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Jul 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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What exactly is a quick printer? There is, it seems, no simple answer to that apparently simple question. Even to those familiar with the industry, the diversity among those who call themselves "quick" printers is amazing-from the smallest of copy shops, through traditional walk-up storefront printers, to those that could easily be termed commercial printers.

As american printer set out to analyze and understand the quick print industry, we uncovered a number of interesting and revealing facts. Quick printers are not always what they appear to be, but they are a major force in the North American graphic arts industry.

To better understand the quick printing market, american printer worked with PrintImage International (formerly the National Assn. of Quick Printers or NAQP). The PrintImag e International surveys referenced within this article included responses from more than 1,000 quick printers across North America. These printers ranged from multiple-outlet operations with several hundred stores and thousands of employees overall, to one single-employee operation.

The survey was conducted to get a clearer profile of a quick printer. After all, the majority of available data until recently simply lumped together commercial printers and quick printers, apparently because of the difficulty in deciding where to draw the line between the two categories.

Still, the terms "commercial printer" and "quick printer" evoke different images in the minds of those familiar with the industry-not to mention customers. Despite this fact, some printers widely viewed as too large commonly term themselves quick printers, while others apparently too small see themselves as commercial printers. In the final analysis, the distinction between commercial printers and quick printers may well hinge on entrepreneurship and the focus of the business.

Typically, those who term themselves quick printers have an entrepreneurial focus that transcends the fact that they produce printing. Being a quick printer has little to do with the size of the operation. Many entrepreneurs have become quick printers, not because of the family tradition of ink in the veins, but because they wished to be independent business people. Thus printing became one business alternative; other alternatives might have been burgers or pizzas or bagels.

This fact is better understood by looking at the composition of quick printers responding to the PrintImage International survey.

While many commercial printers trace their roots from the days of letterpress and copper etched plates, the quick printing phenomenon is relatively new. Well over half of quick printing operations were founded in the 1980s and 1990s, and thus represent the newest and most dynamic element of the commercial printing industry. The 1970s, and especially the 1980s, saw extremely rapid growth in the quick printer ranks, with 71 percent of today's quick printers founding their businesses during those two decades.

Why all this growth during the '70s and '80s? Corporate downsizing had begun, prompting forced early retirements and the need for outplaced middle managers to find a new productive and fulfilling activity. The success of xerography and the growing need of the general public and smaller businesses for ready copies also made quick printing an attractive opportunity. Quick printing-whether through a franchise or as an independent business-provided a means for entrepreneurs to become independent in a business that could be tightly controlled and in which family members could work. And, of course, there were attractive opportunities for comfortable profitability.

While the term quick printer may evoke the image of a franchise printer with a walkup counter, in fact some 85 percent of printers who think of themselves as quick printers are independent operations without any franchise affiliation. In most surveys, franchises comprise only about 13 percent of the responses, with corporate chain printers such as those operating within office supply superstores, representing the smallest category.

Moreover, independent printers often have more than one site, whereas franchise printers are primarily single-site operations. Some surveys have shown that franchise printers have fewer employees than do independent quick printers.

Quick printers are found everywhere-from the most rural areas to the largest cities. It does appear, however, that smaller markets seem to offer better support for the quick print concept. In a recent survey, more than 63 percent of responding quick printers indicate that they operate in a market of 300,000 population or less. Nearly 82 percent of quick printers run businesses in areas with fewer than one million people.

Quick printers may well be quick because of their size. Most quick printers operate in less than 10,000 sq. ft. The typical quick printer is housed in a shop boasting floor space in the range from 2,500 to 5,000 sq. ft. More than 68 percent of quick printers, according to the PrintImage survey, operate in space ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 sq. ft. Running a business in this compact space lends itself well to owner-managed businesses in which control and understanding of every operation is commonplace.

Even so, many quick printers operate from multiple locations. Although more than 80 percent of quick printers are single-location businesses, consolidation is beginning to affect the lower end of the industry just as it is impacting high-end commercial printers. Look for still more consolidation among quick printers in the future.

