The Tag Market

By Lisa Nieves | July 11, 2005

A few new ideas emerge in an otherwise flat tag industry.

Unlike the pressure sensitive label industry, the tag market is not growing in leaps in bounds. Most converters say that the market is fairly flat or stagnant, growing only through attrition. The opportunities for this unsupported product are out there, but many end users are discovering alternative methods of product identification. The high expense of this labor intensive and space consuming market, which requires the use of numerous wiring and stringing machines, in addition to the printing equipment, is another deterrent for converters. Add to that the challenge of finding a press operator experienced in tag presses, and you have a growing list of impediments.

As a result, some converters have been forced to close their doors, while others simply shift their concentration to the label portion of the business. As one converter explains, "In the tag market the pie is the same size, there are just fewer players taking a piece." The survivors are those who have found a niche; those who offer excellent service and fast turnaround times, and those who provide their customers with a one-stop shop. "True tag companies are hard to come by," says Doug Ford, president of Deco Labels & Tags, Toronto. "Many say they can do it, but in the U.S., there are probably only about 15 true tag companies," he says. Deco Labels & Tags also has a plant in Des Plaines, Ill.

So what is considered a "true" or traditional tag? According to converters, a traditional tag is a paper product with a punctured hole, a reinforced patch, and is usually clipped at the corners. Today, this market has expanded into a computerized age with variable information printing technology and the development of advanced synthetic substrates. Some industry professionals say this new era in tagging will help push this stagnant market, while others say it is eroding the conventional reinforced patch tag.

Nonetheless, tags are here to stay. A rise in the use of color for specialty applications has sparked a growing use in flexo, making it easier for narrow web label converters to dabble in this business. Security, game piece and the promotional markets are also establishing new opportunities for tags.

The traditional tag
The traditional tag — a paper product with a punctured hole and numerous fastening methods with string, elastic or wire. Over the years this age old product has found a home with many industrial and garment markets, for inventory, instruction, and safety use. Despite this healthy history, however, many present-day converters have been questioning the future of this once dominating industry.

Nick Valestrino, president of Los Angeles Label, Commerce, Calif., comments on the competition. "One of the problems is that a lot of work is being jobbed out overseas or to large companies that specialize in transferring data. It's a very specialized market. These companies don't just sell hang tags, they offer trim, buttons, zippers, that others aren't selling. They specialize in information management," he says.

"We don't see the tag market picking up too much. For the last four or five years, pressure sensitive labels have become a major portion of our business — about 60 to 65 percent of our business," says Kevin Wise, CIO of Wise Tag & Label, Pennsauken, N.J. "The growth that we are seeing in tags is that from our competitors leaving the business," he adds.

Aside from this growth by consolidation, developing a niche is another means of survival in this struggling market. "The traditional tag market has been fairly flat. If you can develop a unique niche market where a tag won't be replaced by a label, then you will be able to see some pockets of growth," says Dave Kee, U.S. graphics segment leader, DuPont Tyvek, Wilmington, Del.

Valestrino agrees. "The margins just aren't there. If you have a niche, than you may see some growth, but if not, it will be extremely difficult," he says.

With the advent of flexography, the colorful promotional and game piece markets have fit this niche role nicely, while numerous security applications present an unending world of opportunities.

Package Service Company, Kansas City, Mo., has found its niche in the game piece and promotional markets. "In order to survive you have to go after specialty or new areas. One example is the game piece area, with multi-layered tags. Shoe tags are another specialty niche market," says Jeff Black, director of materials for packaging services. "You have to be able to figure a way of designing a tag where a synthetic can't be run — a specialty design that's not for common every day shelf marketers."

Substrate material is also evolving. Jim Volkman, Rapid-Roll sales and marketing manager for Dunsirn Industries, Neenah, Wis., says the most requested materials include paper tag material from 7 to 10 mils, thermal transfer printable substrates, and durable material, including products such as Tyvek and Valeron. For the narrow web printer, he says, growth is being experienced in C1S (coated one side) and C2S (coated two side) board stocks, in 8 to 14 point.

