Art of the deal

The Cybercritic loves discounts as much as (make that more than) the next guy. So it’s no surprise that I’ve succumb to the siren song of eBay. Recently I scored two prints from the 1880s for $12 each. The silver lining behind this cloud is that it pains the Cybercritic to pay appreciably more for a frame than for the artwork itself. So clearly I’ve got my work cut out for me: to find two reasonably priced black frames that will suit black-and-white 10″ × 10″ images.

  1. Reasoning that starving artists need cheap frames, I decide to troll art-supplies Websites. First stop is JERRY’S ARTARAMA (www.jerrysartarama.com). The home page is cutesy, with a round-headed cartoon mascot appearing three times. He’s featured next to the logo; as part of the “Jerry’s Sale” icon that appears on the left side, below links to “customer service,” “my account,” “privacy policy,” and the like; and as part of the promotional message that on Feb. 2 makes up most of the home page: “Red Hot New Year’s Sale! Our Resolution: Discount Prices for Everyone!!!”

    But the promise of a bargain can’t compensate for the irritation the Cybercritic experiences upon trying to use the top navigation bar. Eighteen product categories are listed in three rows. They appear to be in alphabetical order, so I expect “frames” to be between “equipment” and “gold & faux finishes.” Nope. Nor are “picture frames” between “pastels” and “portfolios & storage.” Odd, given that the tagline (“Discount art supplies online — from airbrushes to picture frames!”) specifically mentions frames.

    Just as I’m about to type “frames” into the onsite search engine, I see “picture frames” as the last category…after “adhesive tapes & sprays,” which itself is after “studio furniture.” Does Jerry’s assume that artists can’t alphabetize?

    Clicking on the frames link takes me to a page with the bold-faced declaration that custom wooden and metal frames cannot be ordered online, only by phone. I’m looking for standard frames, so that doesn’t bother me, but in this day of increasing Web personalization, Jerry’s should probably work on offering custom frames online.

    Below is a reminder of Jerry’s lowest-price guarantee — “if you can find lower prices anywhere else, we’ll beat them by 5%!” I’m glad of the reminder, since the guarantee is buried on the home page, below the fold, deep within the Welcome Note window. Since discounting is apparently a big point of differentiation for Jerry’s, you’d think that this guarantee would be featured much more prominently.

    Back on the frames category page are seven sub-category links. The first two are for the custom-made frames that aren’t available online. Presumably that’s to provide prospective buyers with information before they call in an order. But if I’d been hoping to buy custom frames, I’d have left the site as soon as I saw the note telling me that they’re not sold online. Perhaps Jerry’s should mention in the note that though the frames aren’t sold online, customers can research what’s available, and make the links part of the text. That way links to the subcategories that are sold online, such as the ready-made metal, plastic, and wood frames, would be more easily seen.

    I select the “ready made metal picture frames” link and am brought to a subcategory page headlined “Fine Art Quality at Five & Dime Prices!” That’s a great reinforcement of the lowest-price proposition. A paragraph describes the frames in brief (anodized aluminum, “instant picture installation”). All is well until I come to the last sentence: “Quantities Not Assortable.” I have no idea what that means, but the use of initial caps makes it seem ominous.

    Below are three choices: black, gold, and silver. I opt for black and am presented with eight choices of size. What’s not clear is whether the dimensions (8″ × 10″, 12″ × 16″) refer to the size of the frame as a whole or of the image within the mat board that comes with the frame. And if those are the dimensions of the frame, then what size picture will fit within the mat opening?

    Even clicking on each product name doesn’t provide me with additional information — the product pages they link to do not provide any data other than the price and stock availability, both of which are already listed on the previous page. All of the frames are on sale, but I don’t want to put any in my shopping cart if I’m not sure what the dimensions are.

  2. Goodbye, Jerry’s. I’m off to UTRECHT ART SUPPLIES (www.utrecht.com). This is a more somber home page, with generous white space and a lack of cartoons and screaming promotional headlines. Utrecht is having a sale too — a “Back 2 Class Sale” — but the graphic accompanying the headline and link to the featured products is a simple closeup photo of paint squibs on a palette.

