Keep Hangin’ On
There's no escaping the constant debate about the lifespan of continuous forms. At one time, this product dominated print industry sales. However, there has been a noticeable decline in demand over the years. Companies are swayed by the charms of technology and as more advancements in this area are made, the number of businesses migrating to an electronic format will continue to grow.
But technology isn't the only obstacle. Steven Osterloh, director of marketing for Midlothian, Texas-based Ennis, believes the availability and abundance of laser printers have led to a decline of continuous forms. End-users are under the misconception that the cost to operate a laser forms program is lower than the continuous forms product line.
"End-users have been converting from continuous forms to laser forms for years. This trend will continue, but we have completed cost analysis for distributors to help them educate their customers. In some cases, the numbers clearly state the end-user will save money with a laser product. In other cases, the numbers clearly state the customer will end up spending a significant amount more after conversion," Osterloh said. "Since we produce both continuous and laser forms, we are somewhat neutral when it comes to the customers' choice. We do want to make sure that they have all of the information necessary. If an end-user converts to laser, and then the cost to 'complete' those laser forms ends up costing them more, we've failed at our jobs within the supply chain (supplier-manufacturer-distributor)."
Doug Marecek, director, sales and marketing for South Elgin, Illinois-based Integrated Print & Graphics (IPG) agreed with Osterloh's sentiments. But he also is convinced the country's economic troubles have contributed to the decline.
"Continuous forms are on the decline and have been for several years. I have not noticed a larger drop compared to last year. However, I think the decline in business is a direct result of the current economic climate. Businesses have not had the volume needs that drive the use of continuous forms as well as the continued introduction of laser printers," Marecek commented.
Although there are fewer requests for continuous forms, some demand still exists. Both companies are fulfilling continuous form jobs. Forms business comprised 38 percent of Ennis' total sales. While Osterloh was unable to disclose how much of this business consisted of continuous forms, he did note that the company produced "hundreds of millions" of continuous forms last year.
Marecek revealed approximately 12 percent of IPG's business forms sales were continuous. "We continue to produce the continuous forms because there is still a demand. If we see that demand drop, I am certain we will evaluate the mix in our plant of resources dedicated to continuous forms," he stated.
Marecek added, "The printing industry is currently going through some tough times, but fortunately our owner has continued to look at additional product offerings to be able to provide a more complete solution to our client base."
By offering clients value-added features in addition to the forms, companies like IPG are solidifying their future. End-users want to be heard and it is crucial for suppliers and distributors to work in tandem to nourish the business relationship. Those who think outside the box get ahead.
"The future of the printing industry is going to still be dependent on relationships. People still buy from people," said Marecek. "In the current time, it is easy to get frustrated trying to sell relationships, but in the long run it is the relationship-based seller that is going to succeed."
When asked about the future of continuous forms, Marecek responded, "I think that the decline will begin to taper off in the next few years and the advantage will be finding a supplier that can offer you more than just forms at low prices. The successful distributors will find plants that are financially sound and that have a shared vision of the future."
Osterloh surmised the use of continuous forms will continue to decline. "Some of this decline is because the forms are no longer needed, some will be because the customer required a change to a different product, while some of the decline can be attributed to the lack of equipment at the user's level," he said.
In regard to equipment, impact/dot matrix printers are required and these are not as readily available as in the past.
When looking at the big picture, it is important for distributors to educate their customers on which products will fit their needs—whether it's continuous forms or another item. Otherwise, those rumors about the fate of print-based forms will become a reality.
"The use of forms and the types of forms customers are using continues to change. It is important distributors educate their customers on which products best fit their needs. It is in our supply chain's best interest to educate our customers on the best solution for their needs, not necessarily the best solution for our needs," Osterloh said. "Printing is an expensive medium. Without educating our customers, we will eventually make printing less and less a choice they make to communicate."