Digital Photography Lets Seta Corp. Save Money Mixing the New and the Old As a producer of syndicated jewelry catalogs for the likes of J.C. Penney, Spiegel, Sears, and the Home Shopping Network, Seta Corp. needs to be able to repurpose photographs and modify layouts in a flash. Thanks to digital production, the Boca Raton, FL-based company can – saving money to boot.

Recently, for example, a client needed to change the merchandise featured in a catalog spread. The 8.5″ x 11″ spread used two full-bleed background photos of merchandise and eight product insets, displaying a total of 26 products. Seta had to replace 12 of the items from the original spread; nine of these appeared on the full-bleed backgrounds, and the other three appeared on insets.

If done in the traditional way of catalog layout, Seta would have had to shoot new background photos as well as new inset shots, explains Dennis Worth, vice president of marketing. “Now we can just take out the old items, put in new ones, and run the revised page,” he says, without having to lay out the entire page all over again. And because digital photography is key to this sort of shortcut, Seta switched to the method from conventional production in 1996.

“We silhouette every piece of jewelry in our catalogs, shooting each piece individually,” Worth says. The images are captured through PhaseOne Lightphase single-shot cameras. “We’ve used Dicomed [scan back] and Leaf DCB II Live camera backs,” Worth says, “but prefer the PhaseOne Lightphase because it’s faster than the Dicomed and gives us larger, sharper images than the Leaf DCB II Live.”

Because digital cameras capture images in RGB (red/green/blue), while print images need to be CMYK (cyan/magenta/yellow/black), Seta uses ColorSync 3.0.2 and PressView software to create custom RGB- to-CMYK conversion tables.

Seta designers then use QuarkXPress and PhotoShop running on Macintosh G4/500Mhz computers to remove certain product shots from a layout and load in replacement shots. With a few keystrokes, designers can also easily substitute backgrounds. “If just a few background images are being replaced, we simply select the box containing the image, then hit `command e’ and select the replacement image,” Worth says. All retouching stations and both digital cameras use calibrated PressView monitors for proofing color images.

From $2,500 to less than $600 In all, the revision took just one day and cost less than $600. In the predigital days, Worth says, recomposing the spread would have taken eight days and cost more than $2,500.

Digital photography isn’t the only way Seta cuts production costs. In 1999, the company went completely direct-to-plate, which Worth estimates saves Seta more than $700,000 a year. Combined with savings realized during the years from switching to digital photography, outputting film and matchprints inhouse, and other production upgrades, Seta saves nearly $1.6 million a year in production, Worth says.

Seta does complete reshoots of its entire catalog three times a year. “In between these reshot catalogs,” Worth says, “we re-lay out pickup pages and introduce about 20% new product on these pages.”

Using digitally photographed product silhouettes also makes it unnecessary for Seta to rephotograph its products for its Website,

“We were able to easily apply our print catalog images on our Website because all items that we intend to run on our site are on white backgrounds with drop shadows,” Worth says. “Other companies either reshoot every product for their Website or just slice images from their catalog and place them onto their site, creating an odd assortment of backgrounds. And with the Web’s lack of sharpness, these sites have very busy images that make it difficult to distinguish the product from the background. We instead are able to have a uniform look to our pages.”


Going digital enables Micro Warehouse to get new products into the market faster

When Silicon Valley speaks, Norwalk, CT-based computer cataloger Micro Warehouse listens. Its business depends on it. And digital production has enabled the company to react to supplier announcements much faster.

For instance, Apple Computer’s official launch of the iMac in late 1998 coincided with Micro Warehouse’s production deadline for MacWarehouse, one of its four catalogs. (Because Apple does not disclose details before a big announcement, Micro Warehouse learns of the breaking news along with the rest of the public.) And since Micro Warehouse is, according to vice president of worldwide publishing Tony Calabro, the largest direct reseller of Macintosh computers, it couldn’t afford to print the catalog without promoting Apple’s big launch.

But thanks to digital technology, “our digital artists went to Apple’s Website to download the images and text in high-resolution formats,” Calabro says. And the iMac made it into the next edition of MacWarehouse.

Micro Warehouse recognized as early as 1995 that digital work flows could reduce the potential for error and more efficiently manage data such as page position, color and size variables, and prices, text, and images. In fact, Calabro says, “because our internal work flow was already digital, it allowed us to be one of the first to take advantage of direct-to-plate technology with Quad/Graphics,” its primary printer, in the mid-’90s.

Last year, Micro Warehouse went from a two-roster image process (RIP) – which converts portable document files (PDF) to a format for direct-to-plate printing – to a one-step process using Prinergy, a work-flow management software system. Prinergy converts the cataloger’s file into a “press optimized” PDF that includes the high-resolution images, trapped, color-managed, and stored in CMYK color space. The file is then ready to go to Quad’s plate-making system.