The synthetic segment
Although paper stock has ruled the tag market over the years, numerous outdoor markets have been pushing the need for different types of substrates. Outdoor sports, such as hunting, running and skiing, require the use of these identification products, while plant and marine life add to the demand. In addition, outdoor entertainment and sporting events call for the use of millions of wrist tags. As the list continues to develop, the need for more durable, weather resistant substrates has emerged. Answering the call are a variety of new materials, from nonwovens to synthetic papers and film.

Kee of DuPont Tyvek comments on the nonwoven front. "A nonwoven material provides many unique characteristics. It can be stitched to an object and retain its strength, unlike a film, which may fall apart if stitched," he says. For this particular characteristic, Tyvek, as well as other nonwoven materials, has found a niche in the bedding and furniture market.

Nonwovens also provide a variety of high performance characteristics for durable applications. "Tyvek, for example, is tear and water resistant, rot and mildew resistant, flexible, lightweight, soft, recyclable, and printable," says Kee. "It is ideal for all demanding applications that require durability." Examples include ski and racing tags, agricultural and marine life tags, and wrist tags.

Synthetic papers also provide similar high performance characteristics. Allen Wang, president of Granwell Products, Inc., West Caldwell, N.J., comments on this segment. "One of the most significant changes on the horizon for the tag industry is the replacement of cellulosic paper stocks with synthetic papers, which have paper-like printing and finishing properties, but are produced from a plastic polymer base," he says. Synthetic papers can also be landfilled or recycled with virgin resin, even after being printed, he adds. In this area, Granwell Products offers its Polylith line of synthetic papers.

"People have become more conscious of the durability of synthetic paper," says David Hoag, national converting sales manager for Arjobex, Charlotte, N.C. "Tags have important information embedded within UPC and bar codes that require durability for the tag to stay on the product," he says. "This critical product information is key to its tracking through the manufacturing process. It can't tear, rip or fall off." For this durable market Arjobex is marketing Polyart synthetic papers.

Hoag says synthetic papers have opened up many new possibilities for durable tag applications. "The tag industry might be flat as people may say, but there are significant opportunities for durable tag applications," he says. Some examples include horticultural, outdoor furniture and industrial. This specialty material can also be used with tags containing RFID circuits for retail and industrial security applications.

As for printing, Wang says, "Most synthetic papers can be printed with traditional flexo, offset, gravure and thermal transfer methods." They can also be coated to make them receptive to direct thermal, ink jet or laser printing, he adds.

Film is yet another alternative. "There have been many new developments in films and olefins," says Faye O'Briskie, marketing development leader, electronic printing for FLEXcon, Spencer, Mass. Although mainly a pressure sensitive supplier, FLEXcon provides non-pressure sensitive film to various aspects of the tag market. For fishing and hunting licenses and kill tags, this specialty material can be pigmented and color matched to meet specific requests for validity or verification. Film can also withstand extended outdoor durability. Other film applications experiencing growth in the tag market include tracking for heavy metal or steel, lumber tags and chemical tags.

For the tag market FLEXcon offers its alphaMAX stock, developed to deliver the durability of film with the printability of paper. This flexible white matte polyolefin is compatible with thermal transfer, dot matrix and electron beam variable imaging technologies, as well as water, UV and solvent flexo.

Looking ahead
With the request for more information to be included on a tag, such as bar code technology, the discipline of variable information printing (VIP) is bringing the tag market to another level. Hand in hand with this emerging segment follow different forms of printing technology, including thermal transfer, thermal direct, dot matrix, ink jet and laser.

"If a substrate supplier does not produce a stock compatible to these technologies, then they will miss out on this area of growth," says Kee of DuPont Tyvek. "Tyvek has addressed this trend with the introduction of Tyvek Brillion. This product has the ability to be used with thermal transfer printing to print a high quality, ANSI grade bar code. It can also be used on offset and flexo," he adds.

Some industry professionals say this area of advancement is eroding the traditional tag market, while others comment that it is simply opening up new opportunities for a dying product.

