The Demise of the Local Printer
Business shifting to large, online printers
Do you find yourself increasingly ordering business documents and photo gifts from online printers? If so, you are not alone. And as more people leverage these options, it is undeniably impacting the printer down the street.
In Two Decades, Number of US Print Firms Fell Substantially
According to US Census business establishment data, in 2019 there were 22,799 firms (and 24,194 locations, as some of the firms have multiple sites) in the printing and related support activities economic subsector—which produces items like newspapers, books, labels, business cards, stationery, and business forms, and provides services like data imaging, platemaking, and bookbinding.
This is a 41% drop from 1999, when there were 38,780 firms in this category. The biggest declines occurred in the 20-99 employee and 10-19 employee firm size segments, but similar drops were observed across the other business sizes.
Number of Firms in the Printing and Related Support Activities Subsector
|Source: US Census|
While Census data from 2020-2022 is lacking, The Target Report has reported the number of publicly announced print industry bankruptcies totaled 108 from September 1, 2018 through August 31, 2021. The number of bankruptcies did slow from September 1, 2020-August 31,2021, but this may be related to the large cash infusions that came in the form of forgivable PPP loans and other forms of government stimulus.
But Online Printers Are Flourishing
The drop in printing firms can be seen in the shuttered print and copy centers you notice in your city’s downtown, or the local book bindery that had to close its doors as business worsened during the Coronavirus pandemic. At the same time these businesses are closing, online printers (and the companies that own them) are flourishing.
For example, Taylor Corporation—which owns online printing sites like 123Print, CardsDirect, and PaperDirect (which provides certificates, plaques, border papers, unprinted papers, invitations, and motivational gifts)—reportedly earns $3.6 billion in annual revenue, more than double its 2010 revenue of $1.7 billion.
Vistaprint, which is now owned by Ireland-based Cimpress, has seen its revenue grow from $16.9 million in 2002 to $1.4 billion in 2021. Shutterfly (now owned by Apollo Global Management and District Photo) grew its revenue from $123 million in 2006 to $2 billion in 2018.
These are just a few examples. When I search “order business cards online,” I’m presented with nearly 2.5 billion results. The top results are ads from Brandly.com, BusinessCards24.com, Amazon Business, Smartpress, Moo, GotPrint, NextDayFlyers, UPrinting.com, and Zazzle. The first non-ad results are from Vistaprint, Canva, Moo, Office Depot, UPrinting.com, Zazzle, and Overnight Prints.
According to the US Census business establishment data, in 2019 there were 41,741 firms in the electronic shopping and mail-order houses sub-sector (also known as e-commerce)—compared to 31,347 in 2014 (representing a 33% increase in five years). These are not solely print firms, but the trend toward online retail is clear across sectors.
How Can Local Printers Compete? (Short Answer: e-Commerce and In-Person Value)
One question that arises is how local printers are reacting to growth in e-commerce. Some are clearly closing their doors. But others are fighting back, using stellar customer service and, in many cases, e-commerce options of their own.
Last year, we surveyed US print service providers (PSPs) offering wide format products. Thirty-five percent indicated they offer some kind of e-commerce/web-to-print capability, whether it’s in the form of a public website, private website for individual companies, or both. Another 23% say a site is in the works.
Does Your Company Have e-Commerce (Web-to-Print) Capabilities, and if so, What Type?
|Source: Big Picture Magazine and Keypoint Intelligence Survey, March 2021|
If these sites can rival some of the big players in terms of usability and product range, this could help stave off some of the print business closures occurring across the country. That said, we are also seeing a dynamic where smaller print companies lack the capital to invest in high-end inkjet devices that offer a lower cost per page compared to smaller toner-based products.
As such, they are often unable to offer the same price as big online printers that have this state-of-the-art technology. This is another challenge driving business (and in turn, page volumes) from small, local printers to large online printers. A related challenge is less flexibility for paying higher paper prices—or minimum order amounts required by the paper mills.
So, the key question then becomes: How can these local outfits differentiate themselves from their larger, more capital-heavy competitors? Since they can’t compete on price, they need to compete based on the value they can provide to customers.
This value could encompass a variety of areas, including their ability to work with customers face-to-face, show print samples and hardcopy proofs, and provide specialty print capabilities that some online printers may not sell. This may include color embellishments, special finishing like dye cutting, special substrates, special folding, variable data printing, design services, and connectivity features like QR codes and NFC tags.
Or going back to e-commerce, it could involve the ability of customers to easily order online and then pick up the order when it’s ready—avoiding shipping costs and wait times.
While we are seeing a demise of the local printer, partly due to growth in low-price providers online, this doesn’t mean there aren’t innovative and customer-focused PSPs that will stay open for many years to come.
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