You might think it’s best to have a book of business in every possible market, but niche-based selling has plenty of perks.
By establishing yourself as an expert in specific fields, you establish yourself as a consultant rather than solely a product provider. Here are six industries that are buying what you’re selling.
Play means serious business for Pulse Marketing and Apparel.
The company does about $25,000 annually with one major client that provides poker gear and works on tournaments. As a result of that relationship, Pulse has been introduced to and completed projects for other major poker-related organizations. These referrals have turned poker into a $50,000 annual category for the company.
That revenue is likely to grow. Adam Wright, the owner of Pulse, says the company has what he calls “an awesome relationship” with the original poker-related client. “They were a startup that we got involved with since day one,” he says. “A former client changed jobs and brought us with him to the new company. Poker was just starting to be televised and had become very popular and they harnessed the television audience and our imprinting methods and apparel for even more visibility.”
The players’ apparel was well thought out. For TV purposes, Wright pitched certain imprint methods and locations to the client. First, it needed to be easily picked up by the cameras. Other considerations: “It can be cold in poker rooms, so we created a hoodie for the players to keep them warm,” he says. “When they look down at their cards, the logo is visible on the top of the hood. We also put logos on the cuffs because the camera shows the players hands a lot.”
He did his research before presenting options by watching a few poker matches on TV to find out the players’ habits and the camera angles that were used to make televised poker compelling. “Using that knowledge, we recommended large imprints and multi-format methods (screen-printing combined with embroidery, 3D patches) and put them in the locations we knew would get picked up.”
The products were intended to drive traffic to the client’s website. Seeing the name and URL of the company on TV drove the audience to visit the site. While the orders from the client are relatively small, they are high dollar. “They want these players in top-quality, comfortable garments so that they’ll want to wear them and get use out of them voluntarily,” says Wright. “The extra expense is justified by the exposure.”
That exposure is also a perk for working in this niche. “Seeing your product on TV is probably the most fun,” he says. “And seeing the players who you've outfitted win the whole thing is also really exhilarating.”
FINANCIAL MINUTE: If you stumble upon a niche, try and find other similar clients quickly. A lot of them will be underserviced or using a website search to find the products they want. “Knowing that they can have personal treatment from a good promotional products/apparel company goes a long way,” says Wright. “Most of them didn't know a company like ours existed until we introduced ourselves.”
Selling to the tobacco industry might not be for everyone. That’s a big reason why Todd Ruetsch, president at Printing & Promotional Solutions (asi/299972), has unearthed seven figures in this niche.
A current client introduced him to a decision maker for a tobacco company about 15 months ago. “It seemed like an untapped market,” he says. “There are so many people calling on the same markets that I knew it would be advantageous to my company to ask for the introduction.”
Initially, Ruetsch wanted to work on the packaging end, so he started out in the market by selling corrugated packaging. After walking through one of the facilities, he got the idea to sell promotional products. “I’ve never gone through a grocery store and saw anything that said ‘Buy five packs of cigarettes and get a free keychain,’” he says.
Once he flew back home, he did some research and learned that some of the largest cigarette manufacturers have reward programs where customers can cut off the UPC code, collect points and trade them in for merchandise. That was his entry point for selling promotional products.
In speaking with his contact, Ruetsch learned that global purchasing is also under their umbrella. After developing the relationship even more, he was able to sell big-ticket items not even four months into the relationship. “I knew that they weren’t looking for cheap items,” he says. “They tested the waters and the first order I got was for $14,000. Then, it was a purchase order for $480,000 for 200,000 ash trays.”
He also asked how the company used promotional products in the past. “They did have some existing products,” he says. “They rolled out items before and they didn’t work. They wanted me to take everything over and keep the price the same or save money.”
As Ruetsch visited other locations, he noticed that each promotional product was coming from a different place. “I talked to them about consolidating and bringing everything into one area,” he says. “The purchase center could deal with different markets and keep an eye on what’s hot in each market.” The CEO asked for a proposal, and the rest is history. “We have a global fulfillment program for all of their promotional products,” he says. “We source all items through our manufacturers and ship to numerous locations globally.”
FINANCIAL MINUTE: Find an added value for your client. “Our added value was our global fulfillment program,” he says. However, your client may have a more limited scope, so pay close attention to what your client is looking for. If they are expressing a need for a streamlined approach for products, consider an online store that you can manage.
The United States has one of the largest automotive markets in the world, and Marsha Londe, CEO of Tango Partners, put her two children through college selling to this industry. “While I didn’t go after a bevy of car haulers, this one niche client (a car hauler she sold to for 20 years) was highly lucrative because of a safety program,” she says.
The client hauled cars and trucks from car makers to dealerships and she started out selling products for management to use as customer gifts. Of course, there’s usually more than one opportunity with any client; in this case, a safety program was in the works.
“The objective was to deliver the cars in perfect condition as any scratch, dent, or ding during delivery cost profit from the dealership and fees in insurance claims,” says Londe. “And the work could be dangerous, so driver safety was even more critical.”
The instructions for the program included 12 gifts for $1 or less with the gift to be something the driver could use in his work, such as a ruler for use in his log book. Londe didn’t know how drivers would respond to a 50-cent ruler as a reward, so she went to a terminal and interviewed them. “I climbed into the cab of one of the trucks (with permission, of course), spoke with a group of drivers in their break room before they headed for the road, checked out merchandise available at truck stops, and made my presentation,” she says. The committee chose nine of her items, and thus began her niche.
