Ceramic Decorating / Columns

CERAMIC DECORATING: Decorators Must Work Smarter

Business conditions in the past year have had a dramatic effect on custom glass and ceramic decorators who produce ware for the promotional product, souvenir and collectible markets. Business has rebounded somewhat for many decorators; however, demand remains unpredictable. Decorators who produce custom coffee mugs, glass tumblers, tiles and steins for the promotional products market face competition from manufacturers of shirts, pens, calendars and many other imprintable items. Although growth trends in this overall market have continued somewhat steadily for years, glass and ceramic decorators have faced increasing difficulties in the past year.

Decorators in the collectibles market face a somewhat greater challenge. Sales of all types of collectibles have been declining, with a drastic sales decrease of 9.2% in 2001, according to Unity Marketing, Stevens, Pa. Glass and ceramic decorators who produce ceramic figurines and collector plates have struggled in the past year to overcome market conditions.

Overseas Competition

Decorators in every market segment also face increasing overseas competition, especially from China. “Many of our ceramic mug customers are testing the waters by ordering direct from mainland China,” notes Stan Dohan of The Allen Co., Blanchester, Ohio. “However, these promotional product distributors often encounter problems and end up losing money on the deal.”

Although domestic suppliers often can’t compete with Chinese pricing, logistics and product quality remain prime customer concerns. “Today’s communications technology makes it easier to do business overseas,” says Dave Weimer of Houze Glass, Point Marion, Pa. “However, overseas companies can’t do a quick turnaround, especially for small orders. Shipping can take a month and thus usually requires large orders.”

Brian Deszell of Custom Deco South, Orlando, Fla., agrees. “If time is of the essence, overseas companies can’t compete with domestic suppliers,” he says.

Product Value

An increasing demand for promotional mugs decorated with up to 10 colors, intricate patterns and special effects such as crushed glass in the decoration have enabled some decorators to carve a specialty niche where price is not the only determining factor. For many companies, however, the emphasis must be on producing basic designs efficiently to remain competitive.

In the collectibles market, plate decorators are focusing more on basic round, oval or square/rectangular substrates, since production costs of exotic shapes are too high and demand is dropping. However, unusual shapes still attract attention if the design is well targeted. The Bradford Exchange offers a Heaven’s Little Star plate featuring delicately scalloped edges, and The Franklin Mint offers a shamrock-shaped plate with an Irish blessing. For such higher-end collectibles, special effects remain popular, including precious metal applications, two-sided decals, raised paint and glow-in-the-dark designs.

“The increasing pressure on price has forced us to be more innovative and do more with less,” says Mike McCall of Heinrich Ceramic Decal, Worcester, Mass. “We are looking at techniques that can give us different looks at lower cost; for instance, simpler techniques like heat-release instead of water-slide decals.” Some of the company’s new designs incorporate high-profile raised print and custom formulated micas.


In all decorating segments, reducing overhead cost has been critical in the past year. Many decorators are limiting overtime, decreasing fuel and labor costs, reducing staff, and trimming costs in other ways. It remains a careful balancing act, however, to insure that quality and customer service do not suffer and that productivity and employee morale remain high.

Decorators must continue to capitalize on new design trends while maximizing their businesses around core products to survive. This means working closely with suppliers to develop new technology to meet these trends, while also keeping production costs down.

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