09 June 2020 Business

After the virus: The shape of print to come

Gareth Ward considers how print businesses' communications with suppliers and customers alike will transfer online, as well as how print will be bought and used in the next few years.

Macbeth summed it up “I am in blood stepped in so far that to go back were as tedious as to go o’er”. In other words we are up to our knees in it and have no choice but to keep going to the other side. Nobody knows what dry land will look like, only that it will be very different to the land we left behind at the end of last year.

The pandemic is changing behaviours across the whole economic system, perhaps with changes to the political system to come. People will want to carry on working from home for at least some of the time; sales calls will not be welcome, ending the justification for company cars. Many are sitting outside offices and homes racking up monthly charges with nowhere to go. People want to do business online and printers need to shape up fast.

Hospitality, entertainment, travel, tourism, retail – all have been big customers for print in recent years. All are currently buying minimal amounts of print just to keep the business ticking over until the world returns to normal. Only there is no business as usual.

Some things, however, seem to be clear. The internet will become more and more intrinsic to business life. Product demonstrations and sales conversations will take place using conferencing technology. Once the machine is in place, training and then service will take place from a distance.

Then the question arises about what will be the appropriate machinery. It will need to be as automated as possible, with remote connectivity to lead to the Smart Factory and the sort of remote data connection that is necessary for diagnostics, for spotting training issues, for managing production schedules, for set up of jobs almost instantly.

In the new normal there will be no place for makeready. Nobody will pay you to produce waste. That can define waste in terms of sheets of paper and consumables; it can be lost time; it can be mistakes in job preparation. These must be eliminated. One of the factors driving the success of ESP in Swindon a decade ago was that it would make ready in less time than customers had paid for. If there was a standing 15 minutes charge for makeready, the printer going from one job to the next in five minutes has gained ten minutes of production time which can be sold to another customer. Nobody now is going to pay that set up time any more than a printer should pay the set up charges required by trade finishers. It is simply anachronistic.

Likewise the age of the salesman who wins work through amiability and long term personal contacts is passing. Few customers are going to welcome a visit from someone “popping in for a coffee as they are just passing” any longer.

Communications will be using the internet, presentations made by Zoom. Orders will be placed via web portals, with set pricing for all but the most sophisticated projects. That pricing might be agreed on some kind of contract, a subscription if you like, or be an adhoc price. This has been driven by the online printers and the amount of work that they are picking up suggests that print specifiers are happy to buy in this way. In any case the buyers used to the old ways (not necessarily those long retired print buyers who would distribute a Christmas list each year to suppliers and prospective suppliers like a child sending a letter to Santa) are retiring fast. The Generation Z coming to join the ranks of the employed do not think like this.

And these are both our immediate customers and the customers of our customers. These are going to shape how print is used and how it is bought in the coming years. The printer that wants to be successful in that time needs to understand this generation. They have grown up thinking that the internet and smart phones are the natural order of things, not something that is new. They are always connected to each other and to the world at large. Their experiences, not their possessions, define them. The rising cost of housing and material possessions means that renting furniture, clothing and more is a way to access quality products that are otherwise unattainable. It’s not so new. When colour television first arrived companies like Radio Rentals enjoyed great success renting televisions which were relatively expensive and just as unreliable.

Online shopping with goods returned as easily as they have been ordered is supported by new ways of financing this lifestyle. And of course print has a role to play, albeit a different role, in this world of experience first. In conversations for this issue, one company director recalled the lockdown party for his 18-year-old. The group of friends had congregated on Zoom and there were squeals of delight as gifts were carefully taken from their boxes, even more when that gift turned out to have a personalised label and personalised letter addressed to the birthday girl and signed by the director of the company responsible for the bottle of shampoo. It was not the product that provided the excitement but the packaging and accoutrements around the product.

This generation too wants to tread lightly upon the planet. The rise of veganism is driven by this mood, likewise the protests about the environment that has been subsumed by seemingly more pressing concerns. But do not think that concern for the environment, for the waste that is produced, is going away. In the immediate aftermath there may be a short lived return to the use of plastic, but it will be short lived.

The new generation of customers are going to want to see you live the environmental labels that are too frequently simply badges to decorate the website. Possession of ISO 14001 certification is not enough. What happens to the waste that is generated by the print company? Can you explain the product lifecycle of your purchase and the companies that you deal with? Nobody will pay you to produce waste, even indirectly.

Those supply chains are going to be shorter. Many businesses have discovered that supply chains that stretch around the globe have too many linkages that can easily be broken. Shorter, more robust, supply chains that can be more responsive will come to the fore, less just in time and more just in case.

Orders will be for precise numbers, followed by frequent top up orders if needed. The days of print for storage in a warehouse are numbered or for shipping around the world. Again, nobody is going to pay for the waste inherent in this sort of supply chain. Distributed production is coming.

Then there the question of which sectors of industry or the economy will prove to be the major users of print. Clearly anything to do with health and safety, social distancing and so on is crucial and will not be disappearing soon – the floor sticker is the print product of the pandemic.

Food and drink will continue to be big users of print, helped by a new wave to start up businesses created by those made redundant during this period. Retail, whether online or on the high street, will need print. Catalogues will be more of a lifestyle statement than anything that resembles a tome from Grattans and will drive an online purchase or perhaps be used to preselect the products that will be looked at in the store.

No shop will want browsers particularly if by law, or by social pressure, the number of people per metre is limited. They want people to make purchases and leave space for the next set of wallets. It works for Screwfix.

Ultimately though, the logic points to shorter print runs, more targeted and a greater use of digital printing. As much because when a company has to tackle hundreds of jobs a day it cannot have the resources to do this with litho plates and carry the burden of makeready that is inevitable with the traditional process, however much refined. Digital printing carries the promise of doing this, at quality, at the right price and with the consistency and reliability that has not always been present in the past. With digital print waste can almost be eliminated. And that, in the new normal, is what counts.