"One of our biggest challenges is that a lot of tag users are going to computerized form or to thermal transfer," says Wise. "They have decided that they do not have a need for manual tracking." On the bright side, Wise adds, the majority of smaller businesses have realized that it is more economical for them to veer away from computerized inventory. One such market for Wise is shoe tags.

Volkman of Dunsirn Industries provides his opinion. "The traditional tag market — a single tag with clipped corners — is very flat. If you look at the next generation of newer identification items, however, this market may take a turn for the better," he says. "Some tags have been converted to labels, and are now being converted back to tags, with the introduction of bar coded, thermal transfer printed tags."

Security applications are also projecting the tag market into new areas. "Security is the new buzzword that is opening up many new opportunities for the tag market. Manufacturers are combining tag stock with this new type of RFID and electronic surveillance technology, to be used for security or logistics management purposes," says Kee. "With this technology the tag becomes even more valuable."

Volkman also observes the potential of the emerging security market. "By encapsulating security devices, traditional tags may take on a new role," he says.

Printing procedures
For the traditional tag market, letterpress tag presses advertising the names of Pierce, Young and New Era have been printing since the early 1900s. For Wise Tag & Label, this age-old process is all too familiar, with its up-and-running Young tag letterpress, manufactured in the late 1930s.

Deco Labels & Tags also prints tags on this classic equipment from New Era. One of the greatest challenges for this machinery, says Ford, is finding parts. "Just like an old car, parts for this equipment are hard to come by. But you can make them," he says. Deco Labels & Tags has invested in its own parts department to make up for the difficult task of locating press parts in a timely fashion.

Wise Tag & Label has also invested in a machine shop for parts and on-site repairs. One of the great accomplishments of this talented team of workers was the complete reconstruction of a tag letterpress, now running as good as new.

Aside from the traditional tag press, flexo has been making inroads for the narrow web tag market. One of the reasons is its ability to print brightly colored labels and tags on the same piece of equipment. In addition, this aspect of color is also changing the face of the tag industry. Niche markets are experiencing steady growth in the use of vivid tags, spilling over into the game piece and promotional segments.

Package Service Company exhibited this brilliant aspect of the tag market with its award-winning Tab Force flexo printed game piece. This innovative, multi-layer tag resembles a coin-fed slot machine, with a special bar code used as the key to this interactive game. In addition to flexo, Package Service Company also runs letterpress for its tags. Black comments on the two processes. "We run flexo and letterpress. Flexo is capable of handling this product very well. One of the only reasons we have letterpress is because we have the capacity for the equipment," he says.

"Narrow web is an efficient way to produce tags, and flexo is a dominant player. We do see some offset as well, but not as much," says Kee.

Valestrino of LA Label comments on the high quality of flexo. "Most of our tags are printed flexo — 200 line screen with two percent dots. The quality of flexo is excellent," he says. And with awards received from the Flexographic Technical Association and Printing Industries of America, LA Label is quite familiar with quality.

Dion Label, Westfield, Mass., also relies on flexo. "There is much more done on flexo now than in the past," says company owner John Dion. "With the use of more color on the tag, you can't duplicate the quality of flexo," he adds.

Volkman provides his opinion. "Converters are doing more printing on narrow web presses than ever before, and are beginning to take away from offset," he says. "With the ability of flexo to accomplish high speed cold-foil stamping, a nice niche is added. You can't beat offset printing quality combined with traditional hot stamping and embossing methods, but the opportunity is right for flexo and cold-foil."

As mentioned earlier, variable information printing is also making its way into the tag printing realm. Thermal transfer, thermal direct, dot matrix, ink jet, and laser, are only a few examples. Volkman says he predicts a trend toward ink jet printing. "The trend has gone from hand writing on tags, to dot matrix with pinfeed, to thermal transfer. Keep an eye on ink jet because of its low consumable cost and high speeds," he says.

Endless possibilities
From the traditional retail, industrial, agricultural, marine, automotive and airline markets, to the niche security, game piece, and promotional segments, the need for a tag will always exist. But with the rise in the use of synthetic material and variable information printing technologies, the forms it will take are endless.

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