Episode 17: How Digital Solutions Transform Operations and Customer Experience with Chris Piper of Grandstand
Adam Honig: Hello and welcome to Make it. Move it. Sell It. On this podcast, I talk with company leaders about how they’re modernizing the business of making, moving, and selling products, and of course, having fun along the way. I’m your host, Adam Honig, the CEO of Spiro.ai. We make amazing AI software for companies in the supply chain, but we’re not talking about that today. Instead, today we’re talking with Chris Piper, the president and CEO of Grandstand, likely the best provider of branding and product solutions for the craft beverage business and beyond. Welcome to the show, Chris.
Chris Piper: Thanks Adam, glad to be here.
Adam Honig: Yeah, exciting to have you here. Maybe we can start with the making part of things, tell us a little bit about what you guys make.
Chris Piper: We’re a printer actually. We print glassware apparel and then we sell a lot of promotional items as well. Started out as a screen printer in apparel and quickly moved into containers, which eventually led to glassware, which eventually led to the brewery industry. And it’s been a great market for us to focus and capitalize on, and we’ve been lucky with fantastic growth over the years in a great market. Of course, everybody knows what craft beer is now, back in the early nineties they didn’t. So we’ve been fortunate with that growth as well.
Adam Honig: And why do craft breweries need their own special things?
Chris Piper: It’s interesting, Adam, when you take a look at craft breweries, are they a restaurant or are they a brewery? And most of them kind of straddle the line for both. So branding is really important I think, for craft beer because branding of course, is important with a lot of companies, but restaurants don’t focus on it as much sometimes. We have some great restaurant accounts, don’t get me wrong, but there’s fewer restaurants that capitalize on branding than breweries. And breweries wanna drive that culture, they wanna drive that brand, they wanna drive people to understand that they exist and why they exist. A lot of catchy names and a great market for us because we did both apparel and glassware, and they need both. And so glassware was kind of an entry vehicle for us in the market because there’s not that much competition in glass. When it comes to screen printing, it’s a very specific type of decoration method. Whereas apparel, you probably know three or four people that do apparel, right? Or know somebody who knows somebody, or there’s a place down the block because apparel is a lot easier to do. So you really have to develop that relationship, I think, first, and that expertise. And that’s what we’ve tried to do with both the glassware and apparel side.
Adam Honig: Yeah, it’s interesting when you said you’re in the printing business, I don’t think of printing on glass. You know, I think that’s just something different. I don’t know.
Chris Piper: Well, most people think the printing business is paper stock, which it is, it’s another type of method. Glassware kind of straddles print stock, paper stock versus apparel because of the technologies. And the technology in glassware is all about how you get the item itself to the print method. Because apparel is flat on a board, screen printed glassware is round, it’s tapered, there’s different shapes, different sizes, and that’s a very difficult thing to do with screen-printing. And then you add the new component, which everybody obviously knows and talks about now, is digital. So no question, you do digital on paper, well digital’s just now coming to the point that it’s on apparel, and that’s because graininess of the fabric doesn’t hold the dots of digital as well. And then you throw in glassware and now the glass is able to hold the digital, but how do you get the print onto the glass because of the shape and the taper? So we were one of the first companies in the US that in our market, to focus on digital. And really, it’s a means of driving the glass to the decoration method, but the results are phenomenal. I mean, you can do anything in digital, anything that you can see in your mind, you can see on your computer screen, you’re gonna be able to do on digital glass. But there are still issues with how that adheres to the glass and things along that line. So more technology in it and more nuances than people think in screen printing. It’s not that tough of a world, but when you add all the variables up, it gets pretty exciting.
Adam Honig: Gotcha. Tell me what’s an example of something that’s digital on a glass that I wouldn’t expect? Like a picture, is that what we’re talking about?
Chris Piper: You could do a picture, I was just looking on my desk one year thinking about people sending in their Christmas cards and having it decorated on a glass. And I did that with a postcard of my kids, so you could do something like that. But when you start talking about digital to glass, you can’t just take a photograph and immediately go to the glass. You have to color-correct it. And so there becomes these scale issues when you deal with that. So we generally will run larger runs on digital because you do the color correction and now you have some capacity to run on it, but a big market in digital right now is retail. And retail glassware boomed during COVID because everybody’s home, they’re buying home decor, candles, things along that line. And so digital’s a great medium for that market because you can take anything, anything that you can draw and illustrations are kind of the best thing for digital because now you’re not dealing with the photography components of something, but you do an illustration and you can put that on a glass. One of our big customers is an artist who does different types of trout, the rainbow, brown, brookie, and they sell the glasses. She takes her artistic renderings, and then we transfer that to digital, put that on a glass, and she sells that to Orbis. You’re able to take an artistic component and be able to get it on digital and then get it on glass. Whereas if you had to do that spot color, you could never do it.
