Neither Rain Nor Sleet, nor ?

May 3, 2009

A Summer Sale.

That’s what the subject line of the email stated.  I nearly clicked the junk button, but a quick glance at the sender held my attention.  DMMAdvisory.  Wait a minute, that’s the U.S. Post Office.  They don’t have summer sales . . . what’s up here?

mad-letterDMMAdvisory is the USPS email link to keep mailers informed about all sorts of goings on at the Postal Service.  The DMM is the domestic mail manual.  Actually, I think it’s the domestic mail manuals . . . there’s a bunch of them (if you’re curious, you can look at ‘em here).  Usually, the DMMAdvisory is all about new rules that are going to be issued because they’ll make the USPS more efficient or rescinded because even though the USPS will be more efficient, everyone else will be less efficient.  The Advisories also talk a lot about Intelligent Barcodes, Move Updates, and services like PostalOne!, the online portal where mailers like AlphaGraphics are supposed to enter in all of their mailing data to make the USPS more efficient.  And we’ll be glad to do it, too . . . just as soon as the USPS figures out how to make the website work.

I’ve never seen a DMMAdvisory that talked about a summer sale. I got kind of excited about that, thinking maybe this was something we could use to promote mailing services. So I clicked on the link to find out about it. What I got was a 32 page .pdf document.  The USPS doesn’t advertise a sale, you understand, they file a Notice with the Postal Regulatory Commission. That kind of advertising wouldn’t get results for the rest of us, but apparently it works for the USPS.

Poor Richard, feeling brave, waded into the document. The first important fact I discovered is that Standard Mail is an important investment for American business and that it is incumbent upon the USPS to encourage American businesses to invest:

The current state of the economy has forced businesses, particularly Postal Service customers, to pull back on important investments necessary for ensuring their continued prosperity. The precipitous decline in the use of Standard Mail for marketing products and services is an illustrative example of the unwanted choices many postal customers have had to make because of the economy. The Postal Service believes it can, and should, find ways to help its customers increase their use of mail during these challenging economic times (pp. 1 -2).

On p. 3, Poor Richard discovers that the sale will run from July 1 to September 30.  A 30% discount for 3 months, that’s some sale! Oops, not so fast . . .here’s a catch on p.4:

The “Summer Sale” program will run from July 1, 2009, through September 30, 2009, and will provide a 30 percent rebate to eligible mailers on Standard Mail letters and flats volume above a mailer-specific threshold. The threshold is calculated by taking the percentage change between a mailer’s postal fiscal year-to-date (October 2008 through March 2009) volume and the volume mailed in the same period last year, and applying that percentage to the volume the mailer mailed between July 1, 2008,
and September 30, 2008.

So, the deal’s not so sweet.  The 30% discount only applies to the increase of mail volume in relation to the ratio of last year’s to this year’s mailings from October to March, factoring in of course the projected daily volume of pork belly contracts in the same period and the average shoe size of a U.S. mail carrier.

Reading on, Poor Richard discovers another hitch:

Qualifying mailers must be able to demonstrate volume of at least one million Standard Mail letters and flats, between October 1, 2007, and March 31, 2008, for one or more permit imprint advance deposit account(s), precanceled stamp permit(s), or postage meter permit(s).

This is looking less like a sale to Poor Richard. One million Standard Mail letters effectively rules out 100% of my customers. In fact, it probably rules out 99.9% of the mailers in South Georgia. And reading further:

Mail service providers (MSPs) are not eligible for the program.

It also rules out mail service providers, like AlphaGraphics; who if they might be large enough to aggregate and mail a million pieces of mail or so for their  customers and wanted to promote mailing services and pass along a little discount, would not be eligible to participate.

“Not a sale at all,” thinks Poor Richard.

The next couple of pages communicate the Postal Service’s intent to contact eligible mailers by letter and then direct them to a website to register to participate in the summer sale. The projected additional revenue for the USPS from the sale is between $38 and $95 million with costs at around $1 million to administer the Summer Sale.  A respectable projection of return, but qualified with this statement:

In particular, an overestimate of the additional volume generated by the incentive or an underestimate of the administrative effort required could unfavorably affect expected financial performance. (p.7)

Unexpected costs related to the malfunction of the response website are also presumably not included. The remaining 23 pages of the .pdf file encompass further justifications of the US Postal Service’s desire to try a “sale,” the regulatory provisions which allow them to do so, why the Postal Regulatory Commission should approve the request, and 17 pages of appendices that detail applicable postal rates, projections on pork belly contracts and historical data pertaining to the average shoe size of a US Postal Service Mail Carrier.

