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Buying paper

Aug 1, 2004 12:00 AM

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Clichés come in threes, and so does paper-buying advice. What's the most important real estate criteria? Location, location, location. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. What's the best way to buy paper? Plan, plan, plan.

It may seem like common sense, but it's also sound advice. Whether you need standard papers or commodity grades where no current excess capacity exists, all mills will tell you the same thing: Plan ahead to avoid disappointing your clients.

Get involved ASAP

Once the preliminary design is done, encourage the designer to spec the paper and get quotes from several printers. (Let's be real — clients will ask for more than one quote, no matter how much they love you.) Most designers will be open to suggestions — perhaps not substitutes but suggestions, certainly.

Small changes, such as reducing the width of a piece by 1/16th of an inch, can make a big difference in fitting the job on a press sheet. And at this stage, the designer still can make small adjustments, something that obviously can't be done after the client has approved the final proof.

Getting quotes early also will make designers aware of any turnaround considerations on your end. Is the selected paper readily available from your local merchant (one day)? Or will it be shipped from the mill's warehouse (two to five days)?

Go on a field trip

It is much easier to work with educated clients who don't flinch at the word “formation” or frown when you mention “ink lay down.” A recent PaperSpecs survey found that 49 percent of designers and print buyers rely on their printer to determine the best paper for their project.

Many paper merchants and industry organizations offer seminars on paper and paper selection. Take your clients to one of these seminars. You can refresh your memory, and your clients will be pleased that you are interested in furthering their knowledge. You also will know what your client has learned and can better respond to future inquiries.

Don't sweat the small stuff

Small-quantity paper orders can be frustrating. Suppose you have a job for 500 business cards on a special paper available only in full cartons, and you don't foresee another client requesting it again soon. Don't despair. Some text and cover mills offer small quantities of their papers online (CTI, Neenah, Fox River, Gilbert, for example), or you could use one of the numerous online paper sellers. You might not get the deal of a lifetime on the paper price, but you will have a happy client and you won't have to worry about what to do with the broken carton.

Check your facts

Does this scenario sound familiar? “My client has been using Strathmore Elements in light gray for years and now the line is being discontinued,” wailed Ben. “And there's no alternative.”

“Ben, this line is a classic, and it is not being discontinued,” I told him.

“Yes it is. My merchant told me so.”

Well, needless to say, Strathmore Elements is alive and well in all its classic colors. So, what happened? And how can you avoid this trap?

Check your facts. In some cases, a mill might still be producing a specific paper line, although your supplier has elected to drop it. Another merchant might have what you need.

If the color your client wants really has been discontinued, check with the mill regarding a special order. In most cases, mills are happy to run custom colors or weights. You will have to order a minimum amount (usually approximately 4,000 lbs.), but if it is a paper you or your client is using on a regular basis, it is definitely worth it.

Don't dismiss new brands

Some designers will astound you with their paper suggestions, including some brands you never knew existed. There are thousands of papers available in the U.S. market. Find out what is important to your clients. If alternatives are appropriate, demonstrate you understand their priorities by suggesting papers that fit these needs.

Your house sheet might be perfect for some print jobs but not for others. If you have been on a field trip, your client is more likely to grasp the relevant issues and will appreciate your input and guidance.

The postal game

As consumers grow weary of spam and telemarketing, direct mail is becoming an attractive communication vehicle. To keep postal charges in check, ensure that the mailing qualifies for the lowest possible postal rates: flat vs. letter rates or automation and so on.

As with other printed pieces, adjusting the design sometimes can significantly decrease production costs as well as postal charges. Provide your client with a dummy of the job made with the paper it will be printed on — and don't forget to add some weight for the ink after printing.

Low- to medium-density sheets can help keep postal costs down. Comparing the M weight of a sheet makes it apparent. Compare a 12-pt. low-density sheet of 23 inches × 35 inches that has an M weight of 270 to a 12 pt., medium density sheet of 23 inches × 35 inches with an M weight of 289. The latter, which is the same thickness, has more weight due to the increased fiber content and could increase your postal charges.

Days, not weeks

There is a misconception among some designers and printers that it can take weeks to obtain text and cover papers. But most of them are actually stock items, if not at your merchant's warehouse, definitely at the mill's.

Merchants stock what sells the most. In the U.S., 80 percent of print jobs reportedly are printed on coated or uncoated white paper. So that's what you will find in most merchants' warehouses.

When it comes to specialty papers, especially those manufactured overseas, certain amounts are stocked in warehouses here in the U.S. If you request a larger amount, the supplier will tell you immediately if extra lead-time is required. Mills such as Gmund in Germany and France's Thibierge & Comar will airfreight paper if necessary.

The paper cut

Tempting as it may be to buy paper solely on price, don't overlook product quality, service and relationships. We all know that the economy is improving slowly, which makes it hard to believe there could be an allocation on certain paper grades. Shouldn't we all just hold our breath until the economy recovers?

Unfortunately, breath-holding has caused some mills to close and others to stop investing in new mill operations, which has constrained the overall paper-manufacturing capacity in the U.S. Consequently, a small increase in demand can have a large effect on paper availability. Large orders of commodity grades take much longer to be fulfilled. Several mills currently are on allocation for offset rolls and other commodity grades.

The assigned allocation is based on a merchant's previous monthly purchases and assumes all machines at all mills are working to their full capacity. Note that if one machine goes down for a few days, this allocation schedule can be turned upside down.

What about offshore sheets? Due to the weaker dollar, some European and Asian mills would rather sell their papers closer to home. This is why, compared to Q1 2003, coated paper imports have been down 9.3 percent in Q1 2004, according to the American Forest & Paper Assn. (Washington, DC).

Know your price

When supply is short and demand is high, such as the conditions we are experiencing now, it is a safe assumption paper prices will rise. We already have seen one price increase this year, and for once all the industry experts agree that there will be another increase before the end of the year.

Nonetheless, paper prices are still at an all-time low. Cost reductions in the past have been passed along to consumers. In some cases, paper prices are lower than they were 20 years ago. Be aware of the imminent price increase — don't lock yourself in with any quotes until you are sure of the price.

Stockpiling isn't the answer

Resist the temptation to build inventories to counteract price increases and market tightness. When paper is stockpiled in the supply chain, creating a so-called “bubble,” the overall market constricts and eventually collapses.

It takes only a 2 percent swing to make a difference between a loose and a tight market. The increased print activity we are seeing currently makes pundits confident that the current market strength is demand-driven, rather than an inventory bubble. We all know what can happen when a bubble bursts.

Be patient

Most mills expect the “no excess capacity” (or allocation) status to influence and spill over into 2005. If you're looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, you'll have to look a little while longer.

Printers who have a strong relationship with their merchant and mill will have a clearer sense of what's happening in the paper market. Maintain an ongoing dialoge and build a solid relationship. The more your merchant knows about you, the more he or she can help.

Sabine Lenz is the founder of PaperSpecs, Inc., an online paper database and “all-in-one swatchbook.” Contact her at