The domino effect

Every silver lining has its cloud-or so the tale of spiritual and Christian gifts cataloger APG-Direct suggests. Stable paper prices and healthy sales growth encouraged many mailers to boost their holiday circulation at the eleventh hour. But according to APG-Direct president Jim Fitzgerald, these circulation increases created a backlog at the bindery line, forcing the $1.5 million cataloger to mail its 40-page In the Spirit book more than two weeks late.

“Our printer ended up having to outsource the binding to a third party,” Fitzgerald claims. “We’d wanted our fall/holiday catalog to mail on Sept. 10, but we couldn’t get it in the mail until Sept. 28,” although APG-Direct had contracted its bindery time several months prior to its August print date. Calls to World Color, APG-Direct’s printer, went unanswered at press time.

APG was counting on results from the September mailing to help it identify profitable lists. The company tested 30 lists with the first fall mailing, the catalog’s national launch after a test last year. “We wanted to incorporate the response data from the first mailing into our third mailing, slated for November,” Fitzgerald says. “We were forced to guess at the 10 most responsive lists and realized afterward that we missed identifying four out of 10 because of the delay.”

An isolated incident? Other catalogers and industry observers, all of whom requested anonymity, say that in late summer and early fall, printers World Color, Quebecor, and Quad/Graphics suffered delays of up to two weeks on bindery lines. Several calls to each of these printers were not returned by press time, however. Printers R.R. Donnelley and Banta report no delays on bindery lines.

Observers blame the delays primarily on higher holiday circulation and increased use of ink-jetting and versioning, both of which require more bindery “pockets,” in which page signatures are held before being collated. The more pockets, the more time is needed on the bindery line.

For example, Quill, the Lincolnshire, IL-based office supplies catalog, at the last minute decided to add ink-jetted messages to its catalogs in early September-nearly a year after it had booked its bindery time. At the same time, favorable response to an earlier prospecting book prompted Quill to increase its fourth-quarter circulation 40%. “The economy is good, paper pricing is depressed, catalogers are increasing circulation after booking bindery time, and printers were caught off guard,” says Vern Bush, Quill’s print services manager.

As for APG-Direct, its printer was able to bind and mail its second and third fall/holiday catalog drops on time. But Fitzgerald says he learned a lesson in the process. “Every cataloger should ask what contingency plans its printer has in place, not just with printing but also with bindery. Ask questions such as can it move a job from one plant to another in a given amount of time. I’ve also become rabid about deadlines and dates, and I insist on printer confirmations.”

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