Poor Richard might humbly suggest that if Standard Mail is indeed in “precipitous decline” (and I have no doubt that it is), this proposal is unlikely to rectify the situation. I might also point out that a rate increase is scheduled for May 11 that will presumably do little to reverse the decline or encourage postal service customers to “invest in their continued prosperity” through a return to conventional mail.

Mail volume, like print volume, is decreasing; but there remains a need and demand for both services, at least in the near term. Mail has come under competitive pressure since the introduction of the telegraph, but in today’s communications environment, the pressures on both mail and print are extreme.  Barring a collapse of the Internet, mail and print volumes will continue to decrease. That said, there are still applications where printed mail is the best solution. Direct mail is demonstrably more effective with the 45 and over age group (dinosaurs like me, irrespective of Facebook enrollment). E-mail blasts will never have the impact of a well-written letter, especially if it is personalized.  Even “junk mail,” because it is tangible, has measurably justifiable place in some marketing campaigns.

Because the cost to disseminate printed mail is  higher than electronic communications, it is necessary to justify its value.  Specifically, this can be measured as ROI (return on investment) in any campaign.  It is also important to make it easier for customers to access and understand both printing and mailing. Poor Richard thinks that the US Postal Service is not succeeding in this area. Recent changes to the postal code (Move updates and the IM barcode) have been cumbersome to implement, difficult for mail service providers to understand, and completely inscrutable to our customers.  These changes have not really provoked anger among USPS customers, because they expect this kind of clumsiness, but the customers are very definitely not encouraged to increase their volume of mailing.

Perhaps the USPS should consider doing something proactive for their customers to encourage them to continue to consider mail as a viable means of communication.  Do you think a sale would work?

Let’s Talk

April 13, 2009


8:30 AM

“Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!” reads the subject line of the email.  Thinking that this might just be the order I’ve been waiting for all week, Poor Richard quickly opens the email in Thunderbird.

“My boss wants to do some postcards. How much will 1,000 be?”

“No clue,” responds Poor Richard’s brain as his eyes scan the rest of the post for more information, or at least a phone number to call.  Phone number found, fingers are dialing.

“Hi, you’ve reached the voicemail of (let’s call her Nancy Jean . . . don’t think I have any real customers called Nancy Jean) Nancy Jean, I’m not able to come to the phone right now, but if you’ll leave a message, I’ll get back with you just as quickly as possible.”

“Nancy Jean, it’s Richard at AlphaGraphics.  I received your inquiry by email.  I’ll be happy to get you some numbers on the postcards, but I’ll need some details.  Specifically, if you’ll let me know the size you’d like, whether they will be in color or black and white, coated or uncoated paper, who will be providing the art, and whether you’d like us to mail them.  Let me know and I’ll get back with you as quickly as possible.”

On to other things.

9:45 AM

“Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!”

“Haven’t I seen this before?” says Richard’s brain.

“Got your voicemail. Let’s do regular postcard size in color. Thanks, Nancy Jean.”

“Just quote something,” says Poor Richard’s brain, “maybe it’ll turn into an order. We need an order.”

The fingers follow instructions and produce an estimate for 1000 4.25 x 6 postcards on gloss cover. Still hoping beyond hope for something like a real job, the fingers include pricing for mail services. Because Poor Richard’s brain still has no clue about the design of the postcard, the fingers include the standard AlphaGraphics caveat:

Prices are for production only.  Additional charges will apply for layout, design, or file modifications required before printing.

“Nancy Jean,” says Poor Richard’s brain,” what that means is that I still don’t know what you want to do or what will be required to do it.”

It’s 10:00 am when Poor Richard clicks the send button.

12:15 pm – lunchtime. Check the email.

“RE: FWD: Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!”

“Richard, can you help with this?” writes Nancy Jean, responding to her boss’ terse notation:

“Nancy Jean, you’ve got to do better than this!”

Poor Richard’s fingers dial once again.

“Hi, you’ve reached the voicemail of  Nancy Jean, I’m not able to come to the phone right now, but if you’ll leave a message, I’ll get back with you just as quickly as possible.”