Adam Honig: So you started off in more of a traditional print business and sort of evolved over time to be different mediums, different technologies. What do you see coming up next?
Chris Piper: Good question. I think the push for digital will continue in the market because one of the toughest things about screen printing is the screen itself. What’s a big cost component in what you’re doing? You have to shoot a screen for each color. It’s very time-consuming. Then you have to make sure that all these colors are lined up. So digital, you bypass that, you don’t have to have film, you go straight to the press. You have this artwork stored on the press, so you don’t have all these other cost inputs in. And then scale doesn’t matter as much as digital because you can print one piece in the same amount of time as you could print 50 times that one piece, so you don’t have that setup. In our world, setup time is a big cost driver. Somebody orders 48 t-shirts, it takes the same amount of time to set up that 48 t-shirts as if I were to run at a hundred thousand pieces. So digital is something that will continue because digital right now in our business and apparel and glass is really at the infancy of how you get the decoration to the medium and how the medium holds it because of wash, wear, those types of things. So digital will be the driver for the next 15, 20 years in our market, I think, as far as what it can do now.
The exciting thing though, Adam, about that, is if we have a new machine coming, and again, it will be the first of its kind in the US, that will now add a third layer to it, which is a third dimension, which is height. So we’ll be able to digitally print on a glass and it can be raised. So let’s say you have a mountain scene and you want to have these mountains pop out on the glass, we could digitally enhance that so that there’s actually a texture on the glass. So think of an embossed glass where you go and you feel that texture on the glass, we could print that digitally. We could make it look embossed and clear, or we could print that with colors or rainbow of colors, whatever. So we think this is gonna be a huge driver that really adds that value to the glass, where you’ve got this texture on the glass that you feel. Which traditionally in the past has always been through a mold, which traditionally means hundreds of thousands of pieces, but now you can do it at 48 pieces, you can do it at 144 pieces. So we’re excited about that technology and it’ll be here 1st of January for us.
Adam Honig: It sounds really exciting. I’m kind of getting this idea in my mind that craft breweries, you know, competing with people like Budweiser or other big brewers, like they have to differentiate, they have to have a different strategy. And so this is all the ways of doing that. And by having lower requirements for the number of pieces that they need to order, it can just really explode the creativity for them.
Chris Piper: Absolutely. And if you’re a craft brew person, you know that creativity is at the forefront of what they do, right? I mean, who would’ve thought 15, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, that craft brew in America would supplant European beer? And it’s because the Europeans do it one way and one way always. They have this one way and Americans are out there throwing cucumbers in it, rutabaga, whatever, and making a beer out of it. So creativity is a huge aspect of this business. The craft brew market is fantastic for us. We’re excited as well, expanding our reach and coming outside of the craft brew as our company continues to grow. But craft brew will always be at the roots of who we are and what we’ve done.
Adam Honig: Well I know by talking to a lot of manufacturers, there’s often kind of unusual projects that sometimes get made at the request of customers or potentially new customers. Do you have any out-of-the-box applications that you guys have been asked for recently?
Chris Piper: Other than the digital, really nothing that’s crazy right now. We have a technology that our partner in Germany enhanced, rastal glassware as a provider out of Europe, that we have a German line of glassware. It’s called Smart Glass. And what it is, if you’ve seen the wine bottle that you can run your phone over, right? And I think it’s the three criminals or something like that, I can’t remember. Anyway, this has a chip embedded in the decoration and what that can do is it can take you immediately to a website. You don’t have to click on anything, you just hover over it and it pops it up. And the smart technology, we think is something that we’ve gotta continue to refine how it gets on onto a glass. But what it can do is enhance loyalty programs, and it can enhance automatic feedback. And they have technology where they have it in coasters where it will measure the weight of your glass and tell the barkeep that hey, you need another refill. Or in my case, three or four more refills.
Adam Honig: Well, can it say if you’ve had too many? Like Chris, I’m sorry, we’re gonna have to cut you off here.
