Preparing for the Future in a Changing Commercial Printing Marketplace

by Melissa Larson, contributing writer, PostPress
SunDance has expanded from printing to finishing and binding operations and, in fact, just announced the purchase of new grommet setting machines for album-style books. Mackenzie Singleton, creative and marketing department, SunDance Marketing Solutions.

Sometimes it is difficult to lift your head up from the day-to-day operations in your plant and try to take a look at the big picture. Sure, there are plenty of orders right now, but what about in six months? Is it better to invest in new equipment or hire an extra operator? And, do you have the right mix of expertise to go after new business? If only you could see three years into the future. Sound advice might be “Be ready for anything,” but that’s easier said than done. Below are some “Best Practice” tips from industry experts to help printers and finishers navigate the uncertainties of the new print landscape.

PIA outlook

Printing Industries of America (PIA) issued a flash report this spring titled “Economic and Print Market Scan and Forecast: Pre-Election Update and Outlook.” Its introduction includes this statement:

“At the present time, we seem caught in a vortex of events that could have major impacts on the economy and print markets going forward. Of course, the big elephant in the room is the upcoming presidential and congressional elections. Beyond these there are the uncertainties and risks to the global economy from Brexit, the aging of the current recovery and other potential headwinds. In total, the current economic environment is as risky and uncertain as it has been in years, making this a very challenging time for prognostications and forecasts.”

The report’s authors added that it will be interesting to compare results after the outcome of the election is known – removing a big uncertainty.

So, what’s the good news? According to the flash report from PIA, printing shipments tend to expand when the economy is in a “mature recovery phase,” and this has been true of the economy the last couple of years. “Print has been doing very well lately. Indeed, North American print markets have enjoyed robust growth and printers’ pricing and profits have strengthened,” the report stated.

According to the US Department of Commerce Census of Manufacturing data, printing shipments were up 1.6 percent through the first four months of 2016. In comparison, all US manufacturing shipment declined over the same period by 2.8 percent, so print exceeded all manufacturing by more than four percentage points.

Other nuggets gleaned from the report include the following:

  • The US economy is in the seventh year of recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Although the recovery has been sluggish with fairly tepid growth, it has been a sure and steady climb without interruption.
  • Print typically takes a while to get back on track after the economy recovers from a recession, but once print recovers, it does best in the mature recovery phase of the economy.
  • Most of the severe displacement of print by digital media is now behind us.
  • Labels, wrappers and packaging print segments serve as an anchor on print sales, tracking very closely with the overall economy.
  • Print marketing and promotion, particularly direct mail, have demonstrated their effectiveness as premium marketing and promotional media.
  • Even informational and editorial print (books, newspapers and magazines) has been doing relatively well lately.

Best practices

The industry groups and trade associations that are charged with tracking printing trends also pick up on the highly effective habits of successful printing and finishing companies.

Richard Romano, senior analyst at WhatTheyThink, and Joe Webb, director of’s Economics and Research Center, are prominent prognosticators. Dr. Ronnie H. Davis is senior vice president and chief economist at Printing Industries of America (PIA). Through their industry presentations and online white papers, each of these industry gurus have dropped pearls of wisdom along the way, which have been compiled into a list of Best Practices for printers in these uncertain times. Printers and finishers who excel at these practices also have offered input.

Communicate with your customers. Printers and finishers need to promote much greater interaction with their customers than they traditionally have. Instead of just picking up the phone every few months, consider an in-person visit to a few of your customers. Better communication will help you keep a close eye on what products are falling in and out of favor and what types of services are becoming game-changers. For instance, what are your customers buying somewhere else that you could provide instead?

Beware the stealth e-technologies. If you are not technology-savvy, hire someone who is. Become aware of the more subtle technologies that are weaning consumers off print. Just think about the electronic technologies you’ve used in the last few days – electronic boarding passes, emailed ATM receipts, online statements, PDF-based forms and more. According to Romano, even restaurant menus are in danger of going electronic, from the dynamic digital signage used in new fast-food franchises to an emerging trend of using iPads even in sit-down restaurants. Smartphone-based transactions via Apple Pay also may further erode the reliance on print. All of this is why periodic business analysis must take into account which types of business are likely to decline over time and how to replace them with longterm winners.

Know your current strengths. What are your strongest operations? Larry Worfolk, operations manager at Pacific Bindery Services Ltd. in Western Canada (Vancouver), keeps close track of which lines of business are doing the best. The provider of finishing and binding services has a niche in lifestyle magazines – markets such as food, brewing, photography, weaving, fashion, 100-mile diet books, etc. “Currently the ‘decorating’ segment of our business (foil, embossing and diecutting) is showing the most promise,” Worfolk said.

