May 30, 2009

relationshipsThe older gentleman was not seeking a relationship. He had called earlier for pricing on a book. 250 copies perfect bound with 160 pages. Finished size was 8.5 x 7, a little different, but not unheard of.  Like many of our customers these days, he had no real knowledge of paper . . . something nice but not too expensive. Brian provided an estimate for the job and felt good about it.

A couple of days later, the gentleman called back. “How much would it be just to do the binding?” he asked.

Now, in better days the answer to this question is “Sorry, we’ll pass.”  Binding someone else’s printing provides opportunities for all kinds of problems.  There is a need for setups and waste . . . meaning you have to explain that if the customer brings 250 book blocks and covers, the binding equipment is likely to eat a few. Covers have to be cut a certain way for perfect binding and space has to be allowed for the spine. There’s the problem of trim and margins and where the page numbers go . . . all things we look at when we print a book. All things that a customer who has never printed a book before doesn’t know.

But Brian liked the fellow and we certainly needed any kind of order, so he said “yes” and tried to explain all of the complexities that the old gentleman would need to know. Brian also asked why we wouldn’t be doing the printing.

“Office Despot beat your price on the printing,” was the reply. “But they couldn’t do the binding.” was the part he didn’t say.  Besides, when getting the lowest price is the object, the details don’t matter, do they?

We have been fortunate to have some really wonderful customers over the years.  For instance, the consultant, whose books we have shipped all over the US.  She works with government agencies and is really suffering from budget cuts now, but we’d do anything for her.  Or the school that seems to understand just how tight things are right now and sends checks almost instantaneously after jobs are complete. Or the construction company that is always in a hurry, but so very pleasant and easy to work with. Or so many more . . .

We’ve had a few customers that have strayed and come back; and lately, with the bad times, we’ve lost a few.  Some have disappeared altogether – out of business. We lost the educational establishment that was so devoted to the local community that they sent all of their printing to the low bidder in Atlanta. We’ve also lost a couple that have trimmed printing out of their budgets altogether.

The one that hurt the worst was a long-term account, a non-profit. We never did all of their printing, but for years we did the bulk of it and we supported them with fairly frequent donations.  I was worried a little when management changed a couple of years ago, but we continued along for awhile. One day, I received a request for pricing on all of the items we had printed for them.  I was led to believe that it was budget time and that numbers were needed to prepare for the next year.  I was naive . . . they were going out for bids and I missed it. We lost most of the business.  Shortly thereafter, Poor Richard received a request for donations for the following year.  They wanted a relationship, but not the kind that works for everyone involved.

Back to the gentleman and his book. Poor Richard grumbled and tried to make sure that the i’s were crossed and t’s were dotted. Both Brian and I had the same conversations with the customer.  First, we tried to convince him that it would be much better if we were allowed to do the whole job. He had already committed to Office Despot. All of their specs were the same, he said, but the price was cheaper.

Then, we tried to go over the details and repeatedly emphasized that we would not be responsible for waste or misprints. The old gentleman said that he understood.

When the job came to us, it was not a surprise. He delivered exactly 250 books. The quality of paper was poor and the quality of print was mediocre. Best of all, the book blocks had been miscut. Page sizes varied by about 3/8″ within each book. We pointed this out to the gentleman and did the best we could.  We did not put the finished product in Alphagraphics boxes.  The old gentleman did not complain, but he did not receive a good value for the money he spent on the project.

It’s difficult not to worry about the state of things  . . . of business in general, the printing business in particular and our business in specific. Poor Richard still maintains that printing does not make a good commodity. Too much detail is required and every project is different. The products of printing turn out best when printers and customers work together, when they have a relationship.

Poor Richard is decidedly old school . . . I like dealing with people. I prefer to buy things from salespeople and whenever possible from local businesses. It’s difficult to have a relationship with a website or WalMart.  I enjoy the relationships we maintain with our customers and I try to make sure that they are mutually beneficial. And I still believe that even in a depression, value trumps price every day.

But perhaps Poor Richard is idealistic . . . or naive. It’s tough turning 50.


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.