Londe enjoyed becoming an expert on what the drivers preferred. When traveling, she would browse truck stops and ask to speak with the drivers. “I wasn’t coming up with ideas for a category of recipient; I knew my audience personally, so when I saw items at industry shows or when reps made a presentation, I knew exactly what would work for my client,” she says. By talking to the end-user, she became an information source for management on what drivers liked and wanted.
After becoming involved in the safety program, Londe connected with and developed programs for the logistics department, mechanics and general office staff. Each group had different tastes and needs, so while a cup might seem to be a good idea for office staff, it had to be covered and unbreakable for the drivers. “As I honed in on the needs and recipient of each group, the quality of items purchased changed,” she says. “The company realized the effect and value of the right product choice and began upgrading their selection.”
FINANCIAL MINUTE: Sometimes niche market decision-makers have pre-conceived notions. Of course they know their industry best, but your ideas may be fresh and different, allowing them to differentiate from their competitors. “Always give them what they ask for, but also present what they need and what will work,” says Londe. “Guide them to focus on the desired influence on the actual recipient, not simply to select based on their own preferences and taste.”
Manufacturing supports about one in six private-sector jobs in the U.S. The safety of all those employees is of the utmost concern to those employers.
Ruth Verver, partner at Paperclip Promotions (asi/290142), works with manufacturing companies on recruiting and safety awards. “We discovered the niche not long after we opened our doors in 2007,” she says. “Since then, most of our manufacturing contacts have come to us over time via referrals.”
Early in the relationship, one such client had been giving out cash as a safety incentive. However, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began frowning on cash gifts, Paperclip Promotions came to the rescue with safety awards. “It’s terrific for our industry,” she says. “It was this change that helped propel the accounts from annual cap and calendar orders to larger safety incentive projects.”
Some plants order awards on a quarterly basis for individuals that meet a requirement, so the quantity fluctuates each quarter based on how many employees are being rewarded. “Others wait and see if their overall annual goals have been met and then reward everyone at the plant with the same item,” she says. The most popular items have been jackets, mini compressors and large folding chairs.
Manufacturing trade shows also presents opportunities for big bucks. “This year, a customer was attending a show in San Diego and really wanted something that would help them stand out beyond the show floor,” says Verver. “We did totally custom sunglasses for them with a custom edge-to-edge print on the temples and a small imprint on the lens.” The sunglasses were a hit, as the client saw tradeshow attendees wearing the sunglasses all around San Diego. “They ordered 1,500 for the show and then did another 1,500 for their salespeople to hand out to their many clients that weren't at the show,” she says.
Verver also points out that working with a niche makes you a smarter salesperson. “The more you talk to different customers in the same group, the more you learn and the better you can service those accounts,” she says. “For example, in working on a safety promotion, we found the need to learn more about how different companies use Leading and Lagging Indicators to measure safety. Once we knew the importance of those elements, we were able to use the lingo to talk to other accounts and further our relationship with them based on that expertise.”
That niche expertise has paid off. Annually, manufacturing companies generate about $400,000 in sales volume for Paperclip Promotions.
FINANCIAL MINUTE: Find one niche that ignites your passion. “Helping to promote and reward U.S. manufacturing is very exciting to us, and the people in that industry are wonderful to work with,” says Verver. “The customer has a large role in identifying the niche for you. Claiming it yourself is a little premature. Listen for feedback and once you validate that several customers are getting a return on their investment from your promotions, you’ll know the niche is yours.”
Aside from the good feelings that come from saving the environment, there is also a lot of money to be made in this niche.
Thomas Rector, CEO of Rector Communications (asi/305623), dove into the clean energy market about five years ago. A good friend from college worked for the state of Indiana’s Department of Energy office and that contact put Rector in touch with a number of clean energy accounts.
“Our most recent account is IND Solar Farm, the largest solar farm in the country to be built on the grounds of an airport,” he says. “Because the IND Solar Farm was one of the first farms of its kind in the country, we were able to be creative in how we helped promote it.”
The ground breaking took place in early spring in Indiana. It was still cold outside, so the easy promotion resolution was to supply volunteers, sponsors and staff with shell jackets and long-sleeve polos embroidered in three locations. “In addition to apparel, we supplied the traditional ground-breaking materials such as hard hats, commemorative shovels, giant scissors and ribbons,” he says. They also supplied solar cell chargers, silicone iPhone speakers, luggage tags, pens, lanyards and water bottles to community leaders, press, and supporters.
Following the ground breaking, Rector Communications was asked to help with a number of ongoing promotions. “Many were used for outreach as staff would travel the state and country representing the pioneer work that was happening at the Indianapolis Airport,” he says. “We tried to be creative, but also responsible, as this is a green project so our promotional products should be as well.”
Rector researched and talked with a number of reps finding their best and most popular recycled, biodegradable, sustainable or refurbished products. At the end of the day, the IND Solar Farm used slap-type can coolers (made of recycled car tires), pens (made of recycled plastic and biodegradable ink), drawstring clinch bags (made of recycled plastics), notepads (made of recycled paper), carabiners (made of recycled aluminum) and wooden airplanes (a biodegradable product). “Our big-ticket items included solar backpacks, solar cell chargers and additional shell jackets,” he says.
The clean energy niche fits in well with the mission at Rector Communications: to change the world by finding inventive ways to use traditional products. “Our involvement in this niche is allowing our team to support a project that is changing a culture and lessening the world’s reliance on fossil fuels,” he says.
Overall, Rector Communications generates over $200,000 in annual sales from the green energy niche. The IND Solar Farm project itself generates between $75,000 and $100,000.
FINANCIAL MINUTE: Sell to a niche market for a bigger reason than the money that’s available. The sales volume is nice, and important to sustain a business, but you should be interested in the market because you care about what it can do to support the greater good.