Benchmark 1999 Production

This month marks a redesign of our Benchmark survey series. The research results and analysis are now divided into clear survey segments and presented in a format that we hope is more accessible and easier to use and understand. The emphasis is on true benchmarks, as before, but with much of the data broken into “bite size” pieces of information. We hope you like the new design.

Internet-only companies are not the only ones to benefit from new technologies. As Catalog Age’s 1999 Benchmark Report on Production shows, print catalogers, too, are embracing technological advances – digital proofing, computer-to-plate (CTP) printing, and the like – to improve production efficiencies and get to market faster.

Which is not to say that all technologies are equally popular among mailers. For every widely accepted technology such as CTP, there’s a “poor stepchild” such as on-demand printing that few catalogers have embraced.


The majority of catalog respondents are not rushing to use PDF (portable document format), a flexible file format that enables users to view files in their final form, regardless of which desktop publishing software system was used to create or open the files. Not coincidentally, prepress service bureaus have yet to embrace PDF technology themselves, let alone to encourage clients to switch to the format.

But catalogers have proved more eager to take advantage of a “digital workflow.” Among this year`s survey respondents, a mean 56% of their workflow is digital vs. a mean 46% last year. A digital workflow eliminates the need for scanning art and producing film and film-based proofs. By cutting out these production steps, catalogers can save money – as well as get the catalog printed and in the mail faster. But the cost of converting existing workflow systems can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the company and the equipment needed (such as additional hardware and software). The initial costs are no doubt why only 16% of survey participants say they have a 100% digital workflow.


While our respondents indicate that catalogers have widely accepted some printing technologies, such as computer-to-plate (CTP), other high-tech innovations have yet to catch on. For instance, while 57% of the survey respondents use CTP, only 8% report that they use on-demand printing, which allows catalogers to print specific catalogs for specific customers – true one-to-one marketing. Cost is likely the major deterrent. Switching to CTP can save catalogers as much as 20% in material costs by eliminating film and film-based proofs. By contrast, implementing on-demand printing, which requires a digitized printing system that uses both an imaging engine and in-line binding and/or finishing equipment to combine printed pages into a finished product, typically costs tens of thousands of dollars. What’s more, for on-demand printing to be a worthwhile investment, catalogers need to have easy-to-access, well-segmented, frequently updated customer databases.


Paper prices have remained relatively stable for the past few years, abetted by an influx of paper from European mills. This “buyer’s market,” along with a vibrant economy, has inspired many catalogers to upgrade their paper stock and basis weight. While larger companies tend to print their inside pages on lower basis weight paper than smaller companies, they are increasing their page counts; smaller companies, on the other hand, have smaller page counts yet print on heavier paper stock. For instance, respondents with annual sales of at least $50 million print on paper with a mean weight of 40 lb. and average 167 pages per book. By contrast, respondents with annual sales of less than $1 million print on paper that has a mean weight of 50 lb. – but they average only 35 pages per catalog.

Electronic Media

Just four years ago, only 11% of respondents had an electronic presence; this year 57% of respondents sell online, and 27% are considering it. In addition, the mean percentage of respondents’ overall production budget allocated to the Web catalog has increased from nearly 5% in 1997 to nearly 11% this year. More than three-quarters (85%) of respondents with electronic catalogs have their own Websites; 22% use a third-party Web service.

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