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May 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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Flashback to the year 2000: the peak of (or maybe just a bit over) the dot-com boom. Trade shows like Graph Expo were bloated with booths from e-commerce companies, and the PrintTalk initiative was on the march. There were well over 100 companies offering e-commerce solutions aimed at buyers and sellers of print. You might recall some of the more high-profile names, like Collabria, Noosh, Impresse,, ImageX, httPrint and

A year later, Printable had acquired Collabria, PrintCafe grabbed the assets of Impresse, and many of the players disappeared altogether. By 2002, so many dot-coms (of all types) were going belly-up, there were whole Web sites devoted to tracking their demise. Today, few of those organizations exist.

Half a decade ago, the printing industry as a whole just wasn’t ready to do business online—not in the way most of the e-commerce solutions available then offered it. The idea of handing a two percent commission over to a dot-com just for facilitating a sale via the Web, or allowing customers to peek into the production workflow (something a number of the e-commerce companies touted as a product benefit, back in the day), just did not appeal to the average commercial printer. While we had our FTP sites and we all used e-mail, the Internet was viewed somewhat apprehensively as a potentially competitive medium, one that might well bring the demise of many types of printed products. In short, it was the wrong time for the wholesale adoption of Web-to-print solutions.

Now, however, appears to be the right time. A majority of Americans, 72 percent overall and 84 percent of those 18-29 years of age, regularly use the Internet. These statistics come from a 2005 survey conducted by the PEW Internet Project (, a nonprofit organization dedicated to gathering timely information on the Internet’s growth and societal impact. In a PEW report of what people do online, 67 percent said they buy products. E-commerce is no longer a novelty; it is one of the normal ways that we have all come to do business, and print is no exception. Web-to-print has become one of the hottest topics in the industry—In 2006, it seems everybody believes they need to do some kind of Internet-driven business. The motivator, for many, is that clients have come to expect it. The question for those who have not yet jumped in is, “How do I get started?”

Defining W2P
The phrase “Web-to-print” appears to have been co-opted as a generic term that can describe any sort of print-related commerce that can happen via the Internet, although it is most generally used to describe a Web-based front end to a variable, print-on-demand (POD) environment. And WebToPrint is, in fact, the name of an actual online storefront application offered by MediaExpress ( There are many other terms used to describe print-related e-commerce applications: digital storefront; e-procurement; Web-enabled printing; Web-enabled or online print services; online literature management; dynamic publishing; online order flow system; online print management; Internet-driven marketing; customer relationship management (CRM) systems; and brand management systems. These are not all merely different names for the same product or service; on the contrary, the range of services that fall into the Web-to-print space are quite varied, and the number of players in the field is ever growing.

A very broad definition of Web-to-print is “an interaction between those who buy print products and those who sell print products, using the Internet as a medium for the exchange.” Because a simple FTP exchange could be considered a Web-to-print application by that definition, let’s also say that Web-to-print applications go beyond the mere exchange of files and include other value-added services. Among those could be job ticketing, quoting, order entry, design, template- or catalog-based page construction, database linking, asset management, soft proofing, preflight, PDF creation, file conversion, job delivery, job approval, job tracking, billing, online payment, customer relations, and even production management. Before any company jumps on the Web-to-print bandwagon, managers must first decide what they want or need to accomplish with the system.

Web-to-print systems can be difficult to categorize because there is so much crossover in functionality between them. Looking at the primary business models on the market, however, we see several main types of applications: storefronts (quick print, catalog or templated); brand management solutions; and production portals. Many printing companies have chosen to build their own proprietary systems, but maintaining these often requires deep pockets and a great deal of IT expertise. For companies that wish to “buy” a solution, there are vendors offering every kind of Web-to-print solution. Vendors offer both hosted (ASP) or licensed delivery models. In some cases, a particular system is available either way, depending on the requirements of the buyer.

The Internet storefront model, at the simplest level, is a way for customers to place orders online. The term “digital storefront” is a phrase often tossed around to describe the concept of a Web-based e-commerce site generally, but EFI Digital Storefront is an actual trademark of that organization. Storefronts are typically a front end to a specific printer or organization, and some of the largest ones are aimed at commodity printing of things like business cards and flyers., and are well known examples of print storefronts.