“We are seeing a greater trend towards slick UV coatings, strikethrough printing effects and reticulated coatings. We also are starting to see some specialty hi-build UV coatings. On our perfect binding lines, we are seeing a trend to heavier weight cover stocks than in the past,” he added.

PIA research partner the Management Department at Jennings A. Jones College of Business, Middle Tennessee State University, provides updated information on PIA member printers’ current printing processes. Based on its latest study, there are 13 print product categories offered by more than half of today’s printers. The most common products are brochures, direct mail, pamphlets and business cards, offered by more than 70 percent of printers. Mackenzie Singleton, creative and marketing department, SunDance Marketing Solutions.

Step outside your comfort zone. Consider offering complementary and supplementary nonprint products and services, like email marketing, social media marketing, mobile app development, database management, etc. There has been a great push in the last 10 years for printers to brand themselves as “marketing services providers,” without knowing what that really means. Below is an example of a company that does know.

JohnHenry Ruggieri is managing partner of SunDance Marketing Solutions, a multi-channel printer and marketer in Orlando, Florida. SunDance has expanded from printing to finishing and binding operations and, in fact, just announced the purchase of new grommet setting machines for album-style books.

“We are always looking to bring in additional services when it makes sense; we are unique in the fact that we produce 98 percent of our projects within our facility – so we are already providing the finishing/binding work in-house,” he said. “Meeting or exceeding client demands is at the top of our priority list, and for us to accomplish this, it makes sense for us to control the project timelines and provide these services in-house.”

Ruggieri says his firm has noted a marked decrease in monthly/quarterly magazines and periodicals and an uptick on signage (wide-format), personalization, mailing and storefronts for enterprise solutions. SunDance provides a cloud-based “Web to Print” storefront/portal where customers can order print and marketing collateral materials from secure electronic storage.

The portal is designed as a customized online marketing resource center where authorized users can order business cards, letterhead, brochures, forms, magazines, manuals, apparel and promotional items.

Other services provided by SunDance include everything from mailing and fulfillment to fine art publishing and large-format printing.

Bring your website up-to-date. Here’s what Romano has to say about using your website to demonstrate your operation’s capabilities: “Does your website say ‘copyright 2008’? Are notable projects, awards or achievements up-to-date? Does the site offer compelling and interesting content, like blog posts that offer advice on a range of subjects, such as proper formatting of files, marketing tips and so forth? Do you use social media best practices to connect with present and prospective customers? Staying abreast of new technologies and demonstrably using them for one’s own business is the way to build technical credibility.”

When asked where he thinks future SunDance business will come from, Ruggieri responded, “While we continue to focus on niche markets and providing end-to-end solutions with our sales team, the other source of new business is coming in from the web. Having a strong presence online and a solid SEO strategy, we believe, will be a big game changer moving forward into the future.”

SunDance has noticed a decrease in monthly/quarterly magazines and periodicals and an uptick on signage (wide-format), personalization, mailing and storefronts for enterprise solutions. Mackenzie Singleton, creative and marketing department, SunDance Marketing Solutions.

Be aware of growth and changes in short-run digital printing. According to Romano, “This is a completely new market that emerged solely due to digital printing and the ability to make a 100-percent personalized, full-color printed hardcover book, produced in a run length as low as a single copy.” Epitomized by the photo book market, toner- and inkjet-based printing technologies present new opportunities for commercial printers. Printers even have found opportunities in short-run, customized publications, like books, newspapers and magazines. All of this is driven by not only print engines but also front ends and software that can process the data needed to make true personalization possible.

The drive toward customization also is influencing the labels and package printing markets. Consumers no longer want to be seen as mass consumers but as individuals with their own specific needs and preferences, and brand owners and retailers are responding to that trend.

Open your mind to collaboration. You’re used to viewing your vendors, manufacturers and suppliers as useful sources of knowledge. Why not view them as partners? You don’t have to add all the equipment and expertise to enter new markets – you just need to forge partnerships with companies that have that capability. Ask yourself if you can benefit from their insights and broaden the horizons of your business. Both commercial printers and print finishers can work together to satisfy the end customer’s needs, from the printed page to foil, coatings and bindery.

“Customers are looking to their printers to provide them with a ‘Wow’ factor, whether it is during printing or a postpress finishing technique. Customers will continue to look for techniques that will help them to stand out from their competition,” said Worfolk. “This could be foil effects, embossing, duplexing or special diecuts.”

“Our clients are looking for a partner, someone who is easy to work with and can provide innovative solutions with quality, timeliness and price all being considerations,” concluded Ruggieri.

Whether it’s providing the “Wow” factor or steady day-to-day partnership, success in the new reality of the print business will depend on best practices and innovation.

Melissa Larson has been writing about printing, converting and packaging for 30 years.