Chris Piper: Your phone shows a stop sign is what happens, but that’s an exciting technology that we’re interested in. But the biggest driver for us right now, Adam, is really our website and our technology. We spend quite a bit of time on enhancing our website, really driving it to what we think is the forefront specifically for glass. Glass is a very tough item, with all the different variables, but our website can handle all that, and can tell the customer all the different things that they can do. We tied that with a proprietary software system in-house as far as our manufacturing. And then utilizing the Spiro CRM connected with that as well. We’re really excited about the possibilities that we have to be able to scale to our customer, stay in contact with the customer, get immediate feedback from the customer by tying all those technologies together. So we’re excited about the customer experience that we can provide.
Adam Honig: So when you think about the website project that you just went through, was the goal to make it easier to place orders or to provide a bigger selection? Or what was the big goal that you were trying to achieve?
Chris Piper: Yes, yes and yes. Taking an order, number one, and bringing it into the system and being able to massage it. Because it’s not like you’re calling up your order in a pair of black shoes, you’re ordering a pair of shoes that could be two or three different colors, how you decorate it, all these different variables that go into it. So yes, providing our customer with all the possibilities that they could do was number one. Because it’s 1500 different SKUs, embellishment types across the board, we do nucleation on glassware, which is a laser engraving in the bottom of the glass, which releases the CO2 and the beer basically keeps it fresh. And you can do different designs and types of things like that in the bottom of the glass. All those things that we can add to the customer, the finishing services, the add-ons, the rolling banding on a t-shirt. So the shirt comes to them and it’s in the position that they can put it on the shelf and they don’t have to fold it or anything like that. All these different types of things. Providing that information to the customer was first and foremost in our mind. We’ve gotta be able to tell them what we can do because you don’t wanna have a customer you’ve been working with for eight years and they say oh, you do t-shirts too, you want them to know that within the first five minutes. So that’s been a big part of what our website is able to do.
Then to open up other channels for us, other markets as well. Distillery market is something that we’ve moved into pretty heavy. Craft beverage is kind of what we group it under. Your coffee houses, your local artisanal situations in the coffee, soda, kombucha, distillery, those are primary markets that we’re focused on as well as corporate. But you’ve gotta be able to show the customer what they can buy. But more specifically, you have to give them a journey. I can’t go into a store and buy something without my wife picking it out for me because there are too many selections, right? I don’t know what looks good and she has style, I don’t, that’s the reason. But we want our website to be able to give a customer a journey of you come into your startup brewery, you have delivered items that we know that startups love. You come back six months later, now you’re moving on, here’s some other items that we can do. So in different markets we wanna show the distiller different products in the brewer. So that’s a big part of the technology on our website as well.
Adam Honig: So I know a lot of people feel like they’re competing indirectly with Amazon all the time, right? Because they’re out there with so many products and they set expectations about the way that e-commerce should be, but it seems like in your market, you need to take in a lot more detail than what they’re doing at Amazon. Because you’ve got all these different options, different finishes, different digital files people can upload, I mean it’s an order of degree more complicated than what I think that they’re dealing with.
Chris Piper: Yeah, very. And I had friends of mine, they’d ask me what I’m doing and each year I’d say working on our website and they’re like, how can it take that long? And it’s because of all the variables that went into it. You’re right, every item that we have can take different types of decoration depending on what your decoration is, depending on the number of colors, depending on the locations on the glass, the apparel, the promotional items, all those things. There’s so many things that go into that, that it’s tough for us to be able to tell the customer everything they need to know because we don’t want somebody to give us something and we say oh, that looks terrible. And then when the customer gets it, they say oh, that looks terrible. We wanna say hey, here’s what we like to do to help this look better. So the problem with that, is that everybody has these expectations delivered by Amazon who says oh, you don’t like it, send it back. Well you can’t send back something that’s custom. What am I gonna do with it?
Adam Honig: What am I gonna do with all these glasses that say Honig’s Brewery, right?
Chris Piper: And they don’t want me to sell them because they’re not selling them, right? So something we battle with daily is the expectations. And I love having high expectations. We have high expectations for ourselves, but trying to help the customer get exactly what they want without taking up too much of their time. Because the other side of it is the customer doesn’t wanna talk to you, with Amazon you can just do it all digitally, right? A lot of what we do though requires some kind of conversation and there’s a real trick and a fine line there trying to walk that expectation that you’re able to deliver it to them in an efficient manner that you didn’t have to charge them so much because of all your time involved as well, because they don’t wanna pay that either. They’re used to paying the lowest price on Amazon. So yeah, there’s a lot of battles there, we meet weekly on it. Okay, what happened here? What can we change here? How’s the process we can do differently here? What kind of information can we provide to the customer so they can make a better-qualified decision?