    Below the scroll, beneath descriptions of five featured products that provide a cross-selection of the site’s breadth of merchandise, is a link to Utrecht’s price guarantee: “Find a lower price and Utrecht will gladly match it!” It’s not as good as Jerry’s promise to beat a lower price by 5%, but if I can find what I need on Utrecht’s site, the point is moot.

    Utrecht’s product category navigation bar runs down the left side of the home page. It offers more than a dozen categories, and below each are as many as another dozen subcategories with links. Given that Utrecht manufactures its own line of paints, mediums, and palettes, it’s no surprise that “Utrecht Paint” is the first category on the list. “Framing Materials” are down one screen, after “Drawing Materials,” “Paper,” and “Graphic Arts Materials.”

    I select the “Frames” subcategory under the “Framing Materials” heading. The page that comes up is bare save for two links, one for ready-made frames and one for sectional frame kits. Seems to me an unnecessary click could have been eliminated if instead of listing “Frames” as a subcategory, “Ready-made Frames” and “Sectional Frame Kits” had been listed. If there’s one thing the Cybercritic loathes almost as much as faulty alphabetization, it’s unnecessary links and drill-downs.

    Clicking “Ready-made Frames” brings me to another barebones page. This has three links: “Nielsen” and “Structural Indust,” which are apparently the two brands Utrecht carries, and one that will allow me to view all the frames.

    I select “Nielsen.” What follows are three pages of frames, organized by model name. I want a simple black metal frame, but there’s nothing that sorts the three pages of product by color or material. So I enter “black metal frame” into the onsite search engine. No matches. “Black frame” also yields no matches — even though I’d just seen black frames on the Nielsen product pages!

    Ta-ta, Utrecht.

  3. The DICK BLICK ART MATERIALS (www.dickblick.com) home page has a somewhat industrial look, in part because the featured products pictured near the top are paints with rather forbidding-looking labels. More than two dozen product categories are listed on the left side (in alphabetical order, thank you very much). In addition, a drop-down menu of the categories (or as Dick Blick terms them, “departments”) appears on the top navigation bar. Also on the top is an alphabetical index.

I select “F.” Two columns of alphabetized product categories — from “Fabric Crayons” to “Furniture” — appear on the left; a short column of alphabetized brand names (“Faber-Castell” to “Fredrix”) is on the right. Separating the two, and adding life to the text-heavy page, are photos of a flat file and a frame, with links to each.

The “Frames, Ready-Made” link brings me to a category page that includes more links under the headings “Framing,” “Framing Styles,” “Matting and Mounting,” and “see also…” Um, where are those ready-made frames I was expecting?

I’m about to explore the options under “Framing Styles” — but first I spy a note beside the links. “Frames are sized by the opening, not by the outside of the molding. To determine the size of frame to order, measure the outside of your artwork, including mat, and order that size frame. The frame will overlap your artwork ¼” all the way around, so your artwork will fit nicely behind the frame’s molding.” So now I know exactly how large an image an 11″ × 14″ frame will hold. Brilliant! Alphabetical order and an answer to my question — I’m in cyberheaven.

Under “Framing Styles” I select “Aluminum and Metal Frames.” The page provides links to seven sub-subcategories and to three complementary product categories — “Framing Sections,” “Matboard,” and “Pre-Cut Mats, Mounts, and Mat Frames.”

The names of the sub-subcategories mean nothing to me: Am I supposed to intuitively know the difference between “Blick Gallery Metal Frames,” “Blick Prestige Metal Frames,” and “Blick Studio Metal Frames”?

After much clicking back and forth, the Cybercritic determines that the most notable differences among the three house-brand frames are the depth of artwork the frames can accommodate and the price. Here’s where the trusty Sear’s “good-better-best” treatment would have come in handy: On the sub-subcategory page, Dick Blick could have compared the dimensions and prices of each.

The Cybercritic opts for the cheapest frame. Apparently Dick Blick, like the other art-supplies sites visited, prides itself on low prices. Next to each product is a “regular” price followed by “Save XX%” in bold red type and the current price. With the 26% discount, my frames will end up costing me several dollars less than the prints!

