Fine print

Your list broker is important to you. So is your tailor. But both of them take a back seat to the most essential partner of all: Your printer.

Finding one can be the most daunting task on a cataloger’s agenda, if only because the risks are so high.

Prices are spiraling for paper, postage and ink, and sales are flat for many merchants. Then there’s the lifeless economy. But your printer can help you get the most out of your marketing dollar.

What should you expect out of this two-way relationship?

“We look for quality, attention to detail and a customer service representative who takes ownership of each catalog project,” says Kent Parks, director of advertising for educational supplies marketer Nasco International.

The reps are especially important. “While they work for the printer, you need to feel that they are your advocate,” Parks adds.

They also have to act as consultant. Nasco mails 6 million catalogs per year, and it needs all the input it can get on page counts, paper weight and trim size.

It’s the same for the children’s clothing cataloger CWD Kids.

“We rely on our printer’s feedback not only on printing, but on the paper market, postal issues and industry trends,” says Tracy Schneider, vice president of marketing and operations.

Above all, CWD Kids needs “a printer that is on top of our schedules and is capable of mailing our catalogs on time,” Schneider adds.

The Parent Co., which owns eToys, BabyUniverse, My Twinn and other brands, focuses on three areas when looking for a print vendor: pricing, capacity and customer service. It also wants help in saving money.

“Printers should determine the commonalities between the catalogs they print to ensure the best comailing opportunities,” says spokesperson Sheliah Gilliland. “The cataloger needs to be more flexible with timing and catalog size to maximize those comailing opportunities.”

Where do you find a printer that can deliver all that? Here are some tips on how.

Look at the total price

Get a detailed laundry list of the printer’s services and charges. One printer might break out the charge for handling supplied paper, while another may include that with some other items. In fact, try to get that charge removed from the contract.

Include freight charges in any pricing comparison

These can vary depending on the printer’s size and location. And ask about fuel surcharges (with gas prices rising, they can push your print bill over the top).

Take the tour

Many catalogers fail to visit the plants of prospective printers — and that’s a big mistake. Go to the facility and meet the people.

Evaluate the equipment

While you’re there, make sure the printer has the correct equipment to produce your catalog efficiently, based on your specifications and print run.

Determine delivery capabilities

Verify that the plant has a history of reliable delivery and that it has the volume to get optimal postal discounts.

Ask for more

All printers offer more than just putting ink on paper. You can get help with design, photography, scanning, color correction, list management, laser imaging, printing, binding, ink-jetting, mailing, trucking and bulk distribution.

“Quality of printing is obviously important, as are price and service,” Schneider says. “But we want to work with a printer who is proactive and constantly looking at ways to help us improve our business through new technology and strategies like comail.”

Check references

This should be a no-brainer. Look at current samples and ask about the printer’s strong suits. But you also need to know how the printer handles things when something goes wrong.

Getting to second base

Let’s say you’ve done all that and found a great printer. Now you have to manage the relationship.

For their part, printers want clients willing to “establish a relationship and develop long-term loyalty,” says Don Landis, vice president of postal affairs for printer Arandell Corp. “We need to feel comfortable interacting with one another on a regular basis.”

A cataloger should specify the preferred means of communication upfront. Many choose e-mail, but “there are times when a phone call or face-to-face visit are necessary,” Landis adds.

Want to help your printer help you? First, meet your deadlines. ‘We are on time with our digital page files and don’t make revisions after they have been received by the printer,’ Parks says.

And if you can’t? Give your rep fair warning that you’re about to blow it. And let him know when you’re doing something that will affect your product or marketing plan.

“We try to stick as closely to our planned quantities and schedule as possible,” Schneider says. “When necessary, we do make changes like circulation cuts and demo bind changes, but we try to give as much advance notice as possible.”

In return, Schneider expects her account rep to alert her when there are problems — for instance, when they are missing files or other information. “The sooner they can let us know, the easier it is for us to resend that piece of info to them,” she adds.

Clients must also be notified about fluctuations in paper, postage, ink, scheduling and staff. “Even if no changes are taking place, communication should occur at least on a monthly basis,” Landis says.

Be candid with your printer. “We are happy to share our experiences and results so that they can use our feedback to improve service and make suggestions on more efficient and cost-effective mailing strategies,” Schneider explains.

Here’s one more rule about printer relationships: Both sides should be willing to bend. “Depending upon the scenario, we may need the client to be flexible on schedule, in-home dates, size, or address placement,” Landis says.

And what does the cataloger get in return? “The printer can make our job easier by being on top of the project, making sure that the page proofs are coming back to us quickly, and mailing the catalog on schedule,” Parks says.

That’s especially true when the client is comailing. At Arandell Corp., for instance, “We work hard to determine which factors, if any, need to be adjusted to maximize their postage savings,” Landis says. “We will also match the clients with others so that they are not left to find comail partners on their own.”

Team players

One thing’s for sure: the relationship between printers and catalogers has changed.

“Printing has evolved from a service business where the main goal was getting a quality product out to the consumer on time to a much more in-depth collaboration with our marketing team,” Schneider says. “Now we must have ongoing discussions about paper testing and comailing.”

And if printers fail to help you with all that? “There is going to be an even bigger shift in budgets to online,” she says.

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