“Right,” thinks Poor Richard’s brain. “Nancy Jean, I’ll send you a couple of alternatives that can reduce the cost a little. If you’ll please call me to discuss, I’d really appreciate it.”

Poor Richard’s fingers add color one side and black ink two sides to the estimate and press the send button. It’s 12:30.

3:00 PM – done with bindery work downstairs. Let’s check the email.

“RE: FWD: RE: RE: FWD: Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!”

“Can we do something bigger?” writes Nancy Jean.

“Isn’t 4.25 x 6 a little small for a postcard?” writes her boss. “How much would a bigger card cost?”

“Bummer,” says Poor Richard’s brain, now beginning to realize that this is likely to turn into nothing.  Poor Richard’s fingers revise the entire estimate for 5.5 x 8.5 cards. The postage estimate is revised to reflect the cost of mailing a larger card.

“Nancy Jean,” types Poor Richard’s fingers, ” here are revised estimates for larger cards. If you could please call me to discuss, I’d really, really appreciate it. We’d certainly like to help with your project and if you could call to discuss the project, I’m sure that we can find a way to make this work for you.” The fingers click send.  It’s 3:15 PM.

5:30 – Poor Richard is thinking about going home. Last check of the email. Sure enough . . .

“RE: RE: RE: FWD: RE: RE: FWD: Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!”

“Richard, we really need to get these postcards in the mail. Can you call me in the morning?”

8:15 AM the next morning. Poor Richard’s fingers are dialing.

“Nancy Jean, may I help you?” comes through the receiver. Poor Richard’s brain becomes momentarily hopeful again.

“Hi, Nancy Jean, this is Richard at AlphaGraphics. I’m calling about the postcards we corresponded about yesterday.”

“Oh, Richard,” says Nancy Jean, “we really needed to get those postcards in the mail yesterday. When we couldn’t get all the information we needed, the boss decided not to send them. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks for thinking of us,” says Poor Richard’s mouth.  Poor Richard’s brain isn’t working at all. “Please let me know if you decide to try again. And if you’ll let me know the budget, we’ll try our best to find a solution that will work for you.”

“Richard, you know my boss doesn’t work like that,” replies Nancy Jean. “Hope you have a good day today!”

“Nuff said,” says Poor Richard’s brain.

“Bye,” says Poor Richard.

Poor Richard’s fingers hang up the phone. Time to check email.  Maybe there will be an order there . . . we could really use a good order.

It’d be a lot funnier if it wasn’t true.

Buttering the Bread on Both Sides

February 22, 2009

It’s happened again . . . same story, but a little different this time. In July 2007, Adobe, with indeterminate brilliance, decided that it would be advantageous to link the print dialogue in Acrobat directly to FedEx/Kinko’s (see Poor Richard’s post On Which Side is the Bread Buttered?). The rest of the industry screamed and threatened and Adobe backed down.

This time around, the culprit is Hewlett Packard (HP), who on January 27 introduced a new web-to-print site called MarketSplash (see HP’s press release).  As a standalone site, MarketSplash really doesn’t represent much in the way of an additional threat to brick and mortar printers (like us), who are already under so much pressure that one more straw on the camel’s back will hardly matter. The site will go head-to-head with VistaPrint, the web-to-print leader and compete very well. In fact, with some creative marketing from HP, MarketSplash could blow VistaPrint out of the water.

Being of a curious nature, Poor Richard had to explore.  MarketSplash, like VistaPrint, is template driven. And, like many/most of the online printing sites, business cards are free.  So Poor Richard decided to order some. I found a template that I liked, featuring Albert Einstein; and created a business card for a new company I had conceived only 30 seconds before, the Incomprehensible Services Company.  Poor Richard, needing a title, is now the Chief Conspirator of Incomprehensible Services.

I was actually impressed by the design template.  The default font sizes were a little small, but the design tools offered enough for customization of a rudimentary layout. Joe Consumer will be able to operate this design tool without getting himself into too much trouble.  I was also generally impressed by the quality of the layouts that were featured. A proof is approved online. The free cards are all double sided, with an advertisement for MarketSplash on the back.  Here’s a screenshot of the proof page . . . I hope HP doesn’t mind.  (If you do, let me know and I’ll zap the image.)

