New Kids on the Block: GETTING YOUR Print Jobs VIA THE INTERNET – Internet/Web/Online Service Information
Margie Gallo Dana
Up until about four years ago, if you wanted to get something printed commercially (that is, something better than a laser printer’s output), you had to find a printer yourself. Whether you needed stationery, envelopes, forms, brochures, newsletters–whatever–getting it printed meant locating a brick-and-mortar print shop.
This alone was no small feat (it still isn’t) because not every printer is created equal. You had to do your homework. First, you had to research printers and determine whether their capabilities matched your needs. You’d call a few colleagues for references. You might visit the print shop too.
Then the real work would begin. You’d discuss your print job with the printer, get some estimates, look at paper samples, work with a graphic designer, wait for proofs, wait for more proofs, and cross your fingers that the job would be delivered when you needed it–and that it would look like what you’d expected.
Fast forward to today. Although finding and working with a local printer is still very popular, consumers now have other options for their commercial printing needs. The e-commerce revolution has hit the printing industry. You can now buy and manage your commercial printing projects over the Internet.
The brave new e-world of printing
There are currently more than 200 different online firms offering a wide range of printing and graphic arts services. New ones seem to crop up every week while existing ones disappear. It’s a new era in printing, this e-printing revolution, and the dust has yet to settle. There are mixed feelings about e-printing. Not all printers and print buyers are converts, for it means a new way of doing business in a very old industry.
Traditionally, printing has been accomplished through personal relationships between buyer and printer. To think that suddenly this age-old craft can be done over the Internet is a big leap of faith. The e-printing phenomenon is still in its infancy and may take years to be fully embraced.
However, businesspeople need to know about these e-printing solutions, which offer something for everyone. Some e-printers target major corporate buyers; others focus on small businesses and individuals. Some sites are resources for graphic designers or professional photographers. Others are strictly sites for printing vendors to purchase such supplies as printing presses, paper, and film over the Internet, or post job openings.
So, just what do these new printing services do?
Not your average printers
It’s often easier to define something by what it is not. When industry people talk about e-printing, they’re not talking about Websites printers have built to communicate better with their clients–although many printers are doing just that.
The new e-printing industry is different. It encompasses the 200-plus Web-based firms that offer consumers alternative ways to accomplish their printing needs. They promise convenience, efficient ways to buy and manage printing, streamlined production processes, and cost savings. These benefits are based on the belief that since managing print is labor-intensive and inefficient for most businesses, there is real, measurable value to be gained by automating the print buying and managing processes.
Who’s who in e-printing?
As if finding a real printer weren’t tricky enough, finding the right e-printer for your needs is even trickier. They all seem to have different business models, first of all. Second, it’s impossible to tell who’s who from their Website names. Finally, there’s no Internet equivalent of a Yellow Pages directory of e-printers.
The one list that comes closest to naming and segmenting the current crop of e-print services is one compiled by graduate student Eliot Harper at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). Harper keeps his list current. It includes Web addresses and offers one-sentence categorizations of e-printers. Categorization is key because Web-based print services do different things.
Take a look at Harper’s e-printing list at www.attributes.co.uk/eliot/ osplist.xls, and you’ll see firsthand the dizzying array of e-printers available today (see partial listing in sidebar on page 34).
What follows is just the tip of the iceberg in this new arena; a summary of the major categories of e-printing services that primarily serve businesspeople who handle printing. For more detailed information, visit any or all of the 200-plus sites (at press time!) compiled by Harper. Unfortunately, the burden is still on the buyer to wade through the many e-printers out there to determine which ones best serve his or her needs.
1. Print shops that also sell online printing
Printers that offer their products/services online can be divided into two subcategories: franchises that offer printing across the country, like kinkos.com, sirspeedy.com, and alphagraphics.com; and independent print shops that offer customers a Web-based interface in addition to the traditional “walk-in” kind of printing. Many of the online print shops specialize in stationery items like letterhead and business cards, notepaper, and presentation documents.
Individual print shops are developing powerful Websites, partly to service customers better and partly because of competition from e-printers. Many are investing in technology that will let them offer more functionality to customers. For example, some printers offer software for sending digital files to printers, for estimating jobs, for tracking jobs through the production process, for sending digital proofs, and for ordering jobs from inventory online.
The Internet has had a great impact on printers and their relationships with customers. As more customers request online information, more printers will invest in the technology that will help them serve their markets.