Except that the frames don’t come with mats… Happily, I can link to the alphabetical index from any page on the site, so I select “M,” click on “Matting,” then “Matboard,” then “Pre-Cut Mats, Mounts, and Mat Frames,” then “Blick Pre-Cut Gallery Mats” and “Blick Ready Mat Singles” and “Low Cost Redi-Mats” and “Nielsen Pre-Cut Museum Gallery Mats.” The Cybercritic now realizes why some people prefer to order by phone or in person than online. All this drilling down, up, and sideways is akin to being trapped in a voice-mail maze.

But having already deposited the frames into my virtual shopping cart, I continue clicking and comparing and finally am able to drop two white mat boards into my cart as well. Checking out is a good deal easier than shopping, though even so it takes five clicks until I’m told how much I’m being charged for shipping and sales tax.

All told, my Dick Blick order is only about six bucks more than what I’d paid for the two prints. But though I’ve already received the frames and hung up my prints, it may be some time before the Cybercritic buys art from eBay again. I have no problem with eBay itself, but I don’t think I can repeat the process of shopping for frames anytime soon.

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ART of the DEAL

Deciding on a printer or selecting a source of paper is more than a matter of soliciting and comparing multiple bids. Getting the best deal in any negotiation process requires creative thinking and strategizing. It’s what differentiates getting the best value for your money from mere bargain hunting — and we all know that in the long run, bargains can sometimes end up costing rather than saving money. The following advice may help you negotiate the best printing and paper deals for your business.

TIP 1 KNOW YOUR NEEDS

Too many companies come to the bargaining table focused on how little they want to spend rather than on what they need, says Jim Treis, executive vice president, sales and marketing for Menomonee Falls, WI-based printer Arandell Corp. “Instead of coming in with costs in mind, they need to first decide on their marketing strategy.”

A common pitfall in signing with the printer that offers the lowest price is finding out that the printer doesn’t have the capacity or capability to do what you need. When reviewing bids, Treis says, keep in mind the printer’s flexibility with lead times, technical expertise, equipment, paper supply, and distribution options.

Westbury, NY-based gifts and home goods marketer 1-800-Flowers.com, whose catalogs include The Popcorn Factory, Plow & Hearth, and HearthSong, and Magic Cabin, makes a point of ensuring that a printer or a paper supplier can accommodate its volume before it considers pricing. The nearly $600 million company prints 100 million catalogs a year. “At our level, and with the quantity of paper needed, where 80% of what we need is lightweight gravure [printing], as well as some [web] offset, we look to see which vendors can handle our business,” says director of catalog production Timothy Gable. Along with its capacity needs, 1-800-Flowers.com considers the expectations of its creative team before beginning price negotiations.

“We wouldn’t choose a paper with low opacity or lower on the brightness scale, even at the lowest price,” says Gable. “We want a mill partner that will provide a quality paper with the right price structure, and that can grasp the complexities of our programs, so that we are maximizing the dollar spend on the best paper for our purpose.”

TIP 2 EXPECT TO MAKE TRADEOFFS

Reader’s Digest Association subsidiary Reiman Publications, which produces the World Wide Country Tours catalog, last summer decided to try to lower its paper costs. The Greendale, WI-based company kept its creative goals a priority while figuring out how much it would be able to compromise on paper selection to negotiate for a lower price with its mill, says vice president of production Mike Sloane. “You need to be able to go to the negotiation and say, This is where I need to be, and this is what I am and am not willing to do to get to that point.”

Reiman, which buys from Stamford, CT-based International Paper Co., switched from 50-lb. Influence, a coated #3 sheet, to 45-lb. Velocity, another coated #3 sheet. (Reiman uses 60-lb. Velocity for the catalog’s cover.) Reiman’s contract with International Paper includes price caps and stipulates the amount of tonnage Reiman will purchase from the manufacturer but allows the company to switch papers.

According to International Paper, Influence is two points brighter than Velocity. Printed on Velocity, the catalog is “a couple of shades grayer now,” Sloane says, “but the switch saved us about $2 million a year.”

TIP 3 BRUSH UP ON YOUR HISTORY

A company that knows exactly how much paper and what kinds of print output it will require is better suited to making detailed commitments in return for lower prices, says Mike Wade, a broker for Deerfield, IL-based paper merchant Wade Paper Corp.

“From a negotiation standpoint, gather up as much information as you can, including a history of tons [of paper] used,” says Wade. “A lot of times we say we don’t know what we’re going to need when, but the mills know to look for customers who have a good idea of need. They’re looking for consistent and controllable customers. They want that predictability.”