While the quick printing segment of the graphic arts industry is dominated by male ownership-much as the commercial printing segment-women have made considerable inroads into the quick printing arena. While slightly more than half of quick printers reported male ownership, the remainder are either owned by women or owned jointly by spouses. This family ownership element of the quick printer industry again points up the entrepreneurial aspect of the business.

Probably because it is populated by middle managers who largely came from big industry, quick printing is essentially made up of Caucasians. The PrintImage International survey shows a heavy weighting in the industry toward white ownership, although Asian and Hispanic owners enjoy an important-and growing-representation.

The PrintImage International data further indicates the entrepreneurial aspect of quick printing when the educational achievements of quick printer owners is disclosed. More than 60 percent of quick print shop owners hold one or more college degrees, and nearly 90 percent boast at least some college. Again, these owners and managers have entered the industry not because of a heritage of printing as a craft, but because of the promise of business success. Their overall level of success may well be a function of their educational attainment and academic training.

Most quick printers are owner-operated businesses. Absentee ownership does not seem to have overtaken the quick print business to the extent seen in the fast food and many other small enterprises.

The largest quick printer responding to the PrintImage International poll reported 2,250 employees, while the smallest had only one employee. The median reported eight employees.

More than half of quick printers have 10 or fewer employees, and nearly 90 percent have 25 or fewer employees. Most quick printers do not seem bent on expansion, preferring instead to maintain their businesses as small, often family-oriented, operations.

Quick print employees generally refer to workers other than the owner or owners. Since the vast majority of quick printers are owner-operated and managed, true employment could be viewed as slightly more than polling figures would indicate.

Some experts believe that a primary distinction between quick printers and commercial printers lies in whether outside sales personnel are used to generate sales. Although the majority of quick printers are perceived to be walkup businesses, a great many have sales personnel on the street. At the very least, the owner functions in the outside sales role. The PrintImage International survey indicates that more than one-third of quick printers have outside sales personnel in addition to the owner.

Successful commercial printers are specialists, focusing on market niches such as financial printing, annual reports, CD-ROM jewel box inserts, or any of hundreds of other opportunities. On the other side of the coin are commercial printers who profess to be generalists, serving business printing needs in the general market area they serve. But when it comes to generalists, nothing beats a quick printer.

Most quick printers have a local focus, structuring their businesses to serve the printing needs in the geographic area immediately surrounding their shop. Thus quick printers become parts of the communities they serve. Those in residential areas find themselves emphasizing quick walkup copies, church bulletin production, neighborhood notices and a variety of services aimed at today's growing cadre of home office workers.

Those in more industrial areas become specialists in presentation copies, quick turnaround research reports and sales aids of every imaginable type. Then there are those located in large metropolitan areas, sometimes in office buildings. These quick printers often specialize in the types of services surrounding corporations require. These can range from theatre posters to complex financial printing. Regardless of the location, the emphasis is on proximity to customers. Quick printers quickly adapt to the local environment, thus becoming an integral part of neighborhood activities and industry.

Because of their focus on serving nearby customers, quick printers also have adopted an approach to customer needs that differs somewhat from that of commercial printers. Quick printers, in their intent to satisfy the printing needs of the locality, are accustomed to accepting printing jobs that they cannot produce themselves. The willingness of quick printers to "broker" work to other printers, makes quick printers more complex operations, with more diverse offerings. Quick printers generally help customers specify and order products as widely diverse as four-color process printing, wedding invitations, self-adhesive labels, custom three-ring binders, rubber stamps and even website design.

Quick printer customers are not always aware-or may be indifferent-that their work is, in fact, being printed by a subcontractor. Instead, these customers greatly value the ability to use the quick printer as a means of buying printing and related items of all types. Local quick printers often represent the one-stop shopping headquarters for printing in the neighborhood. They can literally function as consultants in communication-related matters of all types.

