How one company is staying on the leading edge of change.

If you're the kind of person who saves old clothes and household furnishings for "when the color is back in style," you'd better change your strategy. The Avocado Green of the '70s in not the Avocado Green of today. While still the same hue, technology has given it a new twist. From advances in formulation and special-effect finishes, to information accessed by way of the World Wide Web, it is safe to say that color will never be the same again.

Colwell Inc., a Colwell Industries Inc. company, specializes in the design, manufacturing and distribution of merchandising tools for color and decorating products, and has produced sampling for a variety of products ranging from architectural and automotive coatings, metal finishes - even caskets - to cosmetics, carpet, fabric, wallcoverings, window treatments, and paper products. With over 100 years' experience in color and color technology, the company has not only survived the changing trends - its forward vision has allowed it to stay one step ahead.

Until a few decades ago, color choices were limited to a single color card showing ready-mixed coatings. If you wanted to paint your bedroom yellow, you selected the yellow on the card. The option of oil-based or acrylic latex didn't exist - even sheen levels were limited. The clerk in the hardware store simply located that color on the shelf and you were on your way. Today color systems have expanded to thousands of custom-mixed colors and are offered in a range of bases and finishes. In addition, nearly all decorative products have followed the 'fashion lead' and are now available in complex materials incorporating specialized additives that create dimension, translucency and reflective qualities.

Since color sampling products are usually simulations, and not the actual coating, Colwell develops formulations and production techniques that create a dead-on match for professional and consumer selection. And with new materials and products being created every day it takes more than a staff of full-time color technicians and engineers to keep up. Colwell 'scouts' are constantly on the lookout for emerging trends in color fashion, special finishes and materials, product design and marketing techniques. The following are some of the things they're finding, as it relates to decorative products, and what the company is doing to keep up with the changing trends.

The Educated Consumer

One of the fastest moving areas of technology is communication. With much of the global population having access to the Internet as well as television broadcasts and printed publications specializing in decorating and home improvements, consumers are more informed than ever. They are able to track trends, make decisions and even compare pricing before making the purchase. This phenomenon in itself creates a whole new set of challenges, not only for the manufacturer, but for the retailer as well. "We're living in an age of mass consumerism," says Erika Woelfel, senior color stylist and manager of Colwell's color studio in Minneapolis. "Today's shopper is a contemporary hunter-gatherer, pre-programmed to look for the bold and new." And they don't have to look far. Newsstands and bookstores are filled with magazines and books on home decorating and fashion trends. Entire networks are dedicated to the building, redecorating and preservation of homes, and then there's the Internet. A click of a mouse accesses up-to-the-minute information on the latest trends around the world, arming users with enough information to make color, decorating and pricing decisions before ever walking into the store. In fact, one can literally decorate their entire living space without ever leaving home as samples, supplies and products - from paint to artwork and furniture - can be ordered online and delivered right to the door.

Although this access to information provides the consumer with more decision-making power, it can also be the source of confusion due to too many choices. That's where service comes in. One challenge big-box stores face is keeping knowledgeable people on staff or providing innovative and informational sampling tools for the do-it-yourselfers. And because so many fall short of these services, specialty shops are back-in-style welcoming the frustrated consumer with open arms, qualified advice and lots of special finishes and new products ... for a price. Ultimately the key to any retailer's success is to make the consumer comfortable and confident with their decisions. Product sampling and point of sale merchandising are two crucial elements in any marketing program.

Donovan Freeland is senior vice president of Sales and Marketing for Colwell Inc. Along with heading up Colwell's marketing efforts, Freeland keeps a close eye on consumer and merchandising trends, looking for ideas and opportunities that could lead to the creation of more effective sampling tools - and increased sales - for his clients. This information exchange often takes place during 'creative jam sessions,' which include Colwell's creative team, key technical advisors and of course, the client. "Manufacturers have made impressive advancements in the past several years in the development of new and truly improved products," Freeland says. "However, with the flood of options competing for the consumer's time, emotion and money, manufacturers and retailers are raising the bar in how they market and merchandise - and in the speed in which they deliver their products."