2. Online auction/bid sites
If you have no idea which printer to use, and/or you don’t have a relationship with any print vendor, you might want to try one of the many print auction or bid sites available today. On these sites, you fill Out forms detailing your job’s specs (specifications) and delivery information. This information is then sent to printers who have been prequalified and have registered with the auction or bid site. Sometimes you can specify that you only want to work with local vendors or that you only want to see estimates from, say, three printers.
One such auction site is www. 58K.com. Nearly 2 years old, “it’s the entry-level site for printing,” says its founder and president Bob Rose. The site’s been designed simply to accommodate both novices as well as sophisticated buyers. “We help buyers all the way through the process, notes Rose. 58K has a toll-free number posted prominently, and the firm encourages customers to use it. It connects them to “real, live people” who will help answer printing questions and make suggestions too.
Auction sites promise to save buyers time, energy, and money. Most have a series of pull-down menus, guiding users as they fill in the many job details. Once a job is submitted and price estimates become available, the customer can decide which printer to choose. Some bid sites send a customers’ specs to prequalified vendors in a closed auction “room,” allowing bidding to continue among the vendors until a specified time and date. Once the time is up, the lowest current bid is visible to all the bidders, the vendor is notified, and he or she contacts the buyer directly.
3. E-print providers using “real” print-partners
There’s another category of e-printers that lets you buy printing directly from their Websites. They don’t actually do any of the printing; rather, they have agreements with several printers who do the manufacturing. The printers may or may not be in your area, but the premise is that as long as you get your job the way you described it for the agreed price on the date you need it, the printer need not be local.
Through their many printer relationships, these sites can offer a wide range of printing from the convenience of your desktop.
One of the oldest “new kids on the block” is iPrint.com. Founded in 1996 by chairman Royal Farros, iPrint is an online print shop for individuals, small businesses, and large corporations. (At press time, iPrint was about to reach its one-millionth customer.) Its technology automates and aggregates customer orders, making it convenient, fun, and cost-effective to buy printed products.
You don’t need any previous printing experience to use iPrint’s technology. Even the novice can order customized business cards and other stationery items. The site offers a series of templates to help you decide on layout, ink colors, typeface, graphics, and paper selection. Price lists are available, and you can save your designs for easy reprinting.
4. Relationship management e-printers
The largest category of e-printers is the hardest to define. On Harper’s list, there are about 60 such services that promise to enhance and strengthen the buyer/printer relationship through their technology. They offer software solutions to streamline and automate the procurement of printing and the managing of it as well.
In large corporations, print buying is accompanied by managing tons of paperwork, tracking hundreds of details about every job, managing multiple vendor relationships, handling the invoicing and accounting, and overseeing the fulfillment and the inventory of printed products too. The companies in this category offer streamlined solutions for managing all of these details and functions.
Among these firms is Collabria (www.collabria.com), which was founded in 1997. Collabria offers “a complete solution for handling enterprise-wide printing,” notes Michael Sanabria, vice president of marketing. The firm lets buyers collaborate with preferred vendors so they efficiently create, order, track, archive, and manage their print projects. “We’re not a printer,” says Sanabria, “wet re a software solution that allows companies to work with their existing vendors.”
With Collabria, a customer has access to its own online catalog of printed products, making it easy to reorder online. It takes the manual process out of managing printing, allowing firms to save money by automating the ordering, reordering, and fulfillment functions. Sanabria called Collabria a “supply chain solution,” offering customers one tool to manage their printing through one interface.
Where do print buyers go from here?
The history of printing dates back hundreds of years–Gutenberg introduced movable type to the Western world in 1440. E-printing is barely 5 years old. The emergence of online printing has made for an interesting 5 years.
Many people may prefer to do their printing the old-fashioned way–face-to-face with a local printer. Others are willing to try online solutions. According to iPrint’s Royal Farros, “there’s more acceptance to online printing today than ever before.” First, the Internet isn’t going away, and second, the concept of online buying, or procurement, is gaining in popularity.
If online printing solutions can deliver convenience, reliability, efficiencies, and cost savings, then people will accept this new way of doing commercial printing slowly but surely.
RIT’s Harper also feels e-commerce is the future of printing. A large number of the nation’s printers (of which there are between 50,000 and 58,000) will be offering their customers e-commerce services via their own Websites. And despite the recent shakeout in e-printing firms, this new wave of printing alternatives is here to stay.
Consider this: 18 months ago, there were only 15 e-commerce providers for print, notes Harper. Today, there are more than 220. It’s a whole new world of printing out there.
Margie Gallo Dana of Dana Consulting, Brookline, Mass., helps printers and print buyers communicate better. She writes extensively about printing and the allied arts and is a frequent speaker at conferences.
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