Ten years ago, a lot of people were still feeling a sense of relief that the Y2K bug hadn't caused the collapse of society. Google wasn't very well-known as a noun, let alone as a verb. Blogging was in its infancy. Watching video on the Web generally meant downloading the whole thing first. And social networking was something that you did over lunch or at a convention.
The evolution of the Internet over the past decade has clearly impacted day-to-day life and business alike. According to Forrest Leighton, director of product marketing for the product systems division of Lake Success, New York-based Canon U.S.A., "The Internet has caused a fundamental shift in the way that organizations communicate both internally and externally."
This shift has certainly been felt in the world of commercial print. "With respect to the production-printing marketplace," said Leighton, "[the Internet] has had a great impact by acting as a job facilitator and increasing the level of automation in the job process."
"The Internet has really helped us speed up our process," said Gene Toepfer, director of sales for Foster Printing Service, based in Michigan City, Ind. "Project communications are faster and frequent … With the Internet and e-mail we can proof jobs today and get approval today."
But the Internet has done more than streamline the process for existing commercial printers; it also has created an avenue for new printers to enter the market. 4over, Inc., a Web-based printer headquartered in Glendale, Calif., was founded in 2003. According to CEO Zarik Megerdichian, "4over was built from the beginning as an online Internet business. All orders we produce come through our trade website." Due to the digital nature of its business, Megerdichian remarked, "4over is automated at every level that gives our customers a competitive advantage."
As a ubiquitous technology that facilitates easy communication, the Internet also has influenced the dynamics of commercial print sales, allowing some printers to sell directly to end-users. "The most common imagePRESS digital press user sells direct to their customer," said Leighton.
Fortunately for distributors, sales direct to end-users remain the exception rather than the rule. "4over is a trade printing business model and we only work with print resellers and distributors," said Megerdichian. "The value of print resellers is the lifeblood of a trade-only provider."
The improvements in communication brought about by the Internet also benefit distributors. Toepfer noted, "The general ease of FTP and file transfer has made it easier to serve distributors across a wider geographical area."
He continued, "We understand that most distributors bring more value to their customers than most 'local' printers do. As a printer we value [distributors], they help us extend [and] multiply our sales."
Glittering technology and 24/7 worldwide communication weren't the only things the decade brought with it. For the last two years, the world—and the United States in particular—has been in the throes of a historic financial crisis. In 2008, the commercial print sector saw $387.7 million in sales. In 2009, that number dropped by 13 percent to $339.2 million, according to Print Professional's top 100 manufacturers issue.
"There is no doubt; the recession has reduced the number of transactions and the size of them," said Toepfer. "Our larger clients are buying less as their clients have reduced budgets." But he pointed out, "The recession has created a need for concern and caution in our industry, but it has also created opportunities."
For example, Canon has worked to make the most of its business by "putting additional focus on helping our customers evolve and grow their business despite the challenges of the marketplace," Leighton said. "We have been successful by offering advanced, highly customizable products and services to fit customer's needs."
Toepfer expressed a similar sentiment, observing a "hidden blessing" in the downturn: "We all have the chance to evaluate what we can do more for clients, what we can do better and in the process discover where we can streamline and develop lower costs."
Combined with the changes already being wrought in the market by the Internet, the recession has made for an intimidating situation for commercial print distributors. Given that, many distributors are wondering what the best strategies are for their survival and success during these tough times.
According to Leighton, "For most distributors, differentiation is the key. If they can offer a customer something that they need or will help grow their business and create value, the customer will want to continue the relationship with them."
Toepfer recommended distributors make an effort "to really understand the reasons clients need print or the sales promotional products." He listed several questions distributors should ask themselves, such as "What is more important, keeping the unit cost down or keeping the total spend down?" and "Is maintaining the image and brand of the end-user being honored?"
Megerdichian suggested that distributors "keep finding ways to differentiate yourself and offer quality services." Perhaps most importantly, he offered the simple advice, "Don't give up!"
As economic indicators suggest the economy is slowly but surely emerging from the crisis, and as a new decade begins, what does the future hold for commercial print?
"4over continues to be aggressive on future plans with additional locations and product offerings," said Megerdichian. "We are working on a few projects to help our print resellers be more effective in marketing and to capture an increasing share of the online print buying market." He touched on a business philosophy that reflects the evolving market and changing role of commercial print: "We consider ourselves a marketing company first, a software company second and a printing company third."
Leighton called for printers to recognize the value of service beyond simply providing a product: "The commercial printing business as a whole needs to get out of a 'commodity' mentality that does not recognize the differences between products and services."
Toepfer alluded to a similar outlook and noted that Foster is making an effort to expand its offerings in service areas such as direct mailing.
The last 10 years have undoubtedly brought about many changes in the nature of the print business, business in general and even society as a whole. The decade of Facebook, YouTube and "too big to fail" has created an ever-changing and fast-paced environment that demands companies keep up or die out.
"An industry that is more self-aware of the constant changes going on around it, one that recognizes the diverse needs of its customers," Leighton concluded, "can embrace the new market dynamic and move ahead."