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AMERICAN QUICK PRINTER: ONLINE FOR SUCCESS

Feb 1, 1999 12:00 AM


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Queen Isabella might have had the same misgivings about the New World that some quick printers seem to have toward the Internet-- "Sure, Chris, but will anyone remember it tomorrow?"

While many in the business domain see the Web as an historic opportunity of gold rush proportions, others, like some in the convenience printing industry, maintain "wait-and-see" stances.

"Printing is a tough commodity to sell on the Internet--personal contact is still a big part of sales," reasons Bob Bergey, owner of Design & Print in Perkasie, PA. "That's not saying e-commerce will not become a big deal. I just do not think the future is here yet."

Adds consultant John Giles, "Right now people are still buying from people. They're not going to go to a strange Web site--they want to know there's someone behind the product."

Nevertheless, printing pioneers are willing to brave unknown territories for the prospect of profits, either direct or indirect. Remember, the basic equation from Business 101 says there are two ways to make profits climb--increase revenues or decrease costs. And in this widening world of the Web, the potential for increased sales and new revenue streams often is outweighed by the promise of cost reductions in production and administrative services that go directly to the bottom line.

"The first role of e-commerce has to do with data interchange and the orchestration of an electronic process between two or more suppliers on a supply chain or value chain," says consultant Mills Davis. "That's the area that affects everybody. Now we're at the stage where the disks are going to go away and the jobs are going to flow from the customer to the printer across networks, so this is the major retooling that all printers have to deal with."

At its most basic level, using the Web for file transfer can relay significant cost savings while extending a printer's geographic reach.

"Quick printers usually draw people from a five-mile radius, but we have increased our geographic range with the Internet to 40 to 60 miles away, simply because it's just as convenient for those customers to do business with us," says Nancy DeDiemar, owner of the 29-year-old Printing Resources of Southern California (Upland, CA). She has six new "long-distance" customers resulting from word getting out that her shop can handle files electronically.

"What makes it profitable is its speed--if anything goes wrong with the data transmission, for example, it's real easy to call and ask for another one, whereas with a diskette you have to physically bring it back," says DeDiemar, who's been working online with customers for a nearly a year. "It's becoming more prevalent to have clients who are comfortable using the Internet so it's kind of a cache for us. My advice to printers is to begin offering the Internet as a way to do business, because if you don't, someone like me is going to take your customers away."

Another printer carving a virtual niche for his shop is Steve Jecha, owner of Swift Steve's Insty-Prints in St. Paul, MN (www.swift-steves.com). He has created a Java-based desktop publishing application that allows customers to give job specs for, edit and proof business cards, letterhead, Post-it Notes and envelopes online in one step. The file is then prepared for output at Swift Steve's. The system automatically imposes and color separates the order so print shop employees can avoid typesetting and go direct to plate.

"Most definitely this is the way to go because it puts the work into customers' hands and streamlines the workflow," says Jecha, who has formed the offshoot company, Digital-Net, Inc., in order to market his software, called Virtual Pre-Press, to large companies who want to give their clients similar access to accounts. "With commodity-type items, people are frustrated with the process--both printers and customers--and they're looking for any solution. Even one reprint due to a typesetter error is costly. Under the new system, within 90 seconds of customers placing the order, we can have it on the press."

Since implementing the Internet solution six months ago, Jecha estimates he has already gained $30,000 in new sales simply by targeting companies with Intranet systems who have numerous satellite offices around the country. Essentially, the product allows people from any of these offices to order materials instantly across the Internet. The accounts are on credit so an invoice can be sent when the order is completed.

"We have a client who we have literally never met," says Jecha. "This has become a big tool for us to get our foot in the door for these big accounts because nobody else can offer anything like it."

Dave Hornung, owner of the quick print shop Graphic Center/Wisconsin Networks in Fond du Lac, WI (www.wisnet.com), plans to release a similar online software application in the next three months to be marketed to smaller printers. For the past two years, Hornung has been finding Internet business in the area of Web site design and hosting. Not only has his staff of Web page designers been working with clients to create Web pages, but he has developed sites for other quick printers to help them and their customers get online.

"Because there are a lot of people out there who definitely want to deal with others who are electronically literate, you win just by giving the impression that you are technologically state-of-the-art," he explains. "Even though you may be a one-man start-up operation, you can look like you've been in business for years."

Hornung charges an hourly rate for designing Web pages and hosting costs $50 per month for up to three sites.

Just entering the arena of Web site design is Mobile Print Inc. of Mt. Prospect, IL (www.mobile-print.com), which has marketed the service to its existing customers as a value-added service but is looking to gain new business. The shop recently did a promotional mailing based on a list of chamber of commerce members and already has the local park district and several others as new clients.

