The Competitive Landscape Continues to Shift

There is no denying that the face of competition for the small commercial print segment continues to change. At one time, competitors were other independent and franchise printers in town, then came Kinko’s and other chains, then the Internet changed the rules and Vistaprint and other online printers were in the competitive mix. Meanwhile, the typical job mix was changing, and simply putting ink or toner on paper and competing on price was no longer enough to ensure success. And then came the doomsayers—Print is Dying!

Well, let’s get one thing straight from the outset. Print isn’t dying, but it sure is changing and printers are having to adapt to compete. According to a recent InfoTrends survey of 1,000 companies, nearly half reported that they were linking their printed marketing materials to online digital channels. Those same companies reported that online marketing and mobile will see growth while printing will see continued decline.

That said, print will still account for 30 percent of marketing expenditures. However, things such as printed brochures and direct mail will be linked to online websites, social media, and mobile apps.

So, not only is the competitive landscape changing, so is the nature of print itself. To get a read on what is really going on in the field, I asked several industry professionals how the following are affecting the small commercial market segment:

• Online printers (e.g.: Vistaprint, 4Over,, etc.)

• Big box stores and shipping franchises (Staples, Office Depot, UPS Store, FedEx Office, etc.)

• Traditional printers moving to online options (e.g.: Web-to-print)

• Demand for non-traditional services such as multi-media marketing campaigns, mailing and fulfillment, website maintenance, list maintenance, etc.

• Email marketing and Internet services in lieu of traditional printing

One of the first to respond was Rick Moore, marketing director at MACtac Distributor Products. “We have seen commercial printers offset competitive threats from adjacent markets (online, retail) by focusing on service, innovation, and creativity,” he said. “People like doing business with people. The commercial printers that are thriving are talking to their customers and finding out how to better service their needs. They are exploring other products and services that their customers purchase.

“New revenue and profit opportunities arise from looking at the existing customer base for new product and service opportunities, or from expanding current products to new customers. In today’s environment, the commercial printers that are attacking either of these opportunities are poised for growth.”


Online: Friend or Foe?

Online printers such as Vistaprint and 4Over are seen by most as a threat only when it comes to simple, low-margin work. Selling on price and gang-running simple jobs are the hallmark of the online printing companies. If that is the backbone of a printer’s work, then they are a definite threat. However, most of the folks I spoke with don’t depend on this type of work. In fact, they frequently job it out to these online providers. Some also pointed out what can be an unintended positive consequence of the popularity of these online printers.

Consultant Jackie Bland in Charlottesville, VA, commented: “Years ago when I was at PIA, in one of their studies we learned that ‘print is invisible’ to most consumers. They don’t even think about all the print around them. Vistaprint, in particular, helped the consumer unravel the mystery of how one gets something printed. Their ever present marketing through all channels provided an awareness of print.”

Patrick Whelan of Great Reach Communications agrees: “As a marketing professional, I would suggest that people look at some of the very successful ways these companies have marketed themselves. There is information, and lessons to be learned and duplicated.”

“The key to competing with the likes of Vistaprint is to offer more than what they can,” says Scott Cappel of Sorrento Mesa Printing in San Diego, CA. “Moving beyond ink on paper is a start to opening up a ‘blue ocean’ of opportunity in print. ‘Up Against the Wal-Marts: How Your Business Can Prosper in the Shadow of the Retail Giants’ is a book that can get the creative juices flowing on just how to go at this.”

“Our job is to add value and provide service the online printers cannot by assisting our clients in growing their business” says Ronnie Williams of DeFrance Printing in San Diego, CA. “When we do that, it is no longer about the price and more about the result.”

Tim Rolfson of Vista Graphic Communications in Indianapolis, IN, notes that online printers offer “cookie cutter models” and don’t offer on-site personal assistance.

“Sure, they will often provide lower price points, but some of our customers like to sit down and be served dinner versus standing in line for carry-out,” he observes.


Big Boxes and Chains

Staples, Office Depot, the UPS Store, and FedEx Office often come up when discussing competition in the small commercial printing segment. Here again, they do the simpler, low-margin jobs and, in reality, probably compete more with the Vistaprints of the world than with the printer down the street. Staples and Office Depot are primarily office supply operations with a print/copy department. UPS acquired MailBoxes Etc. and FedEx acquired Kinko’s to gain more outlets for their shipping business. As Rolfson noted, “If all you need are copies, this may be a good place. At best, these guys and the other big box stores are posers with equipment on their floor.”

One respondent took issue with characterizing operations such as the UPS Store as lacking in the expertise to handle sophisticated print jobs. Bill Thompson, president of BT & CT Enterprises, doing business as the UPS Store in the Greater St. Louis area, says “We’re pretty skilled at design and printing services here … furthermore, we have taken a collaborative approach with specialty printers and graphic design artists when the needs of our customers are more than we can freely handle in-house. Worst case scenario, we’ll outsource if we have to.”


The Tangled Web

The Internet has been a two-edged sword for the printers. It has opened up the market for online printers, provided existing customers with more options and avenues, and allowed alternatives to print to flourish. Most of the folks I talked with see the emerging digital alternatives to print as a definite threat, and the InfoTrends survey I mentioned earlier seems to bear this out. On the positive side, it also has allowed printers to broaden their marketing reach, get into the Web-to-print game, and offer multi-channel marketing support to their customers.

At one time, the storefront was the printer’s window on the world. Today, that window is the printer’s website, and many, if not most, are still glorified billboards, according to Kate Dunn of Digital Innovations Group in Richmond, VA, who surveyed some 50 printer websites recently.

“I was looking for tangible examples of real value for their clients—like improved response rates, or process savings from an improved supply chain, or traffic increases for signage,” she says. “I didn’t see any significant reasons to pick any of them. Look at your website and make sure the reasons to buy from you aren’t interchangeable with your competitors.”

Dunn sees the problem as going beyond the website itself. “Most companies just flat out don’t have a differentiation strategy of any kind,” she said.

“Small commercial and quick printers are at a disadvantage because the online, big box, and other competitors frequently do a much better job of marketing ink-on-paper products on the Internet and elsewhere,” adds Clif Hilderley, a marketing consultant who works in the New York City area.


Battle Lines Drawn

David Doost of Digital Traffic Builders in the Atlanta area may sum it up best. “There has always been competition and there will always be competition,” he says. “It is a brutal, competitive battle being waged right now with the convergence of lower demand for print, the move to shorter and shorter runs, the growing influence of new digital media, and the encroachment of other industries adding print to their services. The battle being waged is over your place in your prospect or customer’s mind. The only way to get there is by position against the online printers, big box and shipping stores, digital media, local competitors, etc.

“What makes you different? What makes you better? What value do you bring to the table that they don’t?”