Standing tall in the face of an ever-changing, complex print industry climate requires staying laser focused, driven and flexible. And commercial industry print sales are growing, so maintaining an ability to adapt as the climate evolves has never been more important.

Total commercial printing industry sales increased in 2018 to roughly 1.7 percent, or $85.3 billion, according to research by the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA). Sales are up, but not high enough to relieve the intense pressure on margins. The sources of that pressure include rising paper prices and supply shortages; a lack of sales and excess capacity; rising healthcare benefits and wages; labor shortages that force the hiring of less skilled, less productive personnel; and increased tariffs.

“Our SGIA Commercial Printing Panel reports that clients increasingly require faster turn times and shorter, more targeted runs,” says Andrew D. Paparozzi, chief economist for the SGIA. “They also want a broader range of services, special finishing and creative design to create distinctive print—the ‘wow’ factor—as one member of our panel puts it. Lastly, they require help maximizing the return on their communications dollar.”

Chris Carpenter agrees that the marketplace is an active one. As owner and president of Royal Printing, a mid-sized publication and catalog printer in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, Carpenter has seen a great deal of change on all fronts, including suppliers, printers and distribution.

“Call it consolidation or evolution, change presents opportunities for companies who are well positioned to provide meaningful solutions to print customers,” he says. “This activity will continue, and for firms who’ve kept pace with investing in their people, technology and operating platforms, it should present an opportunity for growth.”

As customers demand and expect more from printers of all sizes, companies are faced with bettering pricing, ramping up service, and delivering high-quality products, faster. While you may have a handle on delivery, service and quality, the cost containment piece could be more of a challenge due to material price increases.

John Hoopingarner, VP of Seneca Label in North Royalton, Ohio, believes those price increases will continue into next year. “Trying to find qualified, trainable press operators is a challenge,” he says. “It’s not as though they were ever plentiful, but it simply seems as though there are fewer of them applying.”

Adaptation

Adapting to current trends and challenges will allow managers to lead companies to see future success. It’s not easy, and frankly, not everyone is doing it. “Companies that are adapting regularly invest in productivity—and speed-enhancing technology,” Paparozzi says. “They are automating, smoothing workflow to minimize steps and touches, and eliminating processes that no longer add value.”

Paparozzi says adapting isn’t just about producing a vanilla job faster anymore. Instead, it’s about quickly coordinating services, from database management and support personalized communication, to the design of standout direct mail and the creation of multimedia communications programs. All of this must be done while also minimizing the friction that can be caused by all those moving parts.

Regular investment in employee recruitment, retention and development can make a big difference in the long run. Cultivating engaged employees at all levels to actually think, rather than just act, will mean clients are better served.

To monitor trends before they are in place, keep an eye on shifting consumer behavior. This enables you to provide valuable and timely solutions for your clients.

“We’ve done poorly a time or two by being behind, and had some pricey lessons,” Hoopingarner says. “It’s not expensive to pay attention to what is happening.”

Carpenter says you also should set goals for your company’s basic operations. “Our basic goals are to minimize waste and optimize yields while delighting the customer. This requires a modern platform, but more important, it requires a dedicated and skilled workforce. Somehow, someway, the notion of having a rewarding career as a ‘printer’ has been lost. The printing industry needs more people.”

Hoopingarner works with suppliers to find solutions that will either help keep customers’ costs the same or reduce the amount of the increase. He also plans to work with local vocational schools to possibly generate interest in the opportunities available in printing.

In a leadership role, it’s significant to also think of yourself as being in the communications business. “You’re in the business of helping clients communicate more effectively with their clients,” Paparozzi says. “Understand how communication needs, options and preferences are changing and are likely to change.”

Paparozzi believes that if you can show clients exactly how much value you create for them in the way of time and money saved, increased response rates, and decreased message-to-market time, you can affirm their need for your services. Never assume they already know.

Retaining your clients

Understanding and working closely with customers isn’t a new trend. Printers should always focus on becoming resources for customers by keeping them abreast of changes in the marketplace, says Carpenter.

That requires customer engagement, even when the customer is reluctant to participate in the process. “We work very hard at educating our customers about why we ask so many questions, especially when they just want the order off of their desk,” Hoopingarner says. “All they see is a white label with some printing on it. We see it as much more and want it to perform well for their application without over-specifying it and, thereby, making it less cost-effective for them.”

In the end, Paparozzi says it’s important to remember that if it affects how people communicate, it will eventually affect print. Not everything boils down to technology. “Sustained success in the increasingly competitive, complex commercial printing industry also requires advanced leadership and management skills,” he says. “The companies that cultivate those skills will be the big winners.”

5 ways every printer can stay competitive

The fundamentals of business remain unchanged says John Hoopingarner, VP, Seneca Label. “They may become repackaged, labeled as new, and so on, but the essentials of honesty and integrity are always important.” Hoopingarner and SGIA’s Andrew Paparozzi offer the following steps printers can follow to stay competitive:

  1. Deliver on time, even when it hurts
  2. Remember the Einstein Principle: Keep it simple
  3. Analyze decision-making as much as possible, but not to the point at which you can’t decide; otherwise known as “paralysis of analysis”
  4. Build sticky relationships that make it painful for the customer to leave, by providing value that can’t be readily found elsewhere
  5. Regularly ask questions to learn what you could be doing better and what you are doing well

This article will be featured in the soon to be released winter issue 2018 of Fujifilm’s award-winning print illustrated magazine.