years in-between.

Back in Indiana, Stamprint is finding success in custom manufacturing sign frames, the very same ones their own company uses for election signage, for other local print shops. “It’s something like 10,000 pieces a year,” said Sommers. “So not only are we saving money by producing them ourselves instead of buying from someone else; now we’re the ones selling them.”

As the nation looks toward a new President being sworn in next month, either with satisfaction or ire – or maybe even ambivalence – we can all agree that this year’s election was one that will be talked about for years. Hopefully, for a time, the manufacturers who produced that sea of colorful campaign signage out your window and mine can breathe a collective sigh of relief – at least until the cycle begins anew.

Then, as with any election season, it’s anyone’s guess what comes next.