Print is a perfect product to be bought online. If Amazon became successful in double quick time because people buying books know what a book is and their expectations would be met far easier than buying clothing for example. So with print. A business card is a known entity in terms of size and feel, it is non perishable and easy to ship.
No wonder online printing has taken off and is growing at phenomenal rates. Many printers offer online printing via websites, but few have sharpened the business model to the extent that Vistaprint and the four German printers: Onlineprinters, Saxoprint, FlyerAlarm and UnitedPrint; have done. These have invested heavily, not just in technology, but also in marketing to the extent of sponsoring German football teams or motorbike racing teams. Vistaprint has been one of the few printers to advertise on television.
In contrast, there has been no serious UK competition even if printing.com would seem to have the ideal name. However while it shared the centralised production and minimal touch points with the online businesses, it stuck to a model where franchises sold the services of the Manchester hub.
Parent company Grafenia has subsequently tried to catch up, but has been unable to achieve the same size. Its Benelux Drukland operation is online only, as is Flyerzone in the UK. But sales of £7.34 million for Drukland and £920,000 for Flyerzone are not scratching Vistaprint.
Solopress is one of the most active of UK online print businesses, and is showing rapid growth. Sales are up 21% to £12.6 million in the 2014 financial year, from a plethora of simple jobs for small business owners and direct to consumers.
Tangent Communications talks a good game with 36% of its £13.26 million sales in the first half of 2014 generated from online printing. There is good growth, 30% for printed.com to take revenue to £3.62 million in the six months with a 15% rise in new customers and a 56% rise in repeat customers. According to CEO Tim Green, there are “millions of businesses that need printed material at a competitive price”. The figures would suggest that the business is scarcely reaching hundreds of thousands of these businesses.
In comparison Vistaprint dealt with 9 million customers in the first six months of the financial year. Many of these have been consumers rather than businesses, but the company is changing, in Europe at least. It has made a series of acquisitions in Holland, France Austria and Italy which are taking Cimpress as the company is now known, into the B2B area and away from simple print products. The Vistaprint brand remains for this, but now Pixartprinting, Exaprint, offer slightly different mixes of print and other brand content that is supplied online.
The company is preparing to invest hundreds of millions of dollars on developing a common platform which will underpin the brands as a mass customisation platform, just as the VW car group delivers different brands for various parts of the market.
It needs to be resilient because the volumes that Vistaprint deals with are staggering: 30 million orders for 16.7 million customers entailing 82 million single job set ups. This is impossible without the highest levels of automation.
For Keane the business is built around the concept of mass customisation, which at the moment is used in printing, but might have applications in 3D printing.
The rise of the mega printers has swallowed a lot of the work that Germany’s local printers used to handle. Many have closed down. Others have sold the press and become affiliates for one or other of these giant operations. And others are pushing their standard jobs to these suppliers, benefitting from economies of scale that would not be possible within their own organisation and using their press and skilled operators to handle higher value jobs.
The question has to be about future limits to growth. Nobody is entirely sure, but if there is a finite number of business card buyers, this is reflected in the desire to move away from single sheet products. It is possible to folders, magazines and even case bound books online. But moving into large format print, the pop up banner has become the business card of online large format print purchasing. Equally one off banners, large displays and the purchase of corrugated cases are moving online.
There are plentiful sites offering online labels and the likes of Pixartprinting and Onlineprinters are starting to look at the potential for label printing. However, this is dwarfed by the opportunities expected in textile printing as inkjet takes a stronger hold of this part of the market.
In short, if a product can be described and shown through a web browser, it can be purchased online. In many cases this has not been practical because the volumes have been missing. But as the online giants swallow up more and more standard print jobs, they create the economies of scale for less conventional print.
For Robert Keane the business is built around the concept of mass customisation, which at the moment is used in printing, but might have applications in 3D printing.