Technology has also improved the quality and effectiveness of in-store merchandising. "Borrowing from successes in other market segments, specialty eye-catching lighting is being integrated into more compelling color and sample displays at the in-store point of purchase. Many companies are taking the upscale route with sophisticated display design and lighting options in which to view the product." Freeland continues, "We also recognize that one shoe doesn't fit all, both in terms of marketing to specific target segments as well as the various market channel options. And there's the growing understanding of the importance of appealing to the female consumer via intellect and emotion. Larger and well-arranged product and color samples are being combined with simple how-to, lifestyle and visualization images."

With all of the information and options available to them, homeowners are taking a more active role in color and brand decisions - even if they hire a contractor to do the work for them. They usually know what they want but simply don't have the time or desire to do the work themselves, and can afford to hire the job out. If contractors want to remain competitive they'll need to have a flexible brand loyalty, based on their clients wishes, or be associated with a manufacturer with a varied color and product line. They must also be able to respond to requests for special finishes and to stay abreast of the latest developments in paint and application products.

Quick Change Artists: New Technology Makes Changing Color Fast and Easy

Prior to the early 1990s most people considered a painting/decorating project a fairly large investment in time and money, thus expecting it to last at least five, and up to 15 years, before updating. Now, influenced by fast-paced trends in fashion and other industries, the average consumer expects to repaint or redecorate every three to five years. Even if they decide to keep the furnishings - usually the largest investment in a room - they can change the 'feel' of the decor by changing the color of the walls. Some manufacturers now offer advanced coatings that cover most colors in a single coat, saving time and money by eliminating the need for second and third coats. And with improved, easy clean-up finishes, there is less hesitation to paint due to messy conditions.

Simple changes in color sampling options have greatly reduced the amount of paint wasted by poor or uninformed color decisions. Now, instead of having to select a color from a 1" x 2" stripe on a card, many color displays in decorating centers offer larger individual chips, up to 4" x 7" in size. The customer can take the chip(s) home, compare them side-by-side on the wall under a realistic light source, and better visualize how the colors will look. Another technique, which is popular in Australia and New Zealand and is now starting to be used in the United States, is the availability of 'test pots' of color containing enough paint to cover a couple square feet of wall space. This allows the buyer to view that color on the actual surface to be painted before ordering larger quantities. According to Lisa Thieme, VP, technical coordinator and Research & Development manager at Colwell Inc., "Dispensing systems are more accurate than ever. The ability to dispense 1/768 of an ounce has helped increase the accuracy of first hit dispenses, thus making the color formulation better."

Keeping up with the Pace of Change

For years color experts have scrambled to keep one step ahead of color evolution, but now, with the rise of special effects, color strategists are teaming up with technical experts to create new sensations. But why are these special effects so popular and why have they literally changed the future of color? The most obvious answer would simply be that we, as humans, require change to keep us stimulated and evolving. We can also credit the invention and availability of new pigments, additives and bases. But to go even deeper into the matter, social anthropologists use the theory of 'ancient memory' or 'prehensile retention.' Our innate attraction to reflective surfaces may be due to our association of metallic shimmer or pearly sheens with water, the life-giving element that every creature on earth needs to survive. Erika Woelfel explains, "Ancient and modern civilizations alike realize the importance of clean air and water, which also helps to explain the current craze for all shades of blue."

As technology perfected products that create special effects, every major industry followed. Some immediately ... and some with caution. "The first industries to step away from flat color were cosmetic companies and auto makers," Woelfel says. "Starting approximately five years ago, car manufacturers created highly color-shifting paints for special cars and collectors who bought them. As the demand for special finishes increased, auto manufacturers remained cautious because, while customers liked to look at special effect paints, they tended to purchase automobiles with more conservative finishes with a subtle and natural shift-similar to what's found naturally in minerals. Thus top auto makers report that up to 70% of their vehicles now feature metallic finishes."

"Two years ago, cosmetic companies began featuring products with sparkle, glitter and polish," says Woelfel. "These were targeted toward the younger, club-scene audience who were interested in what their cosmetics looked like under the play of flashing lights. These developments did not go unnoticed by the home fashion industry. Surfaces once austere and minimal are now painted, polished, glittered, patterned, beaded and texturized."

