Printing for Profit: Area printers embrace new technology and beef up customer service

Concerns about the demise of commercial printing date back to the 1990s, and they reflect the systemic change brought on by the Internet and digital technology. But printers, at least the ones who have survived the most disruptive period this ancient industry has experienced, have proven to be digitally adaptable.

When the 2008-09 recession hit the country like a ton of bricks, print industry watchers were forecasting doom, and with good reason. Printers already had the Internet and online digital printing services as a perceived existential threat, and the emergence of e-readers and e-books started to threaten book publishers just as the recession began to serve as an appetite suppressant. It seemed like a perfect storm, and it helped whittle down the number of printing establishments by 10,400 between 1998 and 2011, according to an industry report published by the National Association for Printing Leadership.

“The printers who had invested so much in long-run presses found that their market was shrinking as a direct result of commerce via the Internet, which was further compounded by short-run digital technology,” noted Gene Davis, president and owner of Badger Graphic Systems.

The Internet has evolved and matured to the point where it is both easy and convenient for anyone to use it for applications that commercial printers originally developed. Industry survivors face yet another competitive threat in online services such as Vistaprint and CaféPress, which offer good quality and lower prices on short-run print jobs for brochures, business cards, marketing collateral, and promotional products.

In this look at the printing industry, IB examines how local commercial printers of roughly 50 employees or fewer remain relevant in an era of low-cost online printers that are competing for those small, affordable print jobs of a few hundred dollars. Rather than lamenting that the sky is falling, printing’s survivors have built online ordering systems of their own, maintaining both market share and profit margins. In the process, they have been happy to discover there is still strong demand for print services, even while the Internet has established new ways of placing and processing orders.

Competitive threat

Davis acknowledged that the online printing market provides a viable and growing service for a portion of the overall market, especially print users who can use standard sizes and graphics in small quantities. He also noted that digital printers can provide a high-quality imprint and a fast turnaround, and that digital printing is directed at short runs of full-color printing, meaning they do not have to make negatives and plates like more conventional printers do, making it much less expensive to set up a job. Digital has another major advantage in that customers can personalize output with variable imaging.

However, he argues that a digital press does not run as fast as a conventional press, and digital cost efficiencies decrease as the quantity increases. “Putting a different name and address in multiple locations on a full-color document makes for a great mailing piece in the direct-mail market,” he noted. “This has been a huge growth area for printers who have made the investment in digital technology. So the challenge for online printers is to be able to offer services and quality to match what a customer really needs, and you cannot beat face-to-face interaction when you need some creativity. The online environment limits services that many buyers need. 

Davis said printers who in the past were not on the “value-added” train have jumped on in droves, in part because it’s a way to keep online printers at bay. Commercial printers are not as impacted by online services if they have built a business on providing services beyond what can be provided in an online environment, including graphic design, wider varieties of paper, layout options, mailing services, online fulfillment, and wide-format products.

Since single orders can become large accounts as client companies grow, Badger Graphic Systems has invested in a variety of equipment to serve all levels of printing. However, the company manages programs for customers with more than 1,000 employees nationwide who order business cards through an online portal from their desks. “Our larger clients depend on us for complete programs that allow their employees to log on to our site from anywhere in the world, enter variable data for their marketing collateral, receive a proof, and enter the order for delivery anywhere,” he stated. 

Some commercial printers are competing for those small-run print jobs, but not necessarily for the same customer. Mark Traver, president of Traver Graphics, said his firm competes for jobs that fit a niche. “Those jobs, both for online printers and small print shops, are the same; the buyer is different,” he explained. “We are not trying to change the mind of the person who wants to buy their print online, as they are most likely looking for one thing only, and that is, how much does it cost?”

Traver said his shop’s Web services are limited, mainly because customers “have not taken us there.” He’s not sure he wants to go there either, as his shop specializes in a deeper level of customer service, one-on-one sales, and a “mom-and-pop type” feel. 

“Notice how I didn’t say how [comparatively] great our print was,” he noted. “Selling on quality and special print offerings has not been a great talking point to new customers for some time now. Print has evened itself out with the emergence of the computer world. Things like registration, quality, color, and consistency have evened out with new computer programs built into the work flow.”

Traver Graphics launched during the recession, when the Internet took many projects away from print. For a while, Traver thought print would take an even greater hit as time went on, but that’s not how business history has unfolded. “It was like the dot-com bubble — the projects that went to the Web seemed to be slated for removal in the print world,” Traver stated. “Now everyone wants to provide a balanced approach, which includes print again.”

According to Traver, the print shops that failed in the digital age were run by people who didn’t even want to buy a computer, so saying they didn’t adapt is an understatement. 

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“If you look at the auctions of equipment from these shops, they still believed that film was the way to go, and a computer was just an odd-looking paperweight,” he stated. “They didn’t get it at all. They didn’t want to send a fax, let alone actually figure out how to email someone. Unfortunately, a lot of those folks were the mom-and-pops of the world, and we have lost to the corporate climate some great printers.”

Another printer believes the competitive threat posed by online printers is overstated — at least for his company. Scott DeGolier, president and owner of DeGolier Printing, said a sizeable number of business customers still prefer human interaction. “The online printers have not been much of a threat to us, at least other than some small business card orders,” DeGolier said. “I think that people still like dealing with a live person.”

That’s not to say DeGolier Printing customers don’t have an ecommerce option, but DeGolier views it more as a sales arm of the business. “Ecommerce has become just an extension of sales for the print industry and not really a way to compete against the online print facilities,” he said.

In DeGolier’s view, the industry’s failures had less to do with an ability to adapt than with a reluctance to admit that the digital revolution “would go on longer than we were told or than we thought that it would.” As a result, he said print shops got caught with “sales dropping like a rock and overhead remaining high and ultimately crushing them.”

“If you did not react soon enough to adjust to the slumping sales, your ability to survive became very difficult,” he stated. “I will say that because of the changes within the industry, if you were not already involved with digital printing or ecommerce, you had a hole that was just that much deeper.”

Internet, friend or foe? 

The printing industry is still a force in Wisconsin, ranking fifth in terms of jobs and economic output, according to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.

For most printers, predictions of doom were exaggerated, but that’s because they made an investment in technology and appreciated the fact that print often complements digital, and vice versa.

The Internet is only an enemy to those printers who ignore its power and opportunities, Davis asserted. It has allowed formerly local printers to compete and sell worldwide, but the technology is “a beautiful thing” only as long as printers keep investing in it, he added.

“Long-distance relationships are kind of weak in the long run, and as a business grows from an acorn into the mighty oak, you really need to be able to look someone in the eye, ask for help, and shake their hand,” Davis opined. “Personal contact is the disadvantage of online commerce and remains the advantage of utilizing a local printer who can offer new technology as it evolves.”

Traver believes shops of his size
have an advantage in that they have the capabilities of the big printers but the cost of mom-and-pops, which “actually care what we are doing for our customers.” He also called the Internet a necessary evil. “I’m sure that in a while, we will be providing online services as well as conventional services, which involves actually picking up the phone every once in a while,” he said.

DeGolier cited print’s “love-hate” relationship with the Internet, noting that printers must figure out how to make it their friend while it allows foes to invade their market. Fortunately, he said, digital printing complements conventional printing, conventional complements digital, social media complements both, and technology complements all. “This becomes a very difficult question to answer,” he said, “because you need to embrace all of these to some degree to maintain relevance in the marketplace.”

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