With the advent of home offices and the ubiquity of personal computers, quick printers have become the places where small businesses, home office workers and consumers convert their word processing files to printed pages. These customers routinely walk into quick printers with disks that quick printers translate into multiple copies, presentations or newsletters. Quick printers also offer layout services, and many have personal computers with page layout and publishing software available for customers to use in the shop.Then, too, quick printers provide customers with assistance in file preparation.

In today's world of consultative selling and partnering with clients, the quick printer has long led the way. The local orientation of most quick printers means that they can actually become what their customers need. Because customers vary so greatly, quick printers themselves differ widely. Still, nearly all are characterized by entrepreneurial attitudes and a willingness to accommodate the customers' needs in a far broader manner than their equipment might indicate.

Each year, PrintImage International conducts a study of pricing practices in the quick print industry. The most recent study, which covered 1998, demonstrates some interesting characteristics of the industry. The more than 1,000 quick printers responding to the survey indicate that their average sales in 1998 were $847,748, up 5.8 percent from the average $801,297 reported in 1997. The 1997 sales average for the industry represents an 8.2 percent increase over 1996.

Median 1998 sales reported by the survey participants were $578,348. The difference between this value and the average of $847,748 demonstrates that the quick print industry is characterized by small businesses, again serving essentially local markets. Some 76 percent of the respondents report 1998 sales of less than $1 million.

Quick printers responding to the survey averaged 9.4 employees per establishment. Sales per employee increased in 1998, from $87,512 in 1997 to $90,870 or just about four percent.

Sales per square foot declined slightly, from $210 in 1997 to $204 in 1998, for a loss of nearly three percent. In 1998, quick printers realized average sales of $42,946 per desktop publishing employee, and $191,846 per offset press operator.

According to the 1999 PrintImage International pricing survey, the average quick print owner's compensation was $99,142, or 13.8 percent of total 1998 sales. It should be noted that among quick printers in the $100,000 to $300,000 sales range, owners (and, in many cases, their spouses) often work an extraordinary number of hours per week. To an extent, this inflates the average quick print shop owner's income. In 1997, average owner's compensation was $88,948, or 13.4 percent of sales.

Quick printers may be small, but they understand how to operate their businesses effectively. According to the 1999 pricing study, two-thirds of quick printers use computerized estimating systems to ensure that their prices are in line with their costs. Price books are another popular means of quoting jobs at quick printers.

To accommodate the needs of customers they serve, quick printers offer a wide variety of printing processes and other services. In the PrintImage International survey, some 1,271 quick printers detailed the processes they use, noting the percentage of their business derived from each.

Conventional black-and-white copying is the most dominant process used by quick printers, with more than 89 percent of the respondents saying they offer toner-based printing. These copy services also include high-speed copier/printers such as the Xerox DocuTech. Quick printers offering black-and-white copying find that the service represents a substantial portion of their business, with nearly half indicating that simple copies account for 20 percent or more of their total revenues.

Black-and-white copying at quick printers is done on machines that vary widely in speed and capability. At the high-speed end of the business, most work is done on the Xerox DocuTech or equivalent machines. In the recent PrintImage International pricing study, 7.4 percent of respondents indicate they offer electronic publishing on such machines.

These DocuTech owners indicate that just over half of their work is scanned off the glass, with 37 percent received via computer disk and the balanced received electronically. Respondents to the 1999 pricing study indicate that their average volume on high-speed copy machines was 250,248 copies per month. Those quick printers with DocuTechs report average volumes of 999,281 copies per month.

Color copying services are not found as frequently as black-and-white in quick printer operations; color copying represents a smaller portion of their revenues. Of the 1,271 quick printers polled, just under 70 percent have color copiers. But while more than two-thirds of quick printers can provide color copies, the revenues from that service are relatively minor. Only 31 percent of quick printers indicate that color copies constitute 10 percent or more of their revenues.

Color copying is an especially important product offering of quick printers. In a recent PrintImage survey, the Canon color copier was the most popular, with more than 58 percent of quick printers with color copiers reporting owning the brand. Some 61 percent of quick printers indicate that their color copier is connected to a RIP.