Slicing turnaround time in half

In addition to MacWarehouse, which mails 14 times a year, the $2.4 billion Micro Warehouse publishes its eponymous catalog, which sells hardware and software for PCs and drops 12 times a year; DataComm, which sells networking and connectivity products and also drops 12 times a year; and InMac, which sells networking products and drops six times a year. Among the four titles, Micro Warehouse mails 44 editions annually and about 40 remails, Calabro says.

Going digital has allowed the company to carve weeks from its production cycle. It now takes five to six weeks from when a vendor places an ad in its catalog to the catalog mail date; before digital technology the process took 10 weeks. The speed to press has strengthened the cataloger’s case as an advertising medium, since suppliers can get their products in the book – and to potential customers – more immediately.

“Once we have the ad,” Calabro explains, “we can send the files in PDF to Quad via WamNet,” a digital transmission service. The cataloger’s digital images – of which it has “in the millions,” he says – and full editions of its catalogs are backed up onto CDs for storage.

Micro Warehouse won’t reveal what it has spent on digital production technology, but the savings have been significant. “Our cost is now 10% of what it used to be” to produce a printed page, says Bob Bruno, the cataloger’s group director of worldwide print production.

When asked his advice for catalogers considering going digital, Calabro says companies should examine their internal processes before making any decisions. But “if your staff is working until 1 a.m. the week before press time, you need to change your processes” and implement digital technology.

Catalogers should also be aware that any radical change in process could cause turmoil for the production team. “But the last thing you want to be is a creature of habit,” Calabro warns, “because technology is always changing.”


Big Toe proves that even small companies can reap big benefits from going digital

Advertisements for discounted products often proclaim that “you don’t have to spend a million to look like a million.” Along these same lines, with digital production, you don’t have to invest a lot to save a lot. Just ask Big Toe, a Madison, WI-based Web and print cataloger of soccer products. The $10 million company invested $21,000 in digital production technology and is now saving more than $1 million a year.

“We were spending about $200,000 per catalog in film development costs,” says Big Toe president Dan Nuthals. But having invested in a digital camera in April 1996, Big Toe now spends less than $5,000 a book on photography. “What’s ideal about shooting with a digital camera is that the images are already in the format you need for production, so there’s no need for film,” he says.

Big Toe’s print catalogs account for 63% of its revenue. The company mails two books quarterly, one selling directly to soccer players, the other targeting teams at schools and other organizations. The company, which circulates about 2 million catalogs annually, has a production staff of three.

“We went digital because we wanted to cut our production costs and speed up the production process,” Nuthals says. “The cost to put together the catalog traditionally was prohibitive, and it would eventually have put us out of business.” Big Toe’s $21,000 investment consisted of a Kodak 35-mm digital camera for about $15,000 and two high-resolution color printers for about $6,000.

While many digital leaders – including Big Toe – say the learning curve for shooting without film is slight, “you most certainly have to develop color separation expertise in your art staff with the addition of a digital camera,” Nuthals says. Someone on staff needs to know how to convert the red-green-blue (RGB) digital format of the images into the cyan-magenta-yellow-black (CMYK) format used in print production.

Some catalogers hesitate to go digital because they fear that the image quality is still appreciably less accurate than that of film. Nuthals admits that the digital image color quality is only about 95% as good as film color quality – but since Big Toe doesn’t sell fashion or decorative items, that’s good enough for his purposes.

Now that the photography is shot and stored in a digital format, “we use the same images to do everything, from the catalog to our Website. We can literally make final-day modifications at the last minute,” Nuthals says. Reshooting a sample, for instance, now takes about 20 minutes, whereas it used to take the cataloger from three to seven days, taking into account the time spent transporting film to and from Big Toe and its production house. (Big Toe stores its images off-site in a bank safe-deposit box for backup.)

Nuthals is so pleased with his digital experiences, he’s become a bit of a proselytizer. “I want catalogers to know that going digital can be done and done well by a small shop.”

Step 1 The digital camera captures the image. The camera is connected (via an SCSI chain, a type of electronic link) to file servers on Big Toe’s Mac network.

Step 2 The art staff picks up the image from the file server and does color work on the image, converting to CMYK for print use.

Step 3 The image is then moved to production libraries, where the Website and catalog developers can access it.

Step 4 The Web or catalog developer picks up the image to assemble a page.

Step 5 Once all pages are complete, the digital data and image and art files are collected onto a CD.

Step 6 The CD is downloaded by Big Toe’s plate production house, which creates digital proofs.

Step 7 Once Big Toe approves the proofs, the production house burns the printing plates, which are then sent to the printer.


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.)


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.”


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.”