Gone in 60 seconds
VistaPrint ( is the poster child of the successful template-based storefront business model. Launched in 2000, VistaPrint weathered the dot-com bust and now boasts six million customers in 120 countries, processing over 12,000 orders per day through 16 Web sites. To attract new customers, VistaPrint offers 250 free business cards on its storefront, for just the cost of shipping. Customers can choose from one of 20 card templates, which they can customize directly via the online interface. By default, “Business Cards are FREE at” is printed the back of the free cards, so every one serves as an advertisement for VistaPrint. (Users can pay about $10 additional to receive cards without this promotional information.) The storefront offers thousands of templates across all product lines, from identity pieces to marketing material, cards, rubber stamps and even caricature products where users can select faces, hair color and such to build comic illustrations.

Although VistaPrint originally outsourced the actual printing of its products, the company now owns two printing plants, in Canada and the Netherlands. The company handles its tremendous volume through the efficiency of its proprietary storefront and highly automated production system. VistaPrint holds 10 patents for its technology with 40 more pending in the United States and Europe.

Chris Connors, vice president of manufacturing, explains how the system works: “Jobs are ganged together based on the type of product and the paper stock selected. So in a given day, for example, we might have 1,000 orders for business cards on glossy stock. Those cards will be aggregated into groups and the digital files sent to the regional printing plant from which shipping will be most efficient.”

VistaPrint has an unusual plant layout, with a platesetter sitting beside each web press. As jobs are imaged to plate, they are immediately available for the pressroom staff to hang them on press and print. “Our average order is accomplished with 60 seconds of physical labor,” says Connors.

The silent salesman
The efficiency of ganging multiple jobs onto a single run is one of the key secrets to the quick-print storefront model’s success. John Adams, owner of On Demand Imaging in Portsmouth, NH, found he was losing business to online-based printers like Vista Print due entirely to the low prices they were able to offer. “People wanted to print with ODI,” he says, “but as we all know, cash is king.”

Adams decided to fight fire with fire. He hired a developer to build a custom storefront,, which launched last December. While he marketed the new service to existing clients via statement stuffers, direct mail and salespeople, there is no mention of On Demand Imaging on the Web site, and clients of the storefront might know nothing about the parent company. Adams says he was surprised by the immediate positive response to the storefront, and his business experienced growth almost immediately. He expects to receive an ROI on his original investment to develop the site within six to 12 months.

Adams cites the many ways the storefront has fundamentally changed the way he does business. Projects ordered via the Web site are available on limited paper stocks and can be gang run, reducing per-job setup times significantly. All jobs purchased through the storefront are paid COD, greatly improving cash flow. Adams adds, “Having that Web site as our silent salesman, selling 24 hours a day for zero percent commission, is nice, too.” He says that when deciding how to price the online products, he looked at all of the major storefronts and set his prices somewhere between the highest and lowest available. IDoPrint has expanded his customer base into a much broader region, with new customers in Vermont, Maine, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Washington, DC.

Sometimes, Adams admits, existing customers of On Demand Imaging will phone in an order and expect the faster turnaround and lower price offered via, while still paying for the job on account. He says customers have to understand that ganging multiple jobs is the basis for the lower prices offered via the storefront, and to receive those prices, they can’t expect a private press check, hard proof or special stock selection. Most understand the tradeoff, and with the benefit of a KBA Karat direct-imaging press, jobs initiated through go from desktop to salable press sheet within 20 minutes. “We wouldn’t be able to do this without that press,” Adams claims.

ASP solutions
Adams says that he spent a year and a half building from scratch with help from integrator GriffinEye Design & Development. Printers do not have to go through the birthing pains of developing a custom site, however, when there are a number of vendors offering hosted or licensed storefronts. One of the most cost-effective ways to get started with a Web-enabled e-commerce storefront is to go with a hosted solution like that offered by Printable Technologies, Inc. ( With an initial setup fee of around $7,000 and monthly charges as little as $270 per month, Printable allows users to start up a Web-to-print solution almost instantly.

The solution is made up of three main components, the first of which, Printable Dashboard, is the print provider’s administrative management tool. PrintOne Customer Center is the client interface, which can be entirely branded by the print shop. Printable customers who have been certified to do so can take complete charge of PrintOne Customer sites using the Printable Manager tool. Beyond these key tools are a number of options including JobExpress, a printer driver-based PDF creation tool; PrintProof for soft and remote proofing; and add-ons that allow for integration into a number of ERP solutions, accounting or shop floor management applications, and production workflows from most of the digital press manufacturers. Printable caters to the variable-data printing community with its Fusion Pro VDP products. It offers Fusion Pro Web, a template-based online tool that lets customers order VDP jobs via the Web. Fusion Pro Server is available for high-volume, hands-off VDP product; for smaller shops, there is Fusion Pro Desktop, at $399, probably the most inexpensive yet powerful VDP tool on the market.

