Last year, businesses were facing unprecedented times, experiencing business disruption and full closures due to the spread of COVID-19. Now, one year into the pandemic, we’re catching up with companies to get their thoughts on the last 12 months and outlooks for 2021.
When talks of COVID-19 first began, what were your first thoughts and implementations during that Feb/March time Frame?
We had an idea early on that there may be a significant impact to our industry. When schools started closing, and along with it sports and extra-curricular activities, that was a pretty good sign this could be a prolonged event that could hurt small businesses, notably trophy and awards shops. Traditionally they’d spend March and April ramping up for end-of-the-year awards for schools. In 2020, that was significantly less than previous years … if it happened at all. Having never managed through a pandemic before, I don’t think any of us were aware of the length of time businesses, in general, would be affected.
How did those initial thoughts compare to JPP/Rowmark’s experiences over the last year?
Both Rowmark and Johnson Plastics Plus had to make a quick shift in the products we were manufacturing and selling. Thankfully, we’ve got a very talented production team at Rowmark, and they were able to move to make clear acrylic barriers. There was a shortage of transparent, clear material for face shields for first responders and medical professionals with the pipeline for certain plastic resins drying up in late March. Rowmark was also able to make a very thin, clear acrylic for face shields that helped fill the void in the marketplace.
On the Johnson Plastics Plus side, we saw an almost instant demand for sublimatable face masks and other face coverings. Our product team worked closely with our vendors, and we were able to offer fabric face masks in a matter of weeks from the time the virus was first identified as a public threat. At the end of the day, it was a change for everyone in what and to whom we were selling.
What actions has the company taken over the last year concerning operations, interacting with customers, philanthropy, etc.?
When the lockdowns hit, it was right around the start of trade show season. We knew we wouldn’t be able to meet face to face with customers for some time, so we made an almost instant switch to live webinars that people could attend from home. It was a great way to stay connected with our customers and answer their questions in real-time.
We still wanted to give customers the product information and the ability to see what’s new in our product lines, so our marketing and web team created a virtual trade show experience. All told, we created more than 60 new videos, more than 100 new sign designs, and more than 120 free design templates. All of that happened in a matter of months!
Finally, we were blessed that the Rowmark team was able to make and donate face shields to medical personnel and first responders who needed them. Johnson Plastics Plus also did a fundraiser centered around the company’s 50th anniversary. The company gave a portion of sales over 50 days to Feeding America, which ended with a donation that totaled more than $13,000.
Between then and now, how much have things changed?
Everyone is still trying to find what the normal is going to look like. Johnson Plastics Plus continues to see significant increases in heat transfer printers, sublimation printers, and sublimation blanks. Many sublimators have moved from making the high-demand face masks to other items. We continue to align ourselves in providing sublimators with the blanks and supplies they need to succeed in a still challenging business world. The sign shops and trophy industry continues to be down in sales for us, but we are preparing for a June/July rebound in these segments.
What has the business learned over the last year?
If 2020 was the year of sudden change, I think 2021 will be the year of flexibility. This past year caught everyone by surprise and forced us to make fundamental shifts in how we do business. Now that we’ve made that adjustment, we’ll need to put what we learned in 2020 into practice in 2021.
We don’t know when “normal” will return or what it will look like when it does. Being flexible will be critical, and as a supplier, that’s what we’re aiming for. I’d also recommend that retailers communicate with their suppliers about what products they’re looking to be successful. That’s been one of the biggest challenges with not having in-person trade shows: the open conversation with customers about where their businesses are heading and feedback on what products they’d like to see to help their businesses grow. Don’t be afraid to reach out and tell us what you need to succeed!
How do you see the next six months to a year going, both for your company and the industry as a whole?
We’re planning for 2021 to really be two parts. The first part of the year will be much like most of 2020, with a focus on the products retailers wanted for the bulk of the summer and fall. Of course, face masks were popular, particularly for retailers with sublimation and heat transfer. But we also saw an uptick in home decor items and products for home offices. This is a result of the shift of people working from home and spending more time there. We anticipate that it will continue through the first half of the year.
Forecasting the second half of the year will be interesting. We think there will be a continued demand for new and interesting items for sublimation and heat transfer, as many customers added those technologies to their businesses or started home-based businesses. Our product development team is working on an entire offering of products that we think will excite that segment of the business.
We also saw a renewed interest in engravable products, particularly with customers adding small format lasers to their home-based businesses. We believe that will continue, and we’ll be adding products specifically for laser and rotary engraving.
Finally, we’ve really tried to be conscious of the new business models that many retailers have adopted in 2020 and carry that over to 2021. Traditional brick-and-mortar retail shops are now offering curbside pickup as well as shipping more items than ever before. We saw the impact of that on shipping companies such as FedEx and UPS, who hit pipeline capacity well before the holiday rush this year. So offering products that can be easily shipped and come in their own packaging for easy delivery will continue to (be the) focus for 2021 and beyond.
Stay tuned for more pandemic follow-ups from companies around the graphics and printing industry, and check out our catch-ups with other companies here.