Overall, quick printers with color copiers report that 31 percent of their color copy work is produced via a RIP, with the balance produced off the glass. The average number of color copies produced by quick printers with these machines is 6,842 in 1998.

Single-color offset printing is a natural product offering for quick printers. As customers increase the complexity, size and quantity of their copying work, it is a relatively easy progression for quick printers to move to offset reproduction. Pioneering quick printers started with duplicator presses of various types. Until very recently, franchise quick printers were set up initially with a small offset press and associated camera/platemaker producing positive-working paper plates or polyester plates.

Today, many quick printers still use these devices, although most also produce plates directly from digital files using plate imagers ranging from laser printers adapted to handle paper plates, to specialized machines imaging the latest metal plates. In the PrintImage International survey, single-color offset printing is being offered by 82 percent of the printers responding, and nearly half of those indicate that the market category accounts for 30 percent or more of total revenues.

Two-color offset printing represents a logical progression for many quick printers, although the increased need for color by customers means that some quick printers find it more appropriate to start with a two-color press. Some 79 percent of the quick printers polled told PrintImage that they offer two-color offset printing.

It should be noted that at many quick printers, a second color is added not by using a two-unit press, but a single-unit duplicator-style press with an added second color attachment. Although this type of two-color printing has been the norm for many years among quick printers, today more and more such businesses are adding two-color offset presses.

In the PrintImage International poll, nearly 79 percent of the responding printers indicate that two-color offset printing comprises at least a part of their overall revenues. More than half of those printers indicate that two-color work accounted for 20 percent or more of their income.

Four-color process printing generally is not regarded as the domain of the quick printer, yet more than 38 percent of the quick printers responding to the PrintImage International survey indicate that at least some of their business comes from this market niche. Still, four-color work remains a small part of their business. Less than 27 percent of those printers offering four-color printing say that it constitutes more than 10 percent of their income, according to the survey.

Because four-color process printing is such a small part of the overall demand that most quick printers see, a great deal of this work is done on smaller, two-color presses, using two passes through the press. But in other recent PrintImage International surveys, quick printers have indicated that true four-color presses are on their shopping lists. There is no doubt quick printers are looking carefully at this market, probably because customers appear to demand more and more four-color printing.

Conventional prepress services are a major part of quick printer operations today. Nearly half of quick printers obtain their film from service bureaus. However, the other half are split nearly equally between conventional cameras and imagesetters.

Computer-to-plate has yet to make significant inroads into the quick print market. In the 1999 PrintImage pricing study, less than 21 percent of respondents report using computer-to-plate imaging for their offset work. Among those utilizing CTP, nearly half report imaging plates on converted imagesetters, with the balance split between laser printers and dedicated platesetters.

Digital color printing is sometimes thought to represent an enigma for quick printers. Certainly the results of the PrintImage International survey were inconclusive with regard to digital printing, but more and more quick printers are moving to these newer technologies every day. In fact, quick printers have many digital printing options, ranging from PCs directly feeding color copiers, to cluster printers and digital duplicators, to wide-format sign and poster printers. Because so many quick printers serve the corporate and small office markets, they are rapidly responding to the increasing tendency of these customers to generate work on personal computers. Digital output devices are a natural next step in the equipment evolution at quick printers.

Desktop publishing services are an important weapon in the quick printer's arsenal. Like their larger commercial colleagues, many quick printers now receive a majority of their work on disk or some type of online transmission system. Nearly 80 percent of the quick printers responding to the survey indicate that they offer desktop publishing services. And while the portions of their total revenues that accrue from desktop publishing still tend to be small, this is a growing part of most small printing businesses.

According to the 1999 pricing study, the average quick printer has desktop publishing sales of $56,355. The number of desktop publishing employees was 1.2, yielding an average of $43,277 in sales per desktop publishing employee. Nearly two-thirds of quick printers offering desktop publishing services primarily use the Mac, although 10 percent use both Macs and PCs.

