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Next Innovations in Enterprise

Several years ago, Next Innovations—a Walker-based company known for custom wall art and eye-catching wind spinners—came up with what it calls its “blanks” program.

Simply put, the company created hundreds of pre-cut, mostly rectangular steel shapes, or what it refers to as “blanks,” that can quickly be deployed to fill custom signage orders. Given the necessary graphics and specifications, Next Innovations can turn orders around almost overnight.

The program was a nice complement to the company’s already robust line of patriotic wall art products and popular “EyCatchers,” which were once featured on a Twin Cities television station.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. And suddenly the company’s blanks program became a lot more relevant.

A quick glance at one of its product websites, metalartmaker.com, shows a selection of signs that Next Innovations developed to help business customers react to the pandemic. Signs that urge social distancing and signal locations for hand-washing stations were available on the company’s website very early on during the health care crisis.

“SuperValu is one of our biggest customers. We do a lot of ‘Curbside Pickup’ signs for them,” Arnold Volker, president and owner of Next Innovations, says. “If we have the graphic, we can almost literally make the sign the same day. For us it is pretty easy to do.”

While brick-and-mortar sales are, obviously, down with the state being shut down, e-commerce is doing exceedingly well. Volker says the company has seen a 400 percent increase in e-commerce. And that boost in sales wasn’t just because of the pandemic.

During the last 18 months—whether it’s due to tariff wars or the pandemic—Volker says he’s sensing a change in the American consumer. They want more American-made products. And he says Next Innovations, by strategically cutting down its inventory and embracing e-commerce, is positioned nicely to take advantage of that demand.

One move it made emerging from the recession was to reimagine the way it uses space. At one time, about 20,000 square feet of the company’s 50,000-square-foot facility was dedicated to inventory storage. He says that the company stored about $1 million in inventory on site.

“And that’s risky. There are holding costs. And what if it doesn’t sell?” he says. “Since the downturn, we’ve cut back significantly on inventory. We went from $1 million in finished goods to less than $100,000. And we’re turning things quicker by having this blanks program.”

That blanks program is one of the key developments in the company’s history, and it’s so simple.
In the realm of signage, sizes and shapes are—in theory—unlimited. But in practice, a lot of the signs you see in the world around you are found on a relatively small number of sizes and shapes. So, Next Innovations decided to create a stockpile of so-called “blanks.”

“When we cut a shape, we might have 100 different images that can go on that particular shape,” Volker says.

But Next Innovations didn’t make a name for itself with quick-turnaround signage.

The company established itself as one of the premier makers of custom wall art and home decor, and it once held the record for sales on the German version of the QVC home shopping network. The company’s signature product, the EyCatcher wind spinner—a home decor item that comes alive in brilliant colors when touched by the sun’s rays and a light breeze—remains a popular item. You can even find them at Disney World.

Next Innovations metal art