Adam Honig: I think this is a really important point, Chris. I think that a lot of people, when they look at how do we set up our go-to-market, whether it’s the website or through a sales team or what have you, they tend to look at it as sort of a static thing. And I like hearing that you guys are constantly kind of thinking about that and refining it, especially as things change.
Chris Piper: We utilize a program as well on the site to watch journeys. And if we see somebody getting hung up in a specific spot, we’ll spend some time and try to analyze what was it that caused that issue. One of the things we found out right out of the gates once we launched our site, we called our digital print full color because that’s full color. And the customer thought that they could click full color and then select the colors that they wanted. And so we’ve had to change that terminology to digital, hoping that the customer understands that digital means that it’s all the colors in the spectrum. So watching those journeys, and you know, a lot of times it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other, right? And you just gotta find what fits the best. But I could drive myself crazy on the weekends sitting there drinking a glass of scotch, watching customer journeys and just go like man, I could be here for another six hours. So I try to limit myself to a few hours on the weekend for that.
Adam Honig: Just between like three and four o’clock in the afternoon maybe, let’s say. But grabbing or understanding what the customer really wants is a challenge that almost everybody deals with, right? And in your instance, you are now generating good data about that because you can literally see how they’re approaching the problem. You also have an account management team too, so it’s not all just e-commerce. How does that fit together with the website?
Chris Piper: We wanna speak to the customer. In the early stages of building our website, I found out a few months in that the developer thought that we didn’t want to speak to the website, they’re like how do we make it so you never have to talk? I said, no, we wanna talk to our customer, we wanna build that relationship. And some customers don’t wanna do that, they wanna have a digital only, but we want to have that relationship with the customer so that we can help them. Because there are so many items that we sell and rarely do we run into somebody who’s a merchandiser that has that experience to know what to look for. So we wanna be able to talk to the customer, have that relationship, identify opportunities that maybe we’re not gonna deal with now, but we know that they’re down the road. And utilize the CRM tools to be able to give ourselves those reminders to be able to give ourselves those drip campaigns to provide that customer further information along that line.
So the relationship side of it is critical, we think. We do not want to be just a digital house, we wanna be somebody who’s speaking to our customer, having conversations, understanding their business, understanding what their weak points are so that we can find a way to help them through that. Our mission statement here is driving success through people and innovation. And we didn’t say our success, we wanna drive customer success as well as our success because we know for us to succeed, the customer has to succeed. So we don’t wanna just keep feeding them something that’s not profitable for them. We wanna be able to make sure that they’re getting value out of it because then they’re gonna stay with us and then we’re gonna be successful as well. So that relationship side of it’s a huge thing for us.
Adam Honig: Right. And if they were just only digitally interacting with the firm, then it would be a lot harder to maintain that and establish the value that you put.
Chris Piper: Right, they have no loyalty. If you’re just a digital customer, you’re gonna bounce around. Why do you go to Amazon if you can buy it directly from the other supplier’s site? Well usually because now Amazon’s made it so darn easy to do that. And look, on the apparel side, anybody’s gonna sell a t-shirt for whatever you’ll buy it for. I mean, most of the apparel industry doesn’t understand their cost, so they’ll undercut you all the time. So we have to do it through relationships, we have to do it through value, we have to do it through trust and at the end of the day hope that those are the things that keep somebody coming back to us.
Adam Honig: Just listening to the way you’re talking about it, you know, having that relationship, I mean the customers really value it as well. I mean they’re essentially in business because of their mission. If you’re supporting their mission, that comes through to them.
Chris Piper: One of the interesting things, the feedback that I get from our salespeople talking to the customers is how important it is for the customer to know who their account manager is. And that gets a little tough when you have 10,000 customers, you don’t have 10,000 account salespeople, but they wanna know that one person that they can go and talk to. So that tells me on one side of it that we’re succeeding by driving that relationship. Then what comes to us is how do you manage that? How do you manage that from a scale standpoint and how do you make sure that the customer is getting that interaction that they want? They don’t want just a faceless, nameless, they want to know who they’re talking to. So that’s a tough aspect of our business and one quite frankly that we’re still trying to work our way through.
Adam Honig: Yeah, well from my casual observation, it sounds like you guys are definitely making progress and certainly compared to the organizations that I deal with, you have a much better relationship with your customers than most.
Chris Piper: It’s always an ongoing thing.