Marketsplash Proof Page for Incomprehensible Services Company

Marketsplash Proof Page for Incomprehensible Services Company

The quality of design can be attributed to another HP acquisition, a company called LogoWorks. Purchased by HP in 2007, LogoWorks offers inexpensive design work online.  Like MarketSplash, LogoWorks targets small businesses who are looking for a low cost alternative to ad agencies and freelance designers. Custom design from LogoWorks is also included as an option on the MarketSplash site.

After reading this far, you may be asking, “So, where’s the problem?”

There are a couple:

  • First, even though HP is not the first to offer a web-to-print site with low prices, they are going into competition with part of their customer base. This is admittedly a weak argument because HP’s desktop color printers were among the first technological developments to erode a segment of conventional printers’ business. (Home offices and the smallest of businesses were the first to go to self-printed business cards and letterhead).
  • Like Adobe, HP picked the wrong partner. They have teamed with Staples Office Supply for overnight delivery of product. While the geographic distribution of Staples’ centers certainly makes sense, the assumption that they will have the capability of quickly producing and delivering a quality product is open to question. To HP’s credit, they are open to “co-branding and licensing of the MarketSplash platform” to other retailers.  Poor Richard has no clue what this actually means.

Conventional printers may re-evaluate our purchasing decisions, especially when it comes to high end digital presses. HP has been the market leader with their Indigo line.  The quality and capabilities of these machines are impressive and many printers the size of our AlphaGraphics (including us) had planned to migrate to this machine as leases for our existing digital equipment run out. HP also has a strong presence in the wide format arena. But HP does not have the market share in our industry that Adobe Systems has. Also, unlike Adobe’s software, there are good alternatives to the HP products. HP’s decision falls squarely into the category of “calculated risk,” and the potential return may well outweigh the consequences from agitating bothersome printers like us.

Can brick and mortar printshops compete? The answer unfortunately is “yes” and “no.” If it’s a question of price, the answer is a definite maybe.  We won’t be giving away business cards, and we’re really not interested in selling 100 of anything for $39.95, but by the time you add freight some of the other items are not so cheap. The online printers convey the impression of low price, though, and it is sheer folly to say that the web printers have not eroded the low end of the customer base.

Repeat letterhead and envelope orders from small companies were profitable “bread and butter” business when our AlphaGraphics started. That business has virtually disappeared as correspondence has gone online and as a result of the VistaPrint – type alternatives. Freelance designers also once represented a good base of business for postcards and flyers. They began funneling these products to gang run printers a few years ago, similarly attracted by cheap pricing (See Poor Richard’s post Caveat Emptor). It is not just a little ironic that LogoWorks and MarketSplash actually represent direct competition to the freelance market segment, though the freelancers themselves may not realize it.

Especially in this economy, conventional printing companies are competing for a larger share of a rapidly shrinking pie. Many of us will not survive. Most of us are hanging on by our teeth and clawing with our fingernails. For those of us who will fight through these rapidly changing times, it will mean finding new ways of doing business, new products and services, and working harder and more closely with the customers we have left.  Local companies have the advantage of proximity, of reacting quickly to customer needs, and the ability to provide expertise to those who still value it.  Poor Richard thinks (hopes) that the ability to survive and eventually succeed again will still be based on that value proposition.

It will be another 6 or 7 days before Poor Richard receives the cards for his imaginary venture. They’ll be shipped by an unnamed ground transportation company. The order represented a $13.95 value, charges graciously waived by MarketSplash, and my cards will be printed on a medium matte paper. I’m anxious to see what that is, too. Be assured that another post will follow!


Got the cards about five business days later.  They came Express Mail (USPS). The printing quality was good, but not exceptional. Digital color on an 80# Matte cover, with an advertisement for MarketSplash on the reverse side. The freebies presume that more profitable orders for other items will follow from satisfied customers who have received their wonderful free business cards. I’m sure that that is a valid assumption, but I wonder where the breakeven number falls.

Even with streamlined ordering, there is a real cost to print, cut, package and ship the stupid things.  I’d figure between $10 and $15/set in a really efficient production operation.  If one in four customers actually order another item, that’s $40-$60 in additional sales required before a margin is achieved.  A low volume business model must turn high volumes to make a profit. This is  a combination traditionally not compatible to a specialized and detailed business like printing.

Poor Richard confesses that this may be the business model for the times we’re in.  It’s not a model that will be conducive to the kind of business that good local printers have traditionally done. I regret that and I think that one day the customer’s we’ve lost may regret it too.

