Technology Is Changing Print, Delivery Cycles

Technology is fast becoming the potter’s wheel for the printing, fulfillment and delivery end of the direct marketing business. That much is obvious from the expert commentary in DM News’ first special issue on the rapidly evolving print-to-doorstep process.

Take Lillian Vernon, a general merchandise cataloger that drops more than 100 million books in 22 editions yearly. Market pressures and internal expectations have made the 54-year-old company even more reliant on sophisticated software and machinery.

“There’s very little going on in terms of human intervention from the time Lillian Vernon creates a page to the time it’s engraved onto the cylinders on the printing press,” said Lillian Vernon’s Kevin Green. “That’s something that’s happened over the last five or six years, but it’s highly efficient.”

Striving to reach this ideal of high efficiency – meaning impeccable quality, personalized service, speed, minimal labor cost and visibility through all processes in the supply chain – comes at a price: upended business models.

Consider the printing business. It is no longer just ink and paper and press. Now it is easy to get lost in a thicket of terminology like print on demand, variable data printing, digital asset management and static print. In essence, each one of these processes aims to personalize the mail piece or catalog down to the level and needs of the individual customer. A personalized catalog costs more, but the rewards are higher.

But technology is eroding the printer’s point of differentiation. Add to that a new crop of communication options driven by the Internet to reach broader audiences at a lower cost.

“Production technology has advanced to a highly automated state, and once complex, high-quality offset and digital print has become push-button,” said Cenveo’s Paul Reilly. “Paper and ink have become mass-produced commodities, and printers can no longer compete on quality alone. … As we move deeper into the 21st century, the expansion of services that a printer provides further condenses the parties involved.”

So with almost every printer able to offer everything, what should players in that industry do? Add more services to their portfolio, create better presses and invest in proprietary software. They also should leverage the Internet, undisputedly the nervous system of business.

Better tracking software and more efficient use of Web sites is the game plan of package deliverers like FedEx, UPS, DHL and the U.S. Postal Service. As a result, customers gain visibility into a complex supply chain to track the delivery process and better manage product inventory.

The big couriers also are getting bigger as e-commerce booms and the cost of transportation becomes a larger part of delivered goods. Acquisitions and organic growth let them take bigger bites of the USPS’ business. At the same time, carriers are partnering with the postal service to push packages deeper into the mail stream.

“The further downstream mail is inserted, the greater the potential for cost savings and improved delivery times,” DHL Smart & GlobalMail’s Joe Phelan said. “Direct relationships with postal entities worldwide let both parties do what they do best. Mail services providers handle front-end processing and long-haul delivery while local postal authorities focus on ‘final-mile delivery.’ “

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