"Since we're already creating content for print over the computer, it seemed simple to reformat that for Web," says Russell Peters, president of Mobile, explaining the company's motivation for getting into Web design. "We were actually prompted to get into it after a client inquired if we could convert his printed piece into Web pages."

One company acting as a behind-the-scenes "Web factory" for quick printers who want to add Web site development to their services is Vallon Inc. in Minneapolis (www.vallon.com). Vallon's Net Propulsion program, which now counts 1,700 quick print shops as distributors, gives printers the ability to sell Web sites without worrying about the actual production or maintenance. Using a template approach, the quick print shop client provides the printer with format, style and layout choices from Net Propulsion's extensive library along with any copy, photos or logos. These are sent to the Vallon "factory" where staffers do all the rest--design, development, publishing to the Web, hosting and maintenance, all in less than seven days. The printer enjoys a cut of the profits from the sites, which are created starting at $150.

"We need the ability to provide economical, high quality Web sites but our franchisees don't have to be Internet experts," explains Leslie Owens, director of marketing for PIP, one of the major franchises offering Net Propulsion along with Sir Speedy, American Speedy and InstyPrint.

Several online options for ordering printed products have cropped up to create a stir among quick printers who fear business will be snatched away. One direct marketing vendor of products from business cards to newsletters and brochures is World's Easiest Print Center (www.easiest.com). It allows any person to submit a complete print order directly from his or her personal computer via the Internet to World's Easiest's production site, where the order is printed and shipped to the requested address.

Ellen Steck, vice president of sales and marketing at World's Easiest office in Mankato, MN, says the firm's role in the marketplace compared to the traditional quick printer's is "like apples and oranges."

"We don't ever see a replacement for the traditional printer and having that personal relationship and face-to-face help," says Steck. "We've found our bread and butter is with 'do-it-yourselfers' who will place an order at three in the morning when a print shop is not available to them. Many of these customers have simple needs. They want to design their own product and know specifically what they want."

An e-commerce firm looking to join forces with quick printers to obtain online printing business is iPrint (www.iPrint.com), based in Redwood City, CA. Its scalable iKiosk technology, with a pushbutton interface, gives printers' customers the ability to order, design and proof products online--everything from stationery and checks to coffee mugs and mouse pads. The customers can order any time day or night from the comfort of their home or office. Printers link their Web sites to iPrint's online shop to obtain the jobs for printing and shipping and earn a commission from all work generated from the links. iKiosk manages all the hardware, software, ISP connections, security functions and merchant bank relationships. Followup e-mail messages are automatically sent to the customer letting them know their credit card purchase was authorized and when the delivery date will be.

"This self-service technology eliminates anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent of the actual hard costs printing, including reprint-due-to-error rates," testifies Royal Farros, president and CEO of iPrint, which lists Sir Speedy and OfficeMax as major franchises who have recently adopted the system. "We are providing compelling reasons to augment whatever printers are doing today with something online."

Farros compares iKiosk to the adoption of ATMs by the banking industry--it's a process that works better in the self-service mode.

"I'd rather use an ATM any day of the week rather than stand in a line to ask for $40 or $60 and it's the same way for so many of the items quick printers make," he reasons. "There are times to build relationships and then there are times to serve customers in the most efficient and economical manner. Printers can now spend time on the things they should be spending time on--things that bring in a $1,000 business for a half-hour's work instead of $10."

A solution that enables quick printers' to build a digital variable Internet printing business, including customized newsletters and flyers, without necessarily owning digital printing equipment, was launched last month by Digital Marketing, Inc. (Minneapolis). With the company's Digital VIP Web-based software, printers can offer a customized Web site that customers log onto to create, order and proof personalized print jobs. The Digital VIP program then processes the customers' jobs and delivers print-ready files back to the print shop.

"For those shops who don't have a high-speed digital engine, the jobs can be subbed out until the user clientele is big enough to justify the purchase of a digital press," explains Bruce Ganger, co-owner of Digital Works, Inc., a consulting and training firm in Florida that is acting as Digital VIP's distribution agent. "Because we are a production shop, we can provide the total service including printing and fulfillment as a pilot program. Instead of making a $300,000 leap of faith that the press will pay off, this allows a printer to get in with a relatively small acquisition cost."

An initial fee of $25,000 includes access to the software, sales training, sales tools and ongoing technical and applications support. There are currently three beta test sites for the product.

The printer can create pre-printed shells using existing offset technologies and then overprint the variable information on a Xerox DocuTech or DocuPrint system. The printer posts these shells to a Web page via Digital VIP so customers can see the final product, including the shell and variable content, on their PC or Mac screen as they are applying the variable content.

Ganger says while there is still no broad-based success model over the Internet, it is essential for quick printers to begin interacting and working with customers online to identify ways of further cementing a relationship and open new revenue channels.

"If quick printers wait until the model is proven they'll be buried by this," stresses Ganger. "They're simply waiting to go out of business if they're not in the game and participating."