Finesse it with a sledgehammer

August 22, 2008

It’s difficult to describe the exact series of sounds. It started as the usual “kerklunk” rhythm, uniform and predictable as the books are stitched, folded and trimmed. Moments later, the sound had altered. Now a “kerflam,” there was a slight metallic echo after each cycle. An undertone swelled up from deep in the bowels of the machine; a grey and forbidding rumbling foreshadowing some dire sequence of events. With a crescendo and a roar the machine was momentarily quiet, then emitted a last staccato series of clicks a loud metallic “klang!” and fell silent.

I knew we were pushing the limit. The book we were working on had started as 36 pages, well within the capabilities of our trusty bookletmaker. But in a short week it had grown to 68 pages of gloss text and a cover . . . just a little more than the machine is actually rated to do. The hardy machine actually made it through about 600 books before the audible complaints began. It spit out another 30 or so in its death throes, leaving us only 370 to put together by hand at 5:00 on Thursday, for an event that was to take place the next morning.

Upstairs, the wide format printer was spewing cyan ink in places that it was not intended to spew. The company that manufactured this machine has recently been purchased by a company whose initials are comprised of the eighth and sixteenth letters of the alphabet. I think they’re having some difficulties digesting their acquisition. I’m tempted to say that the machine is a lemon, but every moving part in the thing has been replaced so it seems more likely that the whole concept is flawed and the new manufacturer doesn’t have a clue how to fix it.

The technician who comes to make repair attempts is a very nice fellow who sincerely tries his best to keep us running. In Poor Richard’s experience, there are two kinds of technicians. The first is tidy, organized and efficient. Bob Jordan, who works on our presses, falls into this category. He has magnetic hands . . . the right tool always just seems to be there.

The tech for the wide format machine is of the second variety. Brian calls him Pigpen and begins humming the theme from Peanuts (Linus and Lucy) as he approaches the door. You can see the dustcloud from 100 yards away. He is neither efficient nor organized. Tools and screws vanish in his presence. Seemingly minor repairs can lead to catastrophe and major component failures.

In this case, it was disaster in absentia. Printheads had been replaced the previous week, leading to vacuum problems, leading to a new part which we installed, leading to more extreme vacuum problems, culminating in cyan ink spewing in places where it should never spew.

My dad was in the blue jean business for a time, operating a sewing plant only a block away from Alphagraphics. I remember his mechanic very well.  I guess Frederick was an aberration.  I don’t recall him being either neat or organized, but he had Bob’s innate sense of how things run. He worked very well with a hangover. Frederick was acquainted with wrenches and screwdrivers, but his favorite tool was a ball peen hammer.  He could actually occasionally get sewing machines to run by striking them a solid blow at some strategic point only revealed by God to Frederick.  Or maybe it was like zen . . . he was one with the machine. He called it “finessing with a sledgehammer.”

Some days what I really need is Frederick and the ball peen hammer, or  a minor miracle, or maybe a whole 55 gallon drum full of pixie dust. What I’ve got is customers who only want booklets and wide format. Isn’t life grand?

Price, Price . . . the Printer’s Lament.

June 12, 2008

In my previous life (BA -before AlphaGraphics), I sold lumber. Worked for a great company out of Perry, GA that sold treated lumber and other stuff to retail lumber yards all over the Eastern US. We actually marketed lumber, which was a little difficult. You see, it’s really kind of hard to differentiate the #2 2 x 4 you sell from the #2 2 x 4 that everyone else was selling. We ran a really tight business, with excellent customer service, and we always did what we said we would do.

In the midst of the Spring busy season, there was a game that was played. There was alway an item or two in short supply that the customer had to have on the truck. One competitor or another would always lowball this item to get the truckload order. We’d hear, “I had to place the order with ABC lumber because they were 10% less on 2 x 10 x 14 and that’s what I really needed.”

“How were we on the rest of the stuff?” I’d always ask. Usually we were pretty much in line. Frequently, we’d follow up to find that the truck had arrived from the competitor without the “most needed” item.

Here’s the point: It’s easy to price low when you don’t deliver.

Times are tough in the printing world. The market is changing rapidly and mid-sized printers are having identity crises. In Middle Georgia, the summer doldrums are compounded by the weak economy and an ever accelerating shift away from print. With the overall market shrinking, competitors are flailing away and the waves are getting rough.

