If counterfeiters are dinosaurs, can printers be far behind?

March 30, 2008

It was called “Old Money” for a good reason. Crane Papers of Massachusetts made it, the very same company that made currency stock for the U.S. Treasury for all those years. I had heard all of the stories about printers and counterfeiting, but I guess it never really registered. That was before the order for letterhead printed on “Old Money” came in.

We ordered the stock through Unisource, our primary vendor at the time. The order was for 5000 sheets, so I think we ordered 5500 sheets to account for waste. I liked the stock when it came in . . . it really did have the look and feel of old money. High rag content, kind of soft feeling and a very light green tint when you looked at it in sunlight. Cool, I thought, then went on to the next thing.

It was a couple of days later when I picked up the phone. It was a young lady from Crane who wanted to speak with the owner. “You’re not in our records,” began the conversation.

“That’s good?” I responded.

“Not necessarily,” was the reply. “I’m calling about the paper.”

“Ahh, the paper . . .” I answered, still without the foggiest notion of who she was or where this conversation was heading. “What paper?”

“Old Money,” retorted the young lady, and it all came together for me.

AlphaGraphics Macon was not in her database. We had purchased a product that looked suspiciously like real money, and she needed to know where it went. I played along, giving her information about our customer, the quantity delivered and what we had left. I comforted her with the assurance that we were indeed a real printing company and not a concern for either Crane Papers or the U.S. Treasury Department.

As far as I can tell, “Old Money” has gone the way of most of the interesting papers of the last century. Henry Ford would approve of today’s approach to paper selection. The customer can have anything they want, as long as it’s white or tan. As demand for paper has declined, the paper industry has consolidated, and much of the really interesting paper we used to be able to get is no longer available.

As of last week, there were basically two large manufacturers left. Domtar and Sappi seem to have gobbled up all of the rest of the big companies. We still are able to buy our old standby sheet, Cougar Opaque, which used to be made by Weyerhaueser, which was purchased by International Paper, which was swallowed by Domtar. You get the picture. There are two remaining US fine paper mills, Neenah and Mohawk, that still offer a pretty wide selection of flavors . . . but none of the paper distributors keep them in stock. Crane is actually still around. They make very nice and expensive writing paper that can be obtained in white or tan and they still produce the currency paper for the U.S. mint.

Why am I writing this? I miss the variety. Designers used to love to choose a fancy paper to make their project special. Their goal was to create an economical, but elegant printed piece, using one or two colors of ink on an unusual paper and sometimes with an unusual shape. One of our favorite designers, who moved to Japan and then to Ohio, but who was not swallowed up in large company mergers; used to do amazingly creative things with paper and ink. They were fun to print.

Designers have moved to the web and paper has become boring. The paper manufacturers tried to console us for a while by making up new names for white and tan. “Ecru” sounds kind of designey. “Natural white” is down to earth. “Cream” is kind of comforting. “Soft ivory” doesn’t do much for me, because I don’t like the idea of hunting elephants. And when you put all of these sheets beside one another, they’re all tan. “Glacier” is whiter than tan, but not nearly as white as “Solar” or “Avalanche.” You understand.

Printers have coped by printing a lot more in color. The technology for short run color has become more accessible and prices for offset have come way down with the onset of automation and with increased competition. Sometimes we even print a background to simulate the interesting paper we used to be able to purchase.

I never printed on “Old Money” again and I don’t suppose Crane needs to keep a database of printers who buy their papers anymore. You don’t read much about counterfeiting any more. Like fine papers, it may have become a thing of the past. Why would any self-respecting criminal would bother with messy, labor intensive crime like forgery or counterfeiting when easier, neater high-tech crimes like identity theft are so readily available?

A customer will still occasionally ask to come in and look at paper. They’re remembering swatch books with dozens of shades and textures from which to choose. Some are incredulous when I explain the limited availability. But the runs are short and usually a deadline is looming, so ordering in carton quantities from the mill is rarely an option. I’m tired of white and tan, too; but fine papers are quickly going the way of the dinosaur. And honestly, I’m feeling a little fossilized myself.