Like commercial printers, quick printers offering desktop publishing services receive files electronically. Files are received primarily as email attachments.

Bindery services are available at the majority of quick printers, although this area is still not a major revenue producer. In the PrintImage International suvey, nearly 83 percent of respondents indicate they offer bindery services. Less than half of those say that bindery revenues constitute 10 percent or more of their total income, however. The type of binding services varies greatly, again depending upon the demands of the locality.

Mailing and distribution services have been one of the most popular areas of expansion for quick printers in recent years. Although less than 40 percent of quick printers responding to the PrintImage International survey say they receive income from this market niche, a special interest section of the association devoted to mailing services attracts more and more quick printers each year. Like many commercial printers, quick printers are finding their customers attracted to the convenience of fulfilling their printing and mailing needs under one roof.

Another factor is that some separate mailing service companies are beginning to offer printing for the same reasons, and quick printers find it necessary to respond in kind to maintain valued clients. Mailing services are a logical extension of the full-service approach that makes quick printers the place local customers go for all their reproduction needs.

Brokered goods are an important part of quick printers' offerings to customers. In the survey, 81 percent of quick printers indicate that they routinely broker products and services produced by others. More than half of those who broker products receive 10 percent or more of their income from such goods and services. This willingness to accommodate customers by satisfying demand beyond the capabilities of their individual shops is one of the major factors differentiating quick printers from other printers in the industry.

Many experts view the future of printing as dependent upon technology. But quick printers hear a different drummer. The daily customers who walk into the quick printers of America are what guide the course of these entrepreneurs. As these walk-in customers' needs change, quick printers will evolve to respond to those needs.

Certain products and services can be expected to remain key elements at quick printers. Copy services-which most commercial printers do not provide-are obviously important. Offset printing-especially one- and two-color work-is expected to continue to be the backbone of the quick printing industry as well. But newer markets will be served not because the technologies are available, but because customers demand new services.

A recent survey of quick printers and their equipment needs provides some insights into how smaller printers may evolve. Within the next three years, according to the survey, quick printers expect to purchase computers, software, copiers, digital network printers, color copiers, imagesetters and a wide variety of bindery and peripheral equipment. Quick printers are bullish-and they apparently have every reason to be.

Formed in 1975 as the National Assn. of Quick Printers (NAQP), PrintImage International provides services to more than 2,500 quick print, copying and small commercial printing members located in the United States, Canada and several foreign countries. Members include both independent printers and franchise businesses, and the focus of the organization is on smaller, entrepreneurial printers and owner-operated businesses.

Through working relationships with other graphic arts and print communication organizations, PrintImage International advances the interests of the industry domestically and internationally. The association produces the annual PrintImage Expo for the graphic arts and allied industries.

Information regarding the association is available by calling (800) 234-0040 or (312) 321-6886. Check out the association's website at

PrintImage International offers a variety of special interest groups for its members. These include groups that address sales and marketing issues, electronic publishing and digital technologies, and mailing services.

SMUG is not a description of quick printer attitude! SMUG is the designation of Sales & Marketing Users Group, which provides quick and small commercial printers with tips and strategies for developing outside sales expertise. The newsletters and annual meetings of the group provide an opportunity for printers to learn how others are successfully evolving toward more than just walkup sales and operations.

DIAN is not a male quick printer's significant other. DIAN is an acronym for the Digital Imaging Applications Network. The group assists printers in adapting to and utilizing digital technology in their businesses. The DIAN organization produces a newsletter with digital technology tips and holds an annual conference focusing on one or two areas of current interest to group members.

MSG is not found just in Chinese food! MSG is the Mailing Services Group, which focuses on the mailing and distribution services increasingly offered by quick and small commercial printers. The newsletters and annual meetings of the group keep printers current on the latest technologies and regulations that affect this growing segment of the quick print business.

For more information on any of these special interest groups, contact PrintImage International at (800) 234-0040 or (312) 321-6886.

For more information, please refer to the charts on pages 33-47 in the July 1999 issue of American Printer.