May 08 2012
As one who just spent a few years preparing our family print shop to be sold, and one who still writes for the Larry Hunt Newsletters, I love this question.
A print shop is in no way obsolete. We use them far far more than ever. The primary reason print shops are in an identity crisis is that the industry was largely “born” in the 60s 70s, when copiers and offset presses became small enough and cheap enough to build a business model around. That’s worked great for 40 years, but over time the average owner simply grew older, and no one could have predicted when they got-in quite how high-tech and dynamic the industry would be. Most owners were mechanics who thought a press would harness their talents, and 20 years into owning it they were expected to be passionate about PCL vs. PS, CMYK vs. RGB, and microlenticular vs. holographic printing. Copiers have replaced presses, and home laser printers have replaced copiers. As we’ve witnessed, there’s simply such thing as b/w 8.5×11 offset printing anymore, and there’s no market for shop-level 4-color-offset. Print shops are cheap for purchase now because, having been created in a boom, a large number of the owners are hitting retirement age at the same time. Add to that that a lot of those owners, as they became more hands-off over the years, have neglected much of their technological mandate.
So, what is the future for a print shop? Simple, your business model will revolve around the SKILLS and PROCESSES that can never be replaced by home printers. As with all businesses, this is a question of defining your core competencies and understanding what your customers’ true barriers are to “competing” with you by “doing it themselves.” Any time you even consider competing solely on price or buying them off you’ve missed that boat. There are plenty of high margin products that aren’t going away.
- Tech – You have a specialty. It doesn’t matter if they’re programmers who work for NASA, they still don’t know the pros and cons of various printer drivers, they still don’t know the pros and cons of dye sublimation processes vs. latex printing, and they still don’t know the changelog of every version of PDF. Know what you know and know what they don’t know. You should be selling bar codes, QR codes, ISBNs, etc. simply because that’s where the demand is. Web design, email newsletters, people even asked us to create email stationery for them (to match their printed collateral.) Every time you say No you’re leaving money on the table.
- Marketing – People don’t want to come to you just for printing. They want to come to you for marketing. The medium is irrelevant to what you do. It is increasingly difficult to find a graphic designer to hire who hasn’t taken a ton of web design classes (and probably photography and 3D animation classes), so make your customers and employees happy by putting all that on the menu. 25% of your customers will come in expecting to spend $1000 on physical collateral, and yet will present you an @aol or @hotmail address for their business cards. Just hook them up with their own domain (which they will renew every year through you for the rest of their lives.) Then hook them up with a web site (which they will gladly pay retail for because you are more professional and thus take more risk away from them than most web designers.)
- Design, pt. II – No matter how much you fear it, your customers aren’t going to be able to fake design. You need to build your branding around the fact that your employees are designers, both born that way and certified by a major university in such. In this economy we didn’t necessarily need to hire anyone to work at the copy counter who didn’t have a degree in art. When you hear about an “ ,” part of where that’s very visible is that currently, in a lot of surveys and industries, people with associates degrees in Art actually average higher wages than people with a BA in Art, who average more than an MFA who average more than a PhD. Thankfully that hasn’t hit many industries yet, but it does mean that you don’t have to lower your standards when it comes to hiring for a print shop–you will have MFAs applying for your front desk jobs, so have more self-esteem than to call them “overqualified.”
- Copywriting / Etiquette / Diction, etc. – As much as a home printer will not make your customers graphic artists, Microsoft Word will also not teach them to write “good English well.” Before this print shop I owned a wedding invitations business in a college town, and almost every bride would ask me why they shouldn’t go online and pay half as much for the same thing. What I didn’t tell them was that what they were looking at online literally came from the same factory as what I was ordering for them! So why not? These were college kids, some English majors, why couldn’t they just order them cheaper than my wholesale? After a year of struggling with this question, it dawned on me: I had never seen someone pull it off! No matter their qualifications, I had never seen one of those people actually produce something that I couldn’t tell was “fake” from 10 feet away. No matter their degree in art, they couldn’t fake the tone. No matter their degree in writing, they didn’t know the difference in “shall” and “will,” in “honor” and “honour,” in “the honor of your presence” and “the pleasure of your company.” And if I noticed, their grandma would notice. In the rawest sense, if they didn’t come to me the average price of their wedding present would be half what it would be if they did, so saving that $100 would absolutely and invariably cost them $10,000! That realization defined a lot of the tone of my printing history – “no one will notice but your boss” became one of my internal mantras, as I saw case after case where someone with a degree in art tried to design their own ad, or web designer after web designer turned in art in RGB that simply couldn’t print accurately, or ad agencies tried to send their work to a warehouse somewhere because they couldn’t comprehend the variables involved. It always failed if it didn’t touch my office, so sales was never a problem.
- Wide format – Signs and banners will never go away, because home users will never buy 50″ wide printers or stock 50″ wide rolls of various types of papers. Wide format can mean blueprints, vinyl banners, tyvek home wraps, hot air balloons–anything that is big and printed comes off a wide format printer, and there’s no reason you don’t have one.
- Thick papers, strange papers, envelopes – Home users will never have access to, let alone be willing to stock, a wide variety of papers. Plus no home printer can handle thick or heavily textured papers. We bought a Xante Digital Press and largely paid it off over Christmas, just from printing the addresses on the front of people’s fancy Christmas cards. In other words, people order Christmas cards from a fancy card company. They want the names on the front to match the color and font on the inside, without the fuser melting the glue and thus sealing their envelopes which they paid $5 apiece for, and I knew there was no way – zero – to do that outside of my shop. Ditto for wedding invitations or corporate party invitations. Oh, and strange papers – if you want to print on something that has a loose weave or a texture, especially in a short run, in Northern California you had to come to me (and perhaps still can only go to my little shop.)
- Tight registration –
Laser printers don’t have a tight enough registration for business cards, and one day that’ll go away, but there’s nothing on the horizon yet. All laser printers, all digital processes, all inkjets, are only accurate within maybe 1/4 inch. So they’re not accurate enough to print a stack of something and cut. Which means professional business cards, for the foreseeable future, will remain on offset printers.
- Spot colors. Everything that comes off a laser printer is made up of dots of various colors, reconstructed through equations. Nothing digital can match the exact color or lack of dots of buying a can of ink and pouring it into a press. That’s the second reason serious business cards aren’t leaving offset in the foreseeable future.
- Thermography/Engraving – More and more, wedding invitations will be done without engraving. But etiquette moves slowly, and you’ve got 50 years before the high end of class will move away from engraving. (They’ll move to thermography first.) On that note, everyone loves (not me, but most people) love thermographic business cards.
- Variable Data – As I said with printing addresses on envelopes, the world is moving toward variable data. More and more of my customers brought me spreadsheets, or strange database dumps off their cash registers, and wanted me to scrub the data, extract the addresses, and build strikingly personal junk mail (and even email.) I once got a magazine that had 26 covers, one for each recipient’s last name, but more than that a college pennant hanging in the background of the picture to match my college, posters on the wall to match my music preferences, a closet full of clothing matching my sports–all in glorious color on the cover of a magazine! That’s not going away.
Okay, I’ll stop there. Comments?
This post was in answer to a reader-submitted question at (http://www.quora.com/Business-Development/What-is-the-future-for-a-print-shop-in-the-digital-era/answer/Colin-Jensen). If you have comments, or if there is a topic you would like Colin to address, please comment below!
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