Can the Indian outdoor signage industry come back?

Not so fast! says the outdoor signage and the research

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signage
Rib-tickling signs by the Border Roads Organization

The most outstanding outdoor innovation in the Delhi NCR in the past two years seems to be installing cameras on the roads to take photos of speeding vehicles. The images of the lawbreakers are sent along with challans on What’s App and eMail eliciting digital payments of the fines. These are steep – often Rs. 1500 or Rs. 2000.

The net result has been a fantastic improvement in driving behavior and traffic movement in the Delhi NCR. We drivers have spotted all the cameras and religiously slow down even more than needed as the cameras come on the horizon. Fewer cars are tempted to speed and overtake, although the die-hards still cannot understand the concept of orderly traffic being safer and faster for every vehicle on the road. They do not know that they are only racing to the next red light or contributing to the chaos that perplexes and complexes all of us – ultimately slowing the traffic throughput and negatively affecting the productivity of our various day-to-day tasks.

The pandemic brought a flurry of webinars, including retailers, brand experts, advertising, and signage experts. They talked about the hyperlocal value of signage. As if a sign in our neighborhood would point us to a local product or service. Even our cellphones don’t do that yet, at least in our country. (In Japan, you merely point your cell phone at a building – the restaurants within come on your screen together with their cuisine and menu and the available seats. I would call this active signage, but it has not come to India yet.)

maquettes Yatharth Hostpital Photo IPP
Larger than life maquettes ‘Salute to Doctors’ by Yatharth Hospital on DND Expressway in August and September 2021 Photo Indian Printer and Publisher

A revival of outdoor signage

However, I have seen a revival of outdoor signage on the DND that connects Delhi to Noida. First, it was only in the direction going to Delhi – perhaps in homage to the heavy traffic in that direction in the morning, and now it has, in September 2021, come up on the other side too. We have also had about a dozen 3D larger than life statuettes of health workers and doctors set up by Yatharth Hospital that reminds us to be grateful for their services in saving most of us from the pandemic. This is good branding even though it had to be covered up with plastic sheets for a few days of heavy rain after being first installed, and one suspects it could have been produced by one of the large 3D machines now available.

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Road signage industry is doing well even in the pandemic

It has not all been terrible for signage producers and printers during the pandemic. Some of the larger retail chains, such as Reliance, have continued building and opening stores during the pandemic. We have heard that as many 300 new stores have opened requiring new outdoor and indoor signage. Other areas that have done well are the road signage industry, a new development requiring large weather-proof permanent signage as highway and road building has revived for the past year. However, an important distributor and manufacturer of wide-format signage devices reports hardly any sales in the past six
months.

The state of fashion or the refashioning of retail

A story in Signage4Growth discusses some of the branding and signage issues and the way ahead for fashion retailers. It says that Mckinsey’s ‘The State of Fashion 2021’ report expects sleeker, more focused offerings and less focussed on retail stories to emerge from the destruction by the 2020 pandemic, using automated and omnichannel services. This is also being somehow linked to sustainability or at least the perception of sustainability amongst consumers.

The report points to the downsizing of stores globally, with 20,000 to 25,000 stores expected to close in the United States in 2020, double the number in 2019. “Zara said that it plans to cut 1,200 stores over two years and invest Euro billion in store-based digital.”

The McKenzie report suggests that the physical channel of the future will combine the best of human and automated services— “the beginning of a truly ‘bionic’ customer experience.”

The new bionic experience will include rethinking store formats and leveraging data and analytics to predict footfall, manage assortments, and build personalized offerings. Flagship stores may be branded as ‘discovery zones’ – to create ‘emotional connections with customers. The report is a fancy way of saying that retail spaces will have to be recalibrated and ROI’s recalculated. It is neither a revelation nor a cause for optimism in societies and cities that are already over-invested in store-fronts of every kind – not just
fashion or retail.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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