PrinterPresence ( is another exceptionally inexpensive ASP model offered by Digital IMS. For a base startup cost beginning at $1,500 and a small monthly fee, a print shop can choose from several storefront templates. For an additional fee, PrintersPresence will build a custom site. This system offers some basic storefront capabilities like order entry and estimating, as well as a printer driver-based PDF creation and delivery tool based on Adobe PDFJobReady technology.

Four51, Inc., ( one of the original dot-com boomers, offers hosted e-commerce solutions, although they are not marketed just to the printing industry. While Four51 offers the Commerce Network storefront solution for manufacturers, it also offers procurement solutions for those on the buying end. Likewise, NewlineNoosh, ( the current incarnation of original dot-com player Noosh, focuses on print management outsourcing for the buyer.

DIY options
While hosted solutions work for many printers, particularly those lacking in-house IT expertise, the most prevalent delivery model for Web-to-print solutions are licensed or turnkey package solutions. Most of these offer some degree of customization and many of the vendors offer ongoing support, but the actual system is owned and operated by the buyer. Software licenses for these systems run anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 and up, depending upon functionality or the number of concurrent users it can support. Many offer specialized modules for additional tasks and customization services, at an additional cost. Most also charge monthly maintenance fees, often based on a percentage of sales.

Many of the big-name equipment vendors in the printing industry offer licensed software solutions, which act as both storefronts and portals to that vendor’s workflow production system. Many are front-end systems for print-on-demand environments, porting directly to digital printing devices.

Xerox (, for example, has partnered with Press-Sense ( to package a version of the Web-to-print software iWay Prime as iWay Production Suite for Xerox customers.

EFI ( offers EFI Digital Storefront, which integrates with other EFI products like EFI Fiery, EFI Micro-Press or EFI Balance but is not limited to work with just those output devices. EFI Digital Storefront can include a credit card payment module, so it can be used for Web-based e-commerce.

Screen ( offers Riteonline, a turnkey software application for online print buying that integrates seamlessly into the Trueflownet workflow or works with other solutions using JDF/JMF messaging.

Most of the production portals are not storefronts, however, but ways for printers to interact with their clients in a more direct fashion for the purpose of initiating JDF job tickets, job delivery, soft proofing and client approval. Vendor-specific portal-type systems include Agfa’s Delano (, Heidelberg’s Prinect Remote Access (, Kodak’s Insite (, and Screen’s Riteportal SE.

Pageflex Storefront, introduced two years ago, is a turnkey print e-commerce solution that, while hosted directly by the print shop, offers a point-and-click administrative interface that won’t deter the non-IT-savvy printer. Pageflex, ( a division of Bitstream, Inc., won the 2005 GATF InterTech Technology Award for Pageflex Storefront, the first Web-to-print solution to gain that distinction. The base system starts at $35,000 and includes everything needed to get a storefront up and running, often in a matter of days. The two primary components of Storefront are the Storefront Administrator, a browser-based tool used to customized the Web site, and Pageflex Studio, a desktop application that includes form-filling customization, editing tools and database merging for personalization projects. End users select documents they wish to customize from a catalog and save products in a standard shopping cart interface.

One of the first adopters of Pageflex Storefront was Rastar Marketing of Salt Lake City, UT, whose clients are primarily corporate marketing personnel who produce customized point-of-sale signage and collateral materials via the site.

“Prior to purchasing Storefront from Pageflex, we had experience using ASP-based print ordering systems and developing one-off custom ordering sites for customers,” says Kevin Despain, Raster Marketing’s CEO. “The ASP systems were too limited in their functionality and too rigid to adapt to specific customer needs. Developing one-off solutions ourselves proved very time consuming. Storefront successfully responds to the gap of middle ground between these two approaches.”

With strong tie-ins to on-demand and variable print production systems, Pageflex can produce VPS, PPML, PostScript, VIPP, PDF, EPS and JLYT files for output. It also can write JDF job tickets compatible with Creo Spire RIPs for direct processing via that system.

With the slogan “One to One in One,” XMPie, Inc. ( offers VDP-oriented products like uDirect Standard, an InDesign plug-in that lets content creators build variable projects that take advantage of all of InDesign’s functionality, including transparency and drop shadows. uStore, XMPie’s Web-to-print solution, is an add-on product, so documents made with uDirect can be posted, customized and sold online.

XMPie solutions are not limited to print production; instead, the focus is on cross-media campaign management. A single license allows the buyer to build multiple branded sites that can be customized with “skins” to allow the site to integrate into an existing Web environment. XMPie is planning to release uStore 2.0 simultaneously with PersonalEffect 3.0. Its enhancements include native connection between database-driven Web development tools and XMPie software, giving users the ability to create interactive Web sites that integrate with XMPie campaigns. New uStore features include job ticketing and job aggregation.

