Printers Eye Technology as Ink's Importance Fades

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Commercial printers are just as concerned with database management and Web-based technologies these days as they are with the latest advances in the actual process of putting ink on paper.

"Our clients used to ask us, 'How good are your presses?'" said Bruce Jensen, vice president of U.S. sales for Transcontinental Printing's magazine and catalog group.

But printers stopped hearing that question so often once printing technology reached a certain level, he said. Instead, what catalogers and other direct marketing customers ask is how can they do the work on a mail piece closer to market time.

"I recently met with four clients in California, and the conversation with each of them was about what we can do to streamline the front-end process to manage last-minute changes," Mr. Jensen said. The goals are not only to save time but also to cut costs and make last-minute adjustments.

To this end, Transcontinental recently installed virtual proofing equipment at its plant in Toronto that lets the company do all of its proofing on a monitor, saving money and many days in the production cycle.

"In five years, how we as an industry do color proofing is going to change dramatically," Mr. Jensen said, calling this the next big shift in the printing industry.

Co-mailing is another popular topic these days.

"Customers regularly ask about co-mailing," said Rochelle Shirk, vice president of marketing for Banta's catalog group. Co-mailing combines small mailings from more than one company into one larger mailing that can be delivered deeper into the mail stream, thereby saving costs.

But co-mailing isn't growing as rapidly at Banta as the number of requests about it would suggest, Ms. Shirk said, because "once people learn what's involved, they sometimes back away."

One problem with co-mailing is that in-home dates can be unpredictable. With multiple companies involved, there's always the chance that one won't meet the deadline. Then the other company has to decide whether to delay its schedule or proceed alone, losing any savings.

Banta is addressing this by meeting with co-mail partners to discuss ways to overcome some of these challenges. In the case of the mixed deadlines, for example, Banta works with catalogers on their schedules to help improve their cycle times so they can hit those deadlines, Ms. Shirk said.

Selective binding, a variation on co-mailing involving one company's different versions of the same book, is drawing interest from Transcontinental clients looking to make more personalized offers, Mr. Jensen said.

Selective binding actually costs more because it involves additional plates. However, the added cost "is typically offset by the response because the books are more directed and fit the customers' wants and needs better," he said.

Theoretically, selective binding could work with up to several hundred versions, Mr. Jensen said.

"We haven't seen it go that high yet, but we expect versioning to mirror the personalization techniques we've seen in e-mail," he said.

The ability to create more personalized mail pieces drives another trend in the print industry: Web-to-print or on-demand printing.

MPX started as a basic printer in 1941 in Portland, ME. Today the company owns no printing presses but manages direct marketing-related print jobs from the database management and creative processes through to the printing and mailing stage for Sturbridge Yankee Workshop, Portland Press and other clients. In the past year, MPX began offering Web-to-print services and watched clients' production cycles fall from eight to 12 weeks down to one week, said Steven R. Gent, MPX vice president of marketing and business development. And because the process involves a Web-based template that MPX creates, clients can personalize as much of the information as they wish.

MPX is testing the effectiveness of its variable printing with a convenience store chain that has five U.S. stores and five in Canada.

MPX collects point-of-sale data from customers enrolled in the chain's loyalty program and sends some a direct mail package including coupons based on their initial preferences and subsequent monthly coupons based on buying habits. The rest get the company's standard generic package of coupons.

The store has seen a double-digit increase in dollar sales from customers who received the personalized piece versus those who got the standard loyalty package, Mr. Gent said.

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