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.


February 15, 2009

Never Mind the Bollocks - Warhol Style

When the customer pointed at the dark green background in the cover art and asked, “That’s blue, isn’t it?” I knew I was in trouble.

The stated problem was very familiar. The colors on the printed page didn’t match the colors on the customer’s computer screen. But this was a new twist. Not only was the customer unhappy with the color, but we lacked a common frame of reference to even discuss what the color should be.

According to the Wikipedia article about color blindness, 8% of Caucasian men are red-green color blind. There’s another form of color blindness, called tritanopia, that affects both men and women, but only in a small percentage of the population.  There is another phenomena, that affects lots of men my age, who become unable to distinguish between dark blues and blacks.  I think my customer had all of this, plus a defective monitor on his computer and a faulty pair of 3D sunglasses.

Color blindness notwithstanding, reaching the color expectations of customers can sometimes be like trying to find an answer to the existential question.  If I define the color of the sofa pillow as red and you define the color of the sofa pillow as red, but we’re not seeing the same thing, then is the sofa pillow really red? Does the word “red” really have any objective meaning?

We opened his booklet on one of our machines.  As we scrolled through the pages, he described the vivid colors he was seeing.  I was missing it. What I was seeing had all of the brilliance of the vintage pink Sex Pistols album. The photos were over corrected to magenta.  Blues were purple. Faces were red. What a mess!

Even with all of the whiz-bang color management tools on the market today (and without a color blind customer), trying to achieve consistent color is tough. Worse yet, the problems seem to change with every workflow within a printshop. Press color actually seems a little easier to manage. At AlphaGraphics, we use an Epson proofer with a color profile that fairly accurately represents the color gamut (printerese for spectrum) of our press on the paper we use for proofing. If the paper we actually print is similar to the proofing paper, the proof and press print match fairly well. If the paper is substantially different, that can be another story.

In an ideal world, we would actually profile the press to each different paper stock we use. The difficulty here is that it is prohibitively expensive and assumes that printing conditions never change. Bad assumption – the output of a printing press can change with temperature, relative humidity, chemistry of the solutions used in the press, ink chemistry, mechanical adjustment, press operator ailments and potentially even the political climate (I once had a pressman blow a job while listening to Rush Limbaugh).

You might think that digital printing would be easier, but it’s not. On the positive side, it is possible to print a single copy to check. This is economical, practical and reliable means of proofing digital printing.  Machine settings can change, but with good file preparation and periodic calibration, the color should remain relatively (not exactly) consistent from one day to the next and even from one print run to the next. You will note that the word “economical” was used, not the word “free.” There is a definite cost involved in the time to  produce a a digital proof, even if the materials and labor are less expensive than cranking up a printing press. I short, you should expect to pay for digital proofing.

The negative side of  digital printing is that there are so many output possibilities. Let’s assume that a customer presents a Microsoft Publisher file that he would like to have digitally printed. Photos are embedded in the file and are both RGB and CMYK. Most digital color machines actually print in CMYK mode, so ultimately the output will have to be converted somewhere. This is tantamount to Russian Roulette for printers.  Here are the options:

  1. We can convert the file to a .pdf using Publisher’s color management features . . . very dangerous!
  2. We can output the file directly from Publisher to the digital color press . . . almost certain disaster!
  3. We can output the file to a postscript or .pdf and use a utility to convert from RGB to CMYK . . . iffy.
  4. We can output the file to a .pdf with out conversion and let the RIP (raster image processor) on the color machine have a fling at color conversion. This sometimes works.
  5. We can ask the customer to send us the photography as separate files, color correct the files and then plug them back in to the Publisher document; replacing the mishmash that was originally sent. This works, but is time consuming and expensive. And many times the customer doesn’t understand the expense, because they had already placed the photos just where they were supposed to be.
  6. We can tell the customer that the resulting print is “supposed to look like that.” Only works if the customer is both colorblind and naive. We don’t try this one.

The unfortunate truth is that this is typical of more and more of the files that companies like AlphaGraphics have to deal with on a daily basis and there is no silver bullet. Lot’s of time we have to experiment to get the color right. Guess what? We have to charge for that, too.

Where is all this heading?

Poor Richard’s Tips for Photography:

  1. 300 dpi (dots per inch) resolution at finished size. Always. This means big files, not the stuff you pull off the internet.
  2. CMYK color mode, not RGB. RGB is for your computer screen. CMYK is for the printing press . . . even digital ones.
  3. If you do not understand numbers one and two, call your printer. Or spend a little more money and send them your photo files separately. They’ll color correct and place them into your document the best way for printing.

Finally, if you’re colorblind, don’t trust your own judgment and never try to adjust the color on your photos. Ask someone else to work with your printer and to approve the proof. Preferably someone who can make a distinction between green and blue.