A uStore can be used as a brand management tool, in that the content posted on the store can include base templates that end users may customize only as much as the provider allows. Saepio Technologies ( offers similar capability with Agilis Storefront. Agilis Print, Saepio’s best-known product, enables users to create versioned marketing pieces via a template-driven Web browser interface. For example, a site might be built for a hotel chain, with an array of templates available for each type of product that a hotel manager might be able to order, such as a brochure or signage. The end user can be offered a selection of images, authorized corporate copy, logos, etc. that can be used to “build” a piece, then customize with their local information where allowed. The gives the user some degree of control over corporate materials, but forces them to comply to the brand. What’s in a name?

Brand management is a very large subset of Web-to-print applications; or it might be more accurate to say that Web-to-print has become an important component of many brand management solutions. Tim Mischuk, President of Bluetree Direct Inc., says his company originally developed its Web-to-print solution, Bluestream, ( as an in-house tool to support direct marketing solutions for real estate clients in Florida. With a $500,000 investment in developing the system, including staff, Mischuk claims, “ROI was quick—within one month!” He realized the company’s Web-to-print application was not only a tool to help his clients, but a salable product in itself. Bluestream is offered as a licensed turnkey solution or a hosted ASP, depending upon the needs of the client.

Times Color Graphics (Washington, DC), a prepress service company turned digital printer, selected the Bluestream ASP solution largely because a hosted solution requires so little internal IT infrastructure. Henri Schauffler, president, explains his motivation for acquiring a Web-to-print solution: “We discovered that selling digital printing or variable-data printing by itself was quite difficult. We purchased [Bluetree’s solution] for one particular application, templates only, but soon found that it has many other features we can sell.”

Bill Hishon, vice president of Bluetree, says the organization is less a Web-to-print solution than a direct marketing service. Through it, users can manage customer databases and view reports, tracking responses to marketing campaigns initiated via Bluestream. For example, a postcard campaign may ask recipients to visit a particular Web site for more information. Through the use of personalized URLs (PURL), Bluestream can record exactly who hit the site in response to which piece, in which salespersons territory, and so on. It is this data, says Hishon, that is of greatest value to Bluetree’s customers, as it helps them build ever better campaigns going forward.

Henri Schauffler says Bluestream has fundamentally changed the way he does business. “We will create, merge, postal sort and RIP all our jobs online in Bluestream by the end of FY [April] 2006. Until now, it has all been done on the desktop.”

While his Web-to-print brand management solution Pica 9 ( is a licensed solution, Pica 9, Inc., president Kevin Groome asks his potential customers to push his company to come up with ever new and better solutions to meet unique needs. The base Pica 9 product offers end users a browser-based Production Wizard to localized template-based branded designs.

PrintSure from Dev Zero G ( provides a centrally managed preflight and delivery portal, pushing preflight tasks upstream directly onto the designer’s desktop. Sold as a server solution ($9,000 US), PrintSure users define preflight profiles that not only check for problems in PDF files, but automatically repair many of them. For example, if a file contains RGB image files, PrintSure can convert them to CMYK on the fly. PrintSure is delivered to end users as a desktop droplet—simply dragging a PDF file over the droplet will preflight and, if set up that way, deliver the job directly to the printer’s FTP site. PrintSure owners can opt to prevent files that fail the preflight check from being delivered, something that could benefit publishers accepting digital ads.

Maxime Dumesnil of French prepress firm DLR produces a business directory and receives about 350 ads for the publication in a few days time. Checking these files typically consumes about 150 hours of production time, eating up too much of an already tight schedule. So he implemented PrintSure, hoping to reduce the 50 percent error rate he typically got on incoming ads. “I took a risk, because no one in France had tested PrintSure before me and there was no guarantee that all of the companies producing ads would accept the installation of the droplet on their computers,” he explains. “Around 85 percent have installed PrintSure, so it was a huge success.”

Web-to-print comes in many flavors, but as everyone becomes more and more used to doing business via the Web, it is essential to offer some kind of Web- enabled interface with your clients. There are simple storefront solutions, hosted solutions, licensed solutions, vendor-specific solutions, VDP-oriented solutions, delivery-oriented solutions and marketing or brand management solutions. Every vendor mentioned in this article offers a demo or test site—so get out there, try them out and get with the Web-to-everything program!

Julie Shaffer is the director of the PIA/GATF Center for Imaging Excellence ( Contact her at