Say you produce eight titles and know that in the middle of next August you’ll likely want to use a 60-lb. #3 sheet rather than your usually 50-lb. for the cover of four of your catalogs. Providing the mill this level of specificity as you negotiate allows the mill to plan its operations more efficiently. “It gives the salespeople who sell for the mills the ability to go their bosses and say, This customer is going to use 200,000 lbs. of this paper this year,” Wade explains. “All salespeople have to come up with forecasts of how much [of the various kinds of paper] they need per quarter or per year.”

Likewise, if you’re considering expanding your print run during the course of your contract, you need to keep that in mind. If you’ve historically printed 500,000-copy runs but plan to double the size of next year’s holiday run, a printer that hasn’t handled a million-copy run may not be your best bet. “You want to be able to show printers exactly what your plan is for the year, and then ask them if they’ve worked for other catalogers within that type of print run, and ask for references,” says Arandell’s Treis.

TIP 4 ITEMIZE YOUR COSTS

If you’re unhappy with the prices you’ve been quoted by prospective printers, itemize your production costs to see what you can whittle down, suggests Janie Downey, president of Cumberland, ME-based production consultancy PublishExperts.

Downey recommends separating out costs such as bindery and ink-jetting charges. Then you can review each item with each printer, asking why one will do one service for a lower price than the another is willing to. “Some catalogers just want to know the overall cost and how much paper is needed, because one overall manufacturing price is easier. But if you’re bidding out, the more you know, the better off you’ll be in negotiations,” Downey emphasizes.

Chippewa Falls, WI-based footwear mailer Mason Cos., whose eight titles include Wissota Trader, E.T. Wright, and Maryland Square, itemized its production expenses prior to seeking bids from printers a year and a half ago. “Looking at every line item and detail is a must,” says catalog production coordinator Lynn Zimmerman. “I reviewed everything and plotted it out on a grid to show each printer the different costs in there and to compare. I had a detailed list of all their equipment, presses, ink-jetting abilities, distribution and distribution tracking abilities, and even the technology they had that we didn’t currently use but was there so that we could use it in the future.”

1-800-Flowers.com also creates a grid to compare itemized pricing for each of the printers that it is taking bids from. In addition, Gable asks each printer for a sample invoice so that it can be sure it is comparing like costs to like costs and isn’t overlooking anything. “We would never just roll over the account without going out to the market for pricing updates,” Gable says.

TIP 5 ASK FOR TESTING FREEBIES

If or when printers and mills cannot lower their prices any further, they may offer extra services, such as print rollouts such that you can test how well differently designed catalogs and different choices of paper work for you. “I’ve had printers say, I’m not able to match the price you want me to match, but I have ways for you to build your bottom line by marketing better to your customers,” Downey says.

For instance, printers may be willing to help defray the costs of A/B split cover tests, in which a catalog with one cover is mailed to half the mailing list and a version with another cover is mailed to the other half, or tests of alternate versions to targeted segments of your housefile. “They might cover the set-up costs, and if it works well, you pay for it,” says Downey. “Smaller runs can be more expensive, so [reduced-rate or free testing] could be a possible bargaining point.”

1-800-Flowers.com has test-printed some of its catalogs with a super-calendered A (SCA) paper and a #4 paper with slight groundwood content without being charged. The mill provided a roll of paper that probably cost $1,000, Gable says. “We’re frequently testing different weights, grades, and brightness to see how it prints and, ultimately, what it does to sales.”

Mason Cos., which prints nearly 100 million catalog copies annually, routinely mails alternative versions to different customer segments. Versions may include personalized messages on the front and back covers or sales on certain items that would appeal to the segment being mailed to, such as specials on workboots to customers who purchased similar footwear during the last year. “Our printers offer us a lot of capabilities for testing, and they’re willing to work with us if we want to test something,” says Zimmerman. “They say, We’ll reduce the price for you to see if the test works, and then the next time, you pay full price.”

“Printers are willing to help you improve your bottom-line business,” Downey notes. “You should work with them to come up with something that will work for you.”

It’s in the printers’ and paper suppliers’ best interest to help your business grow, so that you can in turn purchase more products and services from them. The ideal negotiation ends with a deal that’s best for both parties.

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