State of the Industry - 1996
1996, Bill Clinton was re-elected president, the economy was...
...solid and Madeleine Albright became the United States' first female Secretary of State. Compact discs were the optimum in sound quality and data storage. Labels crept their way into Business Forms & Systems Magazine, creating the BFL&S of today. And, mass numbers of pentium chip-powered PC's and laser printers made their way into homes and businesses, paving the road to the World Wide Web.
With only a few years remaining in the 20th century, the mystery surrounding the new millennium
intensified. People anticipated big changes, but the details of those changes were uncertain. However, the printing industry didn't have to wait for the arrival of 2000. Its revolution surfaced in the late '90s with an onslaught of new technology.
Because printing is a mature industry, the infiltration of digital and electronic media rattled
the structure of the business, eliminating many prepress and production jobs. On the other hand, it
provided new job opportunities for digital typesetters, desktop publishers and other computer-related occupations. Victor Printing, Sharon, Pa., experienced this firsthand. "Some positions were
eliminated, but we've been fortunate enough to move employees over to some of the newer areas we're working on. Therefore, we haven't really eliminated any positions. We've actually grown," noted Terence Williams, partner.
Victor Printing has attempted to fulfill the ever-changing demands of the business forms industry
since the late 1970s. Prior to this, the company was a small commercial shop only selling direct locally. Williams confessed that it wasn't difficult to get business in the 1980s. "Boy, we just picked up a lot of distributors when we started advertising," he said.
By 1990, 90 percent of Victor Printing's business consisted of forms, with commercial printing
comprising 10 percent of sales. Consequently, the company chose not to purchase new equipment for commercial printing. But, as the mid '90s approached, its distributors started to struggle with sales and were looking for something different to boost business, even though some of them had already ventured into ad specialties. This prompted Victor Printing to return to its roots in commercial printing. Despite some setbacks, many of its distributors were receptive to the move.
"It wasn't an easy move for us. It wasn't an easy move for our distributors either, because a lot of them didn't have any selling experience in commercial printing," Williams commented. "But, we started investing in new equipment and throughout the '90s, we bought conventional commercial equipment."
Commercial printing proved to be beneficial for Victor Printing. In 1996, it accounted for 15 percent of its business—a five percent increase from six years ago. However, the forms component has seen a decline in sales over the years. "Continuous forms declined, even though we're still running a decent amount of them. Our check business has declined, as well," said Williams. "But, unit sets are basically the same. And, on the commercial side, we're getting involved in wide-format printing. We're also handling mailing and pocket folders."
With attention shifting to digital technology, Victor Printing purchased a HP Indigo UltraStream 2000 digital press in 2001, enabling it to perform variable data work. Still, digital printing is only a recent phenomenon. Over the last 10 years, the printing industry's primary focus was elsewhere. Buzz had surrounded electronic forms, and a little thing called the Internet entered the game.
According to the Printing Industries of America's Vision 21 study released in 2000, the printing
industry does not "operate in a vacuum" and is instead, influenced by outside factors including the
prevalent use of the Internet. To survive in the late '90s, distributors had to adapt to the electronic invasion.
TopForm Software, Norcross, Ga., offered distributors services to ease the transition to electronic systems by providing them with an affordable multi-user software solution. The company's services include data conversion, a Request for Quote module, Web.EC and variable print options. The majority of TopForm Software's customers are forms distributors. However, its larger customers are often involved in areas such as promotional products, transcending traditional
forms. But, whether distributors sell continuous checks or office products doesn't determine who
benefits from the company's assistance. "The biggest people who can benefit from our services are those becoming Web enabled. We have concentrated a lot of our effort in our Web services that we offer," explained Keith McBride, vice president of research & development.
McBride observed a heightened interest in online ordering beginning around 1999. "We had one or two customers who got involved with online ordering before then, but the bulk of it started in 1999. And over the years, our customers have enhanced their offerings," he said.
McBride speculated the timing was a result of increased education. "For a lot of our customers, it
had to do with educating their sales force in how to sell the product and how to sell the services that they could offer," he noted.
The Internet Effect
If Web users peruse Victor Printing's Website (www.victorprinting.com), they will notice numerous features. For example, there are links to all of its products and services, a company overview, colorful images and even a section where distributors can set up an account to place and review orders—a different scene from 10 years ago.
The bottom line is the Internet is extremely advantageous and essential to conducting successful
business. It has the capability to handle more orders as opposed to traditional methods, thus proving to be cost-effective. As a result, the Web is in high demand with end-users.
"People are looking for these services now, and if distributors don't offer them, they're really not
considered serious contenders for a lot of contracts," McBride stressed. "People have become a lot more computer literate, especially the larger distributors. They often have an IT staff whereas 10 years ago, that was very rare."
And, just within the last decade, Victor Printing was the only Internet service provider for its small town. The company ran the service for six years until technology forced it out of play. AOL arrived and soon enough, Adelphia offered cable Internet service—the ultimate blow to Victor Printing's dial-up service.
"The connection was so fast that people didn't mind spending another $10 a month, so they jumped ship. We ended up selling out, got out alive and kept some of the Web service," Williams said. "We were actually trying to get DSL from Verizon and be the distributor in the area, but they kept holding us off. The next thing we knew, they were selling it direct, so they kind of went around us."
The Internet also changed the amount of control companies have over their clients. To test its
Internet capabilities, in 1995 TopForm Software introduced an Internet application so its customers could enter support requests online and view additional requests. This often poses a challenge for automation. For instance, distributors may have a certain system in place for handling multiple orders for end-users. Distributors lose some of their control when their customers can perform this on the Web. Said McBride, "We see customers struggle with that because it's a very sales-driven organization most of the time. They'll do whatever they need to do to get the sale, and they may have a lot of special procedures in place that aren't always easily automated."
The Here and Now
So, how does the industry look today? Promotional products are big for TopForm Software. The company recently developed EC Promo, an online tool for ordering promotional products such as shirts and hats.
Office products are another popular niche. "We've had some very good success stories about people who implemented the module, and in the first month showed a profit on their return on investment," McBride related.
With the increasing popularity of electronic forms, Victor Printing is finding traditional paper-based forms becoming its own niche market. "Last year, our forms sales were flat. We didn't gain, but we didn't lose, so we consider that a victory," Williams stated.
"It's all about the electronic age today. There are debit cards, and more and more transactions are now being done over the Web," Williams said. He admitted that the company has even cut out some of the FedEx or UPS next-day-delivery letters because of the Internet.
Nevertheless, electronic forms are not something that Victor Printing has decided to explore at the moment. "We've got enough coals in the fire, believe me," Williams said.
While this method works for Victor Printing, the company still recognizes the mighty influence of the electronic age and offered some advice for distributors in the industry. "Keep pounding the pavement every day and keep looking for innovative products," Williams advised. As McBride observed, the trend is to go big. If you don't, you'll be replaced faster than you can say "dial-up."
By Elise Hacking