Two weeks ago, we lost a nice bit of business from an old account. We had printed and delivered their letterhead and envelopes for several years, since they shut down an in-house shop. Here’s the short story: New purchasing agent, Out for bid, taken by an Atlanta printer.

The service requirements for this account are stringent: online ordering and proofing, 3 day turnaround, direct delivery to the end user, small quantity orders. It was not unusual for us to deliver a box of business cards. We had imposed a minimum of 500 cards, but were requested to change this to 100 for the new contract. We bid the contract at what I thought were very competitive prices for the level of service requested. We lost the bid to a company in Marietta, GA; roughly 2 hours to the north of us. The average value of a delivery to this client was around $180. I’m not going to draw the conclusion that the new supplier will not meet the terms of the contract, but I question that they will profit from it.

Last week we printed some letterhead and envelopes for a non-profit. It was a new customer for us . . . one of our old contacts changed jobs and gave us a call. I love it when that happens. After the envelopes were delivered, we were requested to provide pricing for a small quantity of “wallet flap” remittance envelopes. They asked for quantities of 1000 and 3000. We regularly print these envelopes and they occasionally give us fits in the small presses. I price the envelopes accordingly and fairly.

I emailed the envelope estimate and didn’t hear back from them for a week. On Monday, Brian received a call from the customer. One of our competitors had undercut our prices substantially . . . if we would match the price, we could have the order. Two of our folks have worked recently for the competitor in question. There are two presses in their facility–a 40″ Komori 6 color and an antique Ryobi that no one will run. Their business is built around long runs – real estate magazines and such. I am skeptical that an order for 3000 envelopes is going to get a lot of attention when it gets into the workflow. I explained that we would be happy to print the envelopes for them, but declined to match the competitor’s pricing. Why work for nothing?

Customer 3 came in today to ask if they could put some promotional postcards on our front counter. They’re a new business downtown. I recognized the postcard immediately . . . muddy printing, low resolution art, and UV coating. We told him we could do a better job for him next time. He paid $200 for a zillion on from He got what he paid for.

The last customer in today’s story seems to be a really nice guy. He’s setting up a new office in a smaller community to the south of us and had heard of Alphagraphics from one of his associates. We printed his business cards last week. This week’s project was to be a trifold brochure. The graphic designer is associated somehow with the business he’s starting, but the individual offices can purchase their own printing. I like that. We provided pricing for several permutations of the brochure, small quantities printed 4/4 in digital color. Because he had wanted a heavier, “more substantial” card stock for his business cards, I suggested an 80# cover stock for the brochure.

A day later, I received a call asking for revised pricing on larger quantities. I responded accordingly.

The next call was familiar. The designer has a printing relationship and can provide the brochure for a lower price. Could we match it? This time I asked for the exact specs. 4/4 with bleeds printed on 80# text. After revising the estimate to match the specifications, we were right in line. Only one problem . . . the customer didn’t want a flimsy brochure. We revised once more for 100# text. This one worked out OK.

Here is the point: there is a value attribute in every transaction.

Lumber is universally acknowledged to be a commodity, but the value in the transactions my company undertook had to do with integrity and dependability. We delivered what we promised and took care of any problems that occurred. Regardless of the price promised, a product that is not delivered (or not delived on time) has no value whatsoever to the buyer.

There are costs associated with the value provided. These costs have to be recovered in the price of the product to enable the supplier to provide the product to the customer. In addition, the provider must make a profit in order to survive.

The lowest cost provider is not always the provider of greatest value. In printing, if the quality of the product is poor, the cost to the customer in terms of lost opportunities and poor impressions can be far in excess of the price they would have paid for a quality product in the first place.

Finally, it is necessary to understand what you are purchasing. The printer you want to do business with will help you make a good purchasing decision. He’ll help you choose the correct value and price for the product and impression you want to produce.

In times like these, the universal inclination is to pinch a penny until Mr. Lincoln screams. Businesses like mine are balancing on the edge, trying to keep our businesses alive and meet our customers’ needs without compromising the standards of value that they (our customers) have come to expect. Please take value into consideration when you make purchasing decisions. Think about the companies that you want to be doing business with when times get better. Times are tough, but buying cheap may not be the best choice.

If I don’t break it, it shouldn’t have to be fixed.