The 'Science' of Color Matching

Colwell Inc. has a double challenge. One, it must keep a step ahead of emerging special effects in order to prepare for changing client demands or, in some cases, introduce the client to the new finish. Two, the experts in the color and technical laboratory must develop exact replications of the finishes, often without using the actual paint product. Continuing advancements in software and dispensing equipment help to make the job easier for Lisa Thieme. "Complex colorant combinations have made it necessary to have the ability to create formulas with multiple colorants - where traditionally the trend was to minimize the number of different colorants in a formula. Software enhancements have enabled our technicians to accommodate the need for formulas with multiple colorants more accurately." In addition to creating formulas, Thieme's group also tracks color quality control from batch to batch not only for paint, but for plastics, paper, printed packaging and other products as well. "Color measurement devices and accompanying software continue to improve and are quite user-friendly." She continues, "In-line spectrophotometry is more commonplace today and cutting-edge software programs produce trend charts, pass/fail tolerance capabilities, and SPC data. These technologies are allowing our customers to more closely monitor their vendors, which result in tighter tolerance expectations than ever before."

When asked about what special effect finishes he sees emerging in the coated products industry, Don Woelfel, VP, technical director of Colwell Inc., responds, "By using tiny black and white beads (or particles) of plastic or rubber, coatings manufacturers have been able to enhance the tone and depth of colors with the dramatic appearance of texture. In addition, metallics including silvers, golds, bronzes, pewters and pearls are now available in base and translucent glaze coatings. Both of these developments allow the consumer to achieve various effects through different application techniques such as color washing, rag rolling, sponging, stippling, dragging and brushed metals." And how does Colwell replicate such effects? "To properly represent the special effects and finishes, Colwell had to develop bases and substrates compatible with the actual beads, metallics and pearls used in these new products. Coating equipment was modified to duplicate some of these decorative finishes. And in some cases, overprinting was used to represent various effects using glaze and multiple-color applications." Woelfel concludes, "We look forward to the challenge of representing new decorative paints in the future. What I'd really like to see now is a variety of colored beads for added sophistication of textured finishes."

Better Communication = Stronger Partnerships

Communication specialists at Colwell are constantly developing and updating software and network systems within the organization. This gives sales personnel, internal coordinators and department managers crucial project information instantly, helping to smooth the production process and avoid costly communication errors.

This same technology extends outward. Ellen Mann, vice president of Account Services explains how digital technology has affected the service-oriented end of the business. "Once new technical advancements like the Internet, e-business-to-business and e-business-to-consumer were just new things to explore. Now, by taking advantage of this new technology, Colwell is becoming better business partners with our customers and suppliers." She adds, "More real-time information such as inventory levels and usage, along with shipment tracking, is available and accessible to all business partners. The new technology will provide opportunities to reduce inventory carrying costs and business transaction costs thus improving cash flow, in-stock service levels, and the overall level of service to our customers."

    "When nothing is sure, everything's possible."
      -- Margaret Drabble
No one can argue that technology is changing our lives at an unprecedented pace. As individuals and industries struggle to keep up, the ones with the best attitude will survive. "Winners win because they are prepared to face challenges and know how to stay one step ahead of the other guy. They also learn from failures and are able to come back stronger than ever," says Patrick VanArnam, president of Colwell Inc. "We know that color will no longer be treated as a simple hue or protective coating again. It will become more complex and interesting with each technological advancement. And frankly, we can't wait to see what happens next."

Rising to the Challenge of Change

Colwell's success lies in its ability to change as markets and technology evolve. The company got its start in 1893 when T.H. Colwell purchased the University Press of Minneapolis and later formed the Colwell Press in 1913. Over the century, Colwell's strength grew through the acquisitions of several printing, color sampling, and bindery facilities and by the 1980s was one of the largest and most diverse companies of its kind. Although Colwell Inc. now specializes in sampling for decorating products, it incorporates much of the knowledge, talent and manufacturing capabilities it has formed over the years into its business today.

In keeping with its track record of change and success, Colwell's recent consolidation of its Indiana operations - Project 421 - has already begun to pay off. "This was by no means a 'downsizing' of our company," says Patrick VanArnam, president of Colwell Inc. "Instead, we moved all four of the mid-west manufacturing operations, and most of our personnel, into one state-of-the-art facility in Kendallville, IN. This increases our efficiencies through integrated account management services, stronger technical, engineering and production capabilities while eliminating the overhead costs of separate locations. We're confident that this strategic move will benefit both Colwell and it's customers, now and in the future."

For more information on color sampling, call 800/433.2394; visit; or Circle Number 73.