Diagnosis Charges

March 9, 2008

Doctor with Clipboard“He wants to speak to the manager,” were the words I heard. I looked through the glass into Brian’s office. His eyes were rolling just slightly and he had that sardonic half smile that he wears when one of those, “you’re the owner, you have to deal with this” events happens. I almost think he enjoys it.

“This is Richard, may I help you?” I said to the as yet unidentified voice on the phone. The voice introduced himself as the new general manager of an organization we’ve done occasional business with over the years.

“You’re doing some business cards for us,” he stated, “and I need to talk to you about these charges.”

I was familiar with the job and the company. Sharon, our salesperson, and I had visited our contact at the company weeks before. The company has gone through a lot of changes in recent years. We printed a newsletter for them at one time; letterhead, envelopes and other “stuff” that organizations use. Our contact has always been friendly, but the attitude of the company had changed. Most of the print had been eliminated to cut costs. They had reverted to “do it yourself” with the newsletter. What little was left was handled from a corporate office in Atlanta. All that was left for local production was the business cards. Disappointing, but easy enough; at least, that’s what we thought at the time.

It took a while for the order to come in. Sharon had to answer lots of questions. Estimates were prepared and presented. You will note the word “estimates.” That’s what printshops should provide, not quotations. It is only possible to provide a hard quotation for a static set of specifications. When the specifications change, so do the costs and so should the price.

On AlphaGraphics estimates we always include a special caveat. The language goes like this:

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

We do not estimate design or layout charges because it is absolutely impossible to predict the amount of time a customer may require from us to achieve the finished layout that they desire. We simply keep a log of the time required for the job and charge accordingly. We regularly explain the caveat and offer our advice to keep layout and design charges at a minimum. Our advice is frequently ignored.

For instance, we may suggest that a customer provide us with a digital logo and a rough sketch of a business card design rather than try to prepare it themselves. Often, more time is required to unscramble a file from an inexperienced designer than to put it together from scratch. Or we might suggest that it’s best not to proof by committee. Everyone involved will feel compelled to make changes, increasing the confusion, and requiring more time for changes and proofs before the job is ready to print.

Time is the valuable commodity in a printshop design or prepress office. Prepress is the inevitable bottleneck in any production shop. I’ve written before about the challenges of printshop design (see The Trouble with Printshop Design ). It’s not that the equipment or the employees in the design office are so all-fired expensive, but that the opportunity cost of tying up the workflow can be tremendous. An inexperienced or inefficient designer can hold up a $3500 brochure run and 2 or 3 employees while they are engrossed in the layout of a $50 business card. Prepress time is valuable simply because it’s what keeps the rest of the people and equipment productive.

The time has a measurable value and we charge for it. It’s like going to the doctor. If you go in with a complaint, see the good doctor, and are told that you are perfectly healthy; you still pay the doctor for his diagnosis. You pay him because his time is valuable. If you fail to listen to your doctor, you can run into real trouble. If you fail to listen to your printer, the result can be the same.

We had provided a production estimate with our usual caveat to the customer mentioned above. What started out as an order for 4 sets of business cards had turned into 6 sets. We were told that they would send the art for the card. We received a low resolution logo and a basic layout pasted onto an 8.5 x 11 page of a Microsoft Word file. We received the names to typeset and were later told that two of the cards had a reverse side. Proofs were required . . . 4 of them to be exact. Because the changes had become excessive, Brian sent a revised estimate to the customer showing additional layout charges of $60. The phone call ensued, providing Brian with an opportunity for entertainment at my expense.

There’s no real need to go into the detail of the conversation with the new manager. Suffice it to say that our proviso regarding additional costs was of as little importance to him as the three weeks of indecision which had delayed the production of his cards or the multiple proofs. It was his responsibility to “watch every penny,” and he simply did not understand why there had been a delay or how the cost could change from his original estimate.

“I’ll have to let you know if we’re going ahead with this,” was his concluding statement.

