First, a story about selling jam at the grocery store.

In 2000, some researchers from Columbia and Stanford Universities did an experiment on consumer choice at a busy supermarket. They asked a simple question: Does more choice equal more sales? They had one table that had 24 jams, and another with six. They controlled for time of day and myriad other variables so that they’d get a good representative sample.

At the table with 24 jams, 60% of the people that walked by stopped, and 2% went on to make a purchase. Not bad … a little boost to the store’s jam sales. Over at the table with just six jams, 40% of the people that walked by stopped. The jam just doesn’t attract the same interest.

But a whopping 30% of the visitors bought something.

By comparison, the 2% purchase rate seems abysmal. Customers with limited choices are more motivated to purchase … and businesses with niches are more motivated to succeed.

The Counter-Intuitive Nature of Niche Business

Working in the custom print industry without a niche (or several) is a bit like coming up to the table with 24 jars of jam every single day. When people have too many complex choices, they tend to simply shut down and avoid making choices.

Choosing a niche tends to feel like choosing a jam when you have too many options. There are simply so many opportunities for a print shop. Everybody wears T-shirts, right? Anybody could be your customer. You’re at a limitless buffet of potential customers! But there’s a huge catch.

Choosing not to have a niche is a recipe for disaster in our industry: You have to differentiate your business in a market as commoditized as custom apparel. You might agonize over the choice, but it’s not like buying jam — you have to pick a flavor. Any flavor.

What Print Industry Niches Look Like

Yes, everyone wears T-shirts. But print shops tend to cluster around a few specific niches.

Customers: They choose a very specific niche customer base.

Techniques: They are the very best at a specific in-demand technique (like printing on nylon).

Technology: They have implemented powerful technology at some (or all) parts of their process (like hybrid printing).

Service: They can serve a specific market or customer better than anyone else (due to location, relationships, packaging, etc.). For example, Night Owls has built a super tight-knit relationship/community.

Marketing: Their business is a brand unto itself. It could be everything from educational content to posts and imagery that the brand uses.

How to Choose Your Niche

A niche is not: we do B2B printing.

A niche is: we print glow inks on high-visibility garments for the top transportation construction firms.

If you don’t know your niche yet, don’t panic. The common thread between print shops with niches is that they have found a consumer base with an unmet need and executed a focused strategy to serve that customer.

If you hear “unmet need” and think that’s a daunting, expensive task — stop. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Simply define:

  • What you do
  • Who you serve
  • The unmet need you help with
  • Your strategy

Serving a niche is primarily about being in the right place for your customers, saying and doing the right things for them, and understanding exactly how you can help them — then forming your strategy. Look at this statement:

“We print shirts for construction crews to give them perfect high-visibility apparel by partnering with construction companies.”

Now that’s a niche.