CATALOG AGE IS PROUD TO PRESENT the first in a series of bimonthly profiles of catalogers that have implemented a digital production work flow, from prepress to the printing press. In this first feature, we look at four catalogers we consider to be examples of “digital leaders” – those that have embraced the digital revolution from the beginning and continue to experiment with new technology. d Digital production work flows have streamlined the process for each of the catalogers profiled, from managing Black Box’s multiple international versions to helping Damark International make last-minute price changes. d As the following profiles illustrate, it doesn’t matter how big a company you are, whether you sell internationally, or if you have to communicate with remote vendors and suppliers: All catalogers today can take advantage of digital production technology in some form – and reap the rewards of time and money saved. But best of all, catalogers with a digital production pro! ! cess retain control of their mos t important assets as marketers: their images and content. And having control helps catalogers react to changing market conditions, manage costs, and compete effectively. (Look for our next Digital Leaders profile in the March 1 issue.)
BLACK BOX CORP.
Imagine having to produce and print a 1,300-plus-page catalog twice a year the old-fashioned way, using film and outside prepress houses. Now add 10 European versions of the catalog translated into seven languages, a Brazilian version, and an Australian catalog to the mix, and working in an analog production environment is daunting, not to mention costly.
To make the challenge a little less daunting, Black Box Corp., a Lawrence, PA-based cataloger of computer networking equipment, went “digital” in March 1996. The $311 million cataloger not only saw a return on its digital investment in the first year, but it has also cut about three days out of its production schedule.
“There is no way we’d ever get all these versions of the catalog printed in a timely fashion without being digital,” says Prudence Harris, Black Box’s director of worldwide merchandising. “And time was very much an issue for us. It takes at least 10 months to produce an international catalog, and three months for the domestic book.” The company also produces a 112-page new-product supplement seven times a year for domestic mailing, and a 48-page international supplement three times a year.
Black Box began its digital transformation by switching to computer-to-plate printing. The company quickly saved nearly $48 per page as a result. Also in 1996, Black Box bought a $70,000 digital camera; it now shoots 99% of its 22,600-plus images at its inhouse photo studio. The 15GB high- and low-resolution image database is also housed internally, though Black Box’s printer, Perry Judd’s, stores a backup of the cataloger’s image database at its facilities. Black Box spent $15,000 for internal servers and an additional $5,000 for electronic storage space at Perry Judd’s, Harris says.
Because it digitally sends 100 pages a week to its printer for the domestic catalog, and at least 50 pages a week for the international books, Black Box invested in ISDN digital lines and software for transferring files globally. (The domestic and European catalogs are printed in the U.S., the Brazilian book ,in Chile, and the Australian catalog in Australia.) ISDN lines also help Black Box produce the many translations it needs: The production department of each country is sent an English-language Quark page via ISDN; after they’ve translated the pages, the departments send the pages back to Black Box digitally.
The files are converted into digital proofs that are approved via an Iris or a Kodak Approval digital proofer at Black Box’s Lawrence headquarters. The cataloger has yet to use remote proofing (which sends a page electronically from the printer or another remote location to a device at the cataloger) or soft proofing (in which pages are proofed on a computer screen).
The biggest challenge for Black Box now, Harris says, is combining its two digital content databases. Before suppliers came out with digital content/asset management software, Black Box had created a second database of images and content primarily for use on the Web. “There’s no direct link between the two databases right now,” Harris says. “We’re looking at a content management system, but it’s a lot more money than we expected.”
FLAX ART & DESIGN
When it came to going digital, Flax Art & Design was determined to get it right the first time. The San Francisco-based cataloger attributes its digital production success largely to waiting until its printer, World Color, had computer-to-plate capabilities before going forward. “We didn’t want to begin producing and printing our catalogs digitally until we were sure we could do it 100%,” says director of marketing Craig Flax.
Flax Art & Design, a $10 million-$20 million firm, produces three catalogs – its flagship art supplies and gifts book; Collage, which sells fine paper and writing gifts; and paper products spin-off The Paper Catalog – and mails a total of 11.25 million catalogs annually. Six months after converting to a digital work flow in 1997, Flax had already recouped its $50,000 investment; the cataloger also reduced its production cycle by a week and is saving more than $100,000 a year in production costs.
Flax Art’s first digital investment was $25,000 for a Megavision T2 digital camera. The company hires an outside photographer to shoot its catalog – and also rents the camera to the photographer for use with his other clients, bringing in additional revenue for the cataloger.
“The photographer had the steepest learning curve because he had to learn how to take pictures without film and become a bit of a color separator at the same time,” Craig Flax says. “But it was relatively painless.”
The company’s other investment was $25,000 for a computer hardware and software system to work with the digital camera, the upgrade of two computer systems in its production department, and a flatbed scanner for those rare times the cataloger doesn’t use digital photography. (Like most other catalogers, Flax is still reluctant to shoot live models with digital cameras.) Flax also hired a production person well versed in digital camera and production technology, color separation, and Photoshop.