May 21, 2008

Prerequisite to success in the printing business is a deep and abiding love for gadgetry. Most of us just can’t resist the urge to buy a new machine from time to time. We do intensive study prior to each purchase, calculating the ROI (Return on investment for you non-business types) at least a dozen different ways until we concoct a way to reach the conclusion we need to justify the purchase.

We listen carefully to the claims of the salesperson, promises of enhanced productivity, low maintenance and capabilities beyond our wildest dreams . . . and we believe them all for at least a week after the machine arrives. And then reality sets in . . .

We have a large digital color machine manufactured by a company whose name begins and ends with “X.” It employs fancy electrostatic devices called “charge coretrons” that have something to do with getting the toner to adhere to a belt that ultimately transfers it to paper where it is finally fused into a semi-permanent state of um . . . printedness. We have, over the course of our ownership of this machine, noticed certain problems that occur when these grandiloquent devices malfunction; problems that generally are ameliorated when the component is replaced.

There are two authorized means of obtaining the “charge coretron.” One may call either the “parts” or “supplies” department of the palindromatic company. Contact with both departments is enabled by toll free numbers that connect the caller to specially trained customer service personnel located either in Islamadehli or Pakalaysia (see my former diatribe Outsourcing). At either number, one may reach a helpful person named Dan who, after receiving the part number, will search his database for 10 minutes and then tell you that you have called the wrong department, and that you should spend an equal or greater amount of time with the other department in order that another Dan might tell you to call the first department once again.

Brian, our production manager, was actually brave enough to call the first Dan a second time. He carefully repeated the part number (alpha delta bravo zed seven niner nought dash C3PO) seventeen times until Dan had it down correctly (and could sing it in A minor). We waited as Dan conducted a super-extensive search for our critical part. We were put on hold briefly and listened to The Mamas and the Papas accompanied by a sitar on Islamadehli’s light rock station. And then we received the authoritative answer.

“Your machine does not use that part,” said Dan. “It is not required. The machine will run perfectly well without it.”

Unfortunately, this did not play out well in our actual experience. Trusting in Dan’s confident response, we removed all of the charge coretron devices from the machine, toggled the machine on and submitted a file for printing. It didn’t.

Printers are practical people . . . when our exasperation with a machine surpasses our desire to fool with it, we call the repair folks. Luckily for us, our regional service person, who covers a territory roughly the size of the American West, happened to be within 20 miles of us. Her name begins with a “D.” She is actually very capable, pleasant to deal with, and doesn’t understand her own company any better than we do.

She also has the “magic number” that allows her to speak with people whose names are not Dan and who have actually seen and worked on the machine in question. After a brief but thorough diagnosis of our machine, our technical service person determined that the machine was not running because we had removed the aforementioned critical key components. She replaced them, found one of them faulty and was able to order a replacement by dialing another “magic number.”

Naturally, we did ask if we could obtain the “magic numbers” for our own use in procuring replacement parts for our machine. “D” apologized demurely, explaining that multiple years of training and a high level security clearance were required before such intelligence was authorized; and besides we’d need a special Maxwell Smart shoe phone with an identity chip to tell the folks on the other end that it was OK to answer the phone and talk with us.

“It’s best you don’t break the machine,” she said as she packed up her tool kit to leave.

“So, I replied, “if I don’t break it, it shouldn’t have to be fixed.”

“Right,” she said with a smirk, then turned in the doorway. “But if you get into trouble, call Dan.”

Here’s a video featuring one of my heros, Rube Goldberg. I found the clip on YouTube. It’s almost 70 years old, but it’s still very relevant. It’ll help you understand machines and companies like the palindromatic “X” company that invent them:

The Smell of Trouble

April 17, 2008

It must have been payback for all of my ranting about the end of elegant design (see the last post If Counterfeiters are dinosaurs . . .). I had received a call from a perfectly normal sounding professional type person a couple of days before. He was starting a new operation in Macon and needed “the package” – letterhead, envelopes, business cards, etc. These kinds of calls are usually good news for a printer. If you get the first batch of business, you usually get the reorders and maybe a brochure and some other stuff. All of the layouts were done, he’d have his designer get in touch with the specs.

Shortly thereafter, the specifications appeared by email, including all of the usual stuff with a request for estimates on 2 color and 3 color versions of everything. It could have been the request for 3 color envelopes that caused my printer’s antennae to elevate or maybe it was something in the look or the language of the request. I don’t know, but I put the request down with the intent of calling the designer to get a look at the art before I put together numbers.