I haven’t scratched the job from the production list yet, but I really don’t expect to hear back from him. I’m not so naive to think that he won’t get his cards somewhere. He’ll probably send the inadequate art off to one of the internet bandits and be satisfied with what he receives because he saved so much money. Or maybe he’ll find another printer who thinks that there’s lots more business to come and will put up with his indecision.

I’m sure that my expression betrayed my thoughts as I hung up the receiver and glanced back through the glass into Brian’s office. I’m always disappointed when a customer is upset. It’s just one of those things that happens occasionally in our business, and it’s never pleasant. Good customers are hard to come by and good reputations are easier to destroy than to earn. We try very hard to do each project well and really do go a long way to diagnose and accomodate the needs of each customer. Like the doctor, though, we have to cover the cost of the diagnosis and of special treatment provided. We have to keep the office running in order to help the next patient.

Bang the Drum Again

March 2, 2008


What exactly does it take to get the message across, anyway?

I’ve been beating this drum for a long time and I’m getting tired of it.

Karsten-Denson is closing and I’m bummed (Longtime Macon Hardware Store Closing – Macon Telegraph article). One of the remaining memories from my boyhood, Karsten-Denson managed to survive all of the bad years downtown only to close now. An old-timey hardware store, they literally sell everything from lock washers to rabbit traps. Times are bad. They can’t hold on.

Beautiful wife got an email today from a shop that was once located in our small town’s downtown shopping district. It’s a Christian concern called Go Fish that imports handcrafted items from the Third World. The idea is simple and good. Go Fish establishes relationships with craftsmen/artisans in developing nations, enabling them to support themselves and their families. The goods they purchase are sold by franchisees in the U.S., again allowing them (the retailers) to support themselves and their families. It’s capitalism at its best. Everybody wins . . . and the message of Jesus Christ is communicated in the process.

The store moved from sleepy Perry to Warner Robins, a larger community 15 miles north of us. Presumably, the goal of a move to a higher traffic, more visible location was an increase in sales volume and profitability. But apparently this has not ensued. The tone of the email was not so much desperate as disconsolate, citing the economic downturn and urging former customers to visit the shop.

Bang the drum . . . when will we learn to support local businesses? Small retailers, hardware stores, and even printshops comprise the backbone of a local economy, especially in smaller communities. Look around in your community. It’s the local businesses that are really engaged. They sponsor local charities, events and Little League teams, sometimes even when the owners don’t make much for themselves (See my previous diatribe Why We Need Small Business).

With the economic slowdown, times are hard for these folks. (Yes, you can read that “us folks”). Should we not especially support a business that is engaged in the community and trying to benefit others? I am sorry, but Wal-Mart just doesn’t fit my image of the American dream. We were once a nation of entrepreneurs, farmers and small businesspeople who innovated, created value and exported it. We were thinner then, too.

Now we’ve become obese. Have we squandered all of our energy and creativity on a junk food binge? I seems that our ability to innovate, create and to work hard has been supplanted with the desire to consume the most we can at the cheapest price without concern for the consequences. Is it really better to enable exploitation in China for the sake of a cheaper price than to foster a cottage industry in Peru? And what happens to the hardware store, to the small businessperson here in Smalltown, USA?

We are in a recession, even if our President refuses to utter the word. Poor Richard is very suspicious of the theory that supposes we can spend our way out of debt. Our current consumption binge is not sustainable, even and especially when our own government prints and distributes more money to add to the fodder ($600 per taxpayer, no less). The dollar is in decline, a sure sign that the countries that support our debt are tiring of our unwholesome appetites. We do not need to spend more, we need to spend better. We need to consider where the money goes. If we do not reassess our priorities now, the system will crumble.

“Follow the money,” is the old adage, usually alluding to some sort or questionable or even criminal behavior that can be traced back to the source throught the money trail. Reversing the sequence works as well, though. Small business represents the last bastion of the great American ideal: innovation, creativity and hard work. If we follow the money we spend forward, spending it where it will help a local business, our regional economy or a cause we support; we can encourage activity that is beneficial to the economy in the long and short run.

Bang the drum . . . bigger and cheaper is not always better. Forget Wal-Mart. Invest in your own backyard. Support your neighbor. Buy local.