Since nearly 60% of the product images are reused among the print books and the company’s year-old Website, Flax Art stores its 10,000-plus high-resolution images inhouse; low-resolution images are stored with the company’s Website developer, Multimedia Live.
“The Website wasn’t the main reason we decided to go digital,” Flax says. “But having a digital production work flow has added to our ability to go online quicker. And having the images inhouse allows us to simply convert the TIFF or Quark files to JPEG for posting online.” (TIFF, a graphics and page layout file format, is used as an intermediary file for images and to transfer documents between different applications and computer platforms; JPEGs are compressed files that are used online.)
Although managing its large image database might sound cumbersome, Flax Art has not invested in a digital asset management system. “We haven’t seen the advantage of buying a separate system,” Flax says. “We don’t use images or copy past three months, and it’s easy to grab the high-res Quark files from our database.” And although the company uses digital proofing, it decided against investing in the equipment, which can cost nearly $250,000. Instead, a local prepress house provides the digital proofs – which Flax says is just as cost-efficient and fast.
The cataloger can’t name one downside to being digital. “It not only saves us time and money, but it gives us control of our images,” Flax says.
For Minneapolis-based electronics and general merchandise cataloger Damark International, digital technology has been a godsend, allowing it to keep up with the price and inventory volatility inherent in the consumer electronics market. The 13-year-old Damark can change prices, add or delete products, and change images – all while on press.
“Digital technology allows Damark to get hot products into catalogs and out into the marketplace faster,” says Mike Moroz, senior vice president of operations. “What’s hot right now in computers is not necessarily what’s going to be hot by our next catalog mailing.”
Damark mails 10 catalog titles for a total of 75-80 editions a year, Moroz says. Annual circulation is more than 150 million catalogs, and the firm’s catalog business accounts for $395 million of its $484.4 million in annual revenue.
With the help of Minneapolis-based Banta Digital Real-Time Net, a division of printer Banta Corp., Damark shaved eight days off its production schedule by going digital in the early 1990s. Now just 22 days elapse from the time Damark receives its production schedule to when the catalogs mail.
Digital photography is one way in which the cataloger saves time: Damark no longer needs to physically send color separations to the printer. Damark’s design team communicates with Banta’s system through a DSIII telecommunication line, which is significantly faster than a T-1 line and enables designers to make changes to digital images. Although Moroz wouldn’t specify Damark’s total technology expenditures, the company bought two high-end color printers and spent about $50,000 on two high-end Leaf digital cameras.
Reducing turnaround time helps Damark compete not only with other catalogers, but also with consumer electronics retail chains. “While I wouldn’t say we are on a level playing field [with retailers], digital production technology helps close the gap between us and our retail competition,” says Randy Rudolph, Damark’s director of advertising, membership, and e-commerce.
With six years’ experience under its belt, PC Connection is far ahead of many other catalogers when it comes to digital production. The $732 million multititle cataloger of computer products and accessories bought its first digital camera and built its own digital photo studio in 1994. A year later, PC Connection switched to computer-to-plate printing, and by the summer of 1997, its entire production work flow was digital. As a result, the Peterborough, NH-based cataloger, which mails 45 million catalogs annually, saves $250,000 a year in production costs, has shrunk its production cycle, and is able to update its Website every day.
“It just doesn’t make sense for us not to be fully digital, given today’s market conditions and increased competition,” says Jeff Savastano, PC Connection’s director of advertising services. “Being 100% digital allows us to react quickly to changes in the market and streamline our production process at the same time. We saw a return on our investment in the first year.” PC Connection publishes the flagship and MacConnection catalogs, along with product-specific books, such as one for networking products, and seasonal catalogs aimed at educational and government buyers.
Prior to going digital, the company had to produce film for more than 300 catalog pages each month, create proofs for each page, and then send those pages via courier to the printer – all of which took several days to complete. “Now we can turn digital files around in a couple of hours, partly because we don’t have to produce film first,” Savastano says. “We produce digital proofs internally and send the files electronically to the printer via direct dial-up service provider WamNet!”
Ninety-five percent of the 10,000-plus catalog images used each year are shot digitally for use both in print and on the Web. And because PC Connection has so much experience with digital camera equipment, “we think our digital photos are better than most others out there,” Savastano says.
PC Connection stores all of its high- and low-resolution images internally and has hired an image librarian to manage its Cumulus asset management database. “It’s a constant battle to update our image database because the product changes so quickly,” Savastano says. “But I’d rather have control over the database. It would be a liability in anybody else’s hands because we wouldn’t have immediate access to it.”
That control over the image database also helps the company continually update its Website. Every day, PC Connection’s advertising department, which includes copy, design, and production services, converts high-resolution image files, ranging from 4MB to 40MB in size, for repurposing on the Web. “Being digital is half the battle when it comes to speed to market on the Web,” Savastano says. “I can’t imagine having to transfer film-based images to digital ones and still stay competitive in print and online.”