Designer is a very broad and general descriptive term, you must understand. It’s definition can encompass the entire scope between Joe and his color crayons and Andy Warhol. Anyone can call themselves a graphic designer, but few earn the title; and even fewer really understand the technical aspects of design. And despite the assertions (and tuitions) of the best art institutes, Poor Richard asserts that great designers are not really trained. They’re born with it. The best ones have an innate sense of artistic balance and color and they soak up the technical stuff like a sponge.

I received the art with a request for samples of work that we had done. The antennae went up a little further. When I opened the .pdf file, the yellow warning lights at the end of the antennae began to flash. It’s not that the art wasn’t good . . . actually the design was elegant and clean. But the color combination was two grays and a red. This was a designer who was busily spending his clients’ money, because he could get away with it.

Offset printing of three spot colors is really one of the least efficient things that occurs in a printshop. The printer has a couple of options. If the registration between the colors is not tight, the printer may choose to run two passes on a 2 color press. The colors that register will run on the first pass, followed by the single color that does not. Alternately, the printer may choose to load up mixed ink on a 4 color press. Digital printing is not an option for letterhead, which is likely to be run again through a laser printer or a toner device. Reheating the toner on the letterhead can make a terrific mess. And envelopes are another problem. Most small presses will run envelopes and register 2 colors. If all three colors register, either the envelopes must be printed on a special press or the sheets are printed before the envelope is manufactured (or “converted” in printereze).

Take as an example, this less than skillfully conceived logo for Impending Disaster Design Group:

Logo #1

If three colors are needed, this is the economical way to do it. This logo will require two passes through a press, but only the light blue and the teal register. The gold can be added in in a second pass. Most printers will even be able to print an envelope with this logo. The lightning bolt is likely to misregister just a little bit, but it won’t be noticeable to the mail recipient, who, after all is only seeing one envelope at a time.

This version of the logo is a little more problematic. Because the light blue, the teal, and the gold all register (touch), it’s going to be nearly impossible to run this logo on a small 2 color press. The best option for this version is to run it on a 4 color press, but that means incurring more expense in setup and cleanup before and after the job. Most printers are reluctant to run 500 sheets of letterhead on a larger press, so the price for small quantities is going to be a little steep.

Another option is to convert the logo to process color. Even though process color adds an ink, this may be a more economical option. The printer is probably running process inks on his larger press (or on a DI press), so special setup and washup may be unnecessary. There is a but here, though. Converting the colors from spot to CMYK means a loss of color integrity. Because process color combines screens from 4 inks to give the impression of color (see Color Separation . . . Whadd’ya Mean?), it will differ from mixed (i.e. spot) inks where the color comes from the ink pigments themselves.

The art I received from the elegant designer was more like this. The logo was admittedly a lot less garish, and actually only 2 colors registered, but the net effect was the same. The designer used two grays – one “warm” and one “cool.” The grays are actually mixed inks, with formulas in every printer’s Pantone book. Without exception, press operators hate these colors. The gray is achieved by mixing several inks (usually a heavy load of white ink with dabs of black and either a red or blue). The measurements must be very exact to achieve the correct color. It’s not easy to mix the colors correctly the first time and if you miss the first time, it’s almost impossible to get them to match when it’s time to run the project again. Succinctly put, the PITA factor for this job is high, and the customer will pay extra for it.

Now, it is not often that Poor Richard is encouraged by his customers to charge more for a job that can be done a better way. The same logo could be produced in 2 colors (gold and black or gold and a mixed gray), using different screens of the black or gray to produce nearly the same effect. True, it would be more difficult to differentiate between the “cool” gray and the “warm” gray, but the cost would be much less and the job more easy to replicate when the reprint comes around.

Admittedly, printers tend to be of a practical bent. Poor Richard is totally unqualified to weigh the aesthetic value of a logo that uses two gray inks against one with only one gray ink.  I can see it very clearly in economic terms, though, and say without reservation that approximately exactly 97.644 percent of the recipients of the letterhead and envelopes will never notice a difference.  In other words, there is no “bang for the buck.”

I’m playing along for now.  We’ve done some pretty elegant printing over the years for some very fine designers. I’ve even sent a few samples by mail. Somehow, though, I’m just not sure that I want to pass muster.  Some jobs just have the smell of trouble, and this one is a little fragrant.


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