Adam Honig: Can’t get too happy about it. Let’s shift gears for a minute though because we’re coming into the beginning of a planning cycle for next year. Actually, where we are in the year it’s a little bit into the planning cycle. A lot of companies I’ve been talking to have really been challenged to figure out how to make a plan for next year given everything that’s been going on in the supply chain, whether it’s been disruptions or interest rates or inflation. What do you think about that kind of challenge?
Chris Piper: Interestingly enough, my COO and I were just having lunch talking about the same thing. How do you plan? For us, the first quarter is always a down quarter anyway, just because of the nature of the craft beer business and then other markets that we’re involved in as well. And so how do you plan for it? And then you take a look at the economic pressures that are going on as well right now, the energy issues we’ll be having in the winter, inflationary dollars, all those things. It’s quite frankly something that we have been talking about for months now, trying to get ready for the first quarter and we really haven’t figured out exactly where we have to be. I mean, you literally have no idea what it’s gonna look like. Now the problem for us too, Adam, is coming out of COVID, the whole world’s been turned upside down anyway. There’s no way at the beginning of 21 that I would’ve thought that the latter half of 21 would’ve been our busiest time in five years. Then in October of 21 told you that January through March of 22 would’ve been almost a 50% drop in business. And how much of that’s related to the omicron variant and how much of that’s related to everybody coming back and buying everything they could because there was no supply and because they were shut down. And so where do you go right now?
I think that our overall theme is to try to be as prudent as possible. Make sure our people are in the position to be taken care of in the best manner possible. And if we get in a situation where we’re under capacity or over capacity, I mean we don’t have enough ability to produce so be it. Because I think we’re gonna take a pretty non gambling approach to 23 and really focus on our core and focus on our technology. It doesn’t come at a terrible time for us right now because we’re starting a whole lot of new programs based on the new website and the customer journey and all that. But I’ve been in business for 34 years, I’ve never had a time period where I just couldn’t tell you, I just cannot tell you what 2023 is gonna be like.
Adam Honig: Yeah, it’s really gonna be interesting on one sense and complicated on the other. I remember in 2008, the business I was running at the time, we took a similar strategy. We said well, we’re not gonna maximize the upside, but we’re gonna minimize the downside. That was the strategy that we took.
Chris Piper: And I think that you have to right now because there’s so many variables in play that you don’t have control over. And that’s why I got into business for myself because I wanted to be in control, you know, I wanted to have my destiny a little bit. And right now it’s like you have no idea what’s gonna happen. But we want to take care of our people, we want to take care of our customers, we want to be in a position where we can do it and not be in a high-risk situation. I think that’s how we’ll move forward.
Adam Honig: Yeah, you remind me of something that my friends always say to me. They were like, well you’re the CEO, you can do whatever you want. And I’m like no, that’s not at all the way this works. We got customers, we got employees, we’ve got Cheryl, like other people.
Chris Piper: Well you can take off, Adam. If you want to leave from three to five, you can do that just as long as you’re willing to work from 12 to three in the morning and make that up. That’s how that deal works. You got all the control in the world you want.
Adam Honig: I can get whatever kind of coffee I want. There’s no question about that, yes.
Chris Piper: Exactly.
Adam Honig: Well Chris, this has been super interesting. I really appreciate your coming on the podcast. It’s really interesting to hear about going from printing to these more technologically advanced areas, glassware, the different ways that you’re approaching that, and getting your perspective on this website. I mean you call it a website project, but it’s really like a customer engagement process, right? And how you guys are kind of battling the Amazon effect, if you will, by really allowing people to get specific with what they need. I don’t recommend it at home, but for other leaders who are willing to dive into the data and understand the journey of the customer, that can be so powerful. We do that all the time in our product, but it’s great to hear you’re doing that as well. Yeah, I really wish the best for you in the new year. I think we’re all kind of watching and waiting a little bit, so hopefully everything will come together for us this year. But I really appreciate you joining us, Chris. And for those of you who are at home thinking where can I find more episodes of the Make it. Move it. Sell it. podcast, well you can find them at Spiro.ai/podcast, of course on Spotify or Amazon podcast or wherever you get your podcast. And why don’t you subscribe and if you think the conversation that Chris and I was having maybe was pretty good, give us a like or a thumbs up or something like that. I don’t know, Chris, you think they should do that?
Chris Piper: Absolutely, that was a lot of fun. I appreciate you having me on, Adam.
Adam Honig: It’s been great, really appreciate it. And thanks to everybody for listening, we look forward to talking to you at the next episode!