Brands balance paper quality with costs

When the economic going gets tough, catalogers get going on cost cutting. One of the first places they look to cut costs is in catalog paper, scaling back on grade quality and/or basis weights.

But the trend toward cutting back on paper quality seems to have plateaued, as some mailers have reached their limit as to how low they can go. It’s no longer like the old days when rising paper and postage costs often sent the industry in a “lemming-like pursuit of cost reductions,” says Bruce Jensen, group vice president, sales, magazine, book and catalog group, for Transcontinental Printing.

While catalogers surely consider factors such as lighter weights and lower-cost grades, they are more deliberate about measuring the cost-benefit potential of those changes, Jensen says.

“Considering the rise in digital media, some catalogers actually opt for higher quality and heavier basis weight papers — or even more expensive recycled stocks — to project and protect that image,” he says.

To reduce costs, catalogers focus on improving their targeting, scrubbing lists and closely evaluating the effectiveness of each product and every page, Jensen says. They want to differentiate themselves not by following the crowd, “but by being smarter and doing things differently from their competitors.”

Plenty of marketers have lessened the quality of their paper by using a lighter basis weight to offset postage increases, says Deb Dyer, vice president of marketing for bedding merchant Cuddledown. “But at some point, you need to decide what’s best for your brand.”

Cuddledown, which hasn’t lowered the basis weight of its catalog text pages since 2005, uses a 38-lb. text sheet and an 80-lb. cover stock, Dyer says. Its catalogs average 72 to 88 pages.

“Since we sell high-end comforters and pillows, exclusively designed bedding, sleepwear and apparel that promote luxurious quality and comfort, we choose not to cheapen the look and feel of our catalog paper,” she says. “We want the catalog to create a strong first impression that resonates with our brand.”

Jewelry and gifts cataloger Ross-Simons uses a 36-lb. paper for body pages and a 50-lb. to 60-lb. stock for the cover (a #4 grade, 81 bright), says vice president of marketing Larry Davis. Five years ago, Ross-Simons used a 70-lb. cover and 45-lb. body with the same grade and quality as today.

“We have moved our paper quality and weight down over the past four years, both as a reaction to the cost of postage and the variability of the paper market,” Davis says. “We create a page and weight configuration to get under 3.3 oz.” to qualify for Standard Mail flat rates. (See sidebar “Keeping paper weight low for postage breaks.”) “But we will mail more weight to our best customers with additional pages and inserts,” he notes.

But Ross-Simons has found it can go too low. When paper prices “went through the roof” in 2007, it reduced the grade sufficiently, Davis says. “But we felt that a high-ticket item required a better presentation than a #5 grade, 70 bright.” Plus with high-ink pages, he adds, “the bleed-through becomes too disconcerting on the paper without sufficient opacity.”

Overall, Davis says, “we’re happy with our current configuration, and don’t believe that we will be able to sacrifice quality any further to offset either paper or postal rates or postal weight increases.”

Trends in stock

A few other trends are affecting catalog paper selection, Jensen says. One is the rise of supercalendered (SC), a type of uncoated paper “that is highly buffed to resemble a #5 coated groundwood sheet,” he says.

SCA and SCA+ are newer, higher quality grades within the SC category, Jensen notes. “They are particularly suitable for some types of industrial catalogs, but they are finding their way into many catalog segments.”

Jensen says the development of SC papers points to a larger trend among paper manufacturers to listen more carefully to their clients’ needs and respond with new products.

“Gone are the days when paper companies simply made what was most efficient for them, and then imposed the products on the marketplace,” he says. “This movement has resulted in the introduction of alternative offset papers that have some groundwood content, but also a quality appearance.”

Despite the economy and the ongoing need for cost cutting, John Maine, vice president of forest industry research group RISI, sees a continuing shift toward better quality paper. “Technology will continue to allow the industry to make better quality papers without so much of a cost increase.”

Jensen agrees: “There has been a lot of work across the broad spectrum of catalog papers to improve brightness, increase opacity and elevate surface quality for better printability.” There’s also a more collaborative approach to battle postage and paper-price increases, rather than knee-jerk reactions, Jensen says.

All the players have a greater sense of “we’re all in this together and continue to work hard at putting more tools in our collective toolbox,” he notes.

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