THE WORLD of commercial printing is still quite a big nut. Even with the growing threat of outsourced print and other traditional ink-on-paper products migrating to digital land, there are enough emerging applications to keep most printers fat and happy.
Operative term of the day: Most printers.
There is, however, a contradiction of terms floating about our grand industry that may never be reconciled—after all, it has lasted for quite a while. Some say we are in an era of specialization that plays into the hands of niche players, those who excel in a market segment that is not being fully addressed on a local or regional level.
Others will contend that, in an environment where commodity pricing is wreaking havoc on general commercial printers, it is more important than ever to add as many ancillary services as possible to become a one-stop shop for clients who are increasingly seeking to reduce their core of vendors.
In reality, there’s more than enough room—and need—for both. For now. What about the future? What happens when someone replicates the online VistaPrint model (see cover story) and modifies it to address more mainstream printing applications besides business cards, postcards and brochures?
And what of the future generations of print buyers who have been weaned on the Internet? How will they shop for a print vendor; will long-term buyer/vendor relationships mean anything to them?
“We’re in an era of specialization,” contends Dennis Mason, president of Mason Consulting in Western Springs, IL. “The economics of certain kinds of printing make for specialization. Like a Quad plant that’s set up to knock out Newsweek and Time. Clearly, that’s a specialization, and when that kind of plant is in place, nobody can touch it from an economics standpoint.
“There’s also a place for printers who produce lots of different things—brochures, calling cards, whatever—and their cost structure is such that they won’t be able to compete on a cost basis with people like VistaPrint for a calling card,” he continues. “By the same token, they’re still going to garner some business because of their relationships. As I see it, these general purpose shops are not going to offer the best prices, but they’ll still do business because of factors like location and relationships.”
Clint Bolte, principal of the consulting firm C. Clint Bolte & Associates in Chambersburg, PA, notes that while there have been caveats about becoming a “jack of all trades and master of none,” many so-called specialty printers have broadened their product and service offerings beyond the intended scope of the niche. Perhaps a hedge bet is being all things to select clients.
“Select clients are appreciative of the unique skills and extraordinary services that the printer is bringing,” Bolte says. “The printer is an essential element of their marketing team in fulfilling the print buyer’s marketing objectives, so to speak.”
Still, Bolte has noted the pressure printers have felt from clients who are “clearly looking to printers to be the technical consultant for facilitating all of their graphic communications needs,” including information fulfillment services, mailing and marketing.
In order to meet customers’ partnership needs, he sees the need for general commercial printers to collaborate with “friendly competitors” to provide services beyond the printer’s scope.
Personal Service is important
“A lot of trade printers don’t want to deal with a bride who comes in and needs 100 invitations,” Tim Butler says. “Most trade printers want to do 10,000 to 20,000 pieces at a time. We felt it would be good to fill that niche and have no minimum run length. And customers appreciate the fact that when they call or walk through the door, they’re dealing with the guy who’s running the job.
“Brides I talk to will order samples off the Internet, and the samples come back crooked and messed up. These women like to be able to come into our shop, sit down and touch the paper, do a press check and actually see the process. It gives them that sense of a hand crafted, one-of-a-kind invitation. In an era of digital printing, I kind of run a throwback shop.”
We are in the business of providing fast turnaround, however. Trade shops that rely on Quality Letterpress generally aren’t seeking the lowest prices, either.
“You might be able to get the job done cheaper or faster somewhere else, but it’s not going to look as good,” Butler says. “My feeling is, take your time, do it right or don’t do it at all.”
Curiously, Quality Letterpress doesn’t advertise, instead it relies on word of mouth. It’s a stress-free environment; the Butlers go to work later in the day, leave late at night and enjoy a good deal of job satisfaction in a niche few dare to tackle.
“Regular presses don’t provide that tactile experience,” Butler concludes. “It’s very hands-on to take a blank piece of paper, lock up type individually and space it out. It’s much more creative than burning a plate and throwing it on-press.” PI