Print & Production

Nov 01, 1998 10:30 PM  By

Instant gratification. That’s what consumers want in the ’90s, and catalogers aim to please. But for years, mailers have been hard-pressed to get their latest catalogs to market in a timely, yet affordable, manner. Fortunately, a number of technological advances-computer-to-plate (CTP) printing, high-speed digital connections such as integrated services digital network (ISDN) lines, even the Internet-have helped catalogers produce their books faster. In the past year or so alone, prepress advancements, including portable document format (PDF) files and digital and remote proofing, have arisen to satisfy catalogers’ fast-food mentality. n Such technological advancements and enhancements have spawned new questions for Catalog Age’s Exclusive Benchmark Report on Print and Production. This year, we surveyed respondents about the new technologies to start tracking their impact on the catalog production industry. And as with any new technology, we found learning curves are inevitable, especially since digital production can change entire workflows. But some things also stay the same.

Take print catalogs. Despite the hoopla surrounding the Internet and predictions in the mid ’90s that high paper prices would force catalogers to abandon print, the printed catalog remains our survey respondents’ primary marketing vehicle. What’s more, paper prices have remained relatively stable over the past few years, and no major price hikes are expected in the foreseeable future (see “Annual Paper Forecast,” p. 89).

Satisfied with (or resigned to) their current costs, 85% of respondents say they intend to keep the same paper grade next year, and 85% report no plans to change trim size in 1999. In fact, 40% of this year’s respondents say they will increase their page counts in the next 12 months, despite the postal rate increase scheduled for Jan. 10, 1999.

PREPRESS Nearly 83% of respondents say they design their catalogs inhouse, roughly the same percentage as last year. Of those, 88% describe their desktop publishing systems results as “very good” or “good.” Still, the percentage of those giving high marks to desktop systems has declined nearly 6 percentage points from last year’s 94%. And 12% report their desktop results as “fair” or “poor,” compared to last year’s 6%.

QuarkXPress remains the catalog design software of choice among survey participants: Almost 83% of those surveyed use Quark, compared to 59% last year. The long-awaited release of Quark 4.0 a year ago, with new features such as the Bezier drawing tool that allows copy to flow in paths other than traditional horizontal rows, may have had something to do with the jump in respondents’ preference of Quark this year.

Quark isn’t alone in its increased popularity, however. Seventy-one percent of survey participants use Adobe’s Photoshop program, compared to 59% last year; 44% use Illustrator compared to 42% the prior year. And those numbers may increase next year, as catalogers upgrade to Illustrator 8.0 and Photoshop 5.0. Both programs boast greater productivity through key features such as Illustrator’s Actions palette, which automates illustration tasks such as adding drop shadows, and Photoshop’s Editable Text layers, which allow designers to control leading and tracking functions as well as enable users to revise text at any time.

Many industry observers and catalogers believe that Adobe’s introduction of PDF files will allow catalogers to save additional time and money in the prepress process. PDF, a flexible file format, enables users to view files in their final form, regardless of which system was used to create or open the files. Catalogers using PDF can send files to service bureaus and printers without worrying about whether they have the right fonts because each file contains all possible catalog elements-text, graphics, and layout-embedded onto one disk. PDF files are also smaller than files such as TIFF, which makes for faster preflighting-systematically checking files against a predetermined list of criteria before outputting high-resolution files-and processing.

Despite the obvious benefits of PDF, only 27% of respondents, including 34% of consumer catalogers, 20% of hybrids, and 16% of b-to-b respondents, are using it. No doubt some of this stems from the newness of the technology. Nonetheless, a number of catalogers feel no need to make the switch to PDF.

“We’ve never had problems with our TIFF files, and our Website developer hasn’t asked for PDF files, so we don’t use it,” says Craig Flax, director of production/marketing at art supplies and gifts catalog Flax Art & Design. “But PDF files will eventually be the standard, and we’ll use them if necessary. It’s easy enough to switch.”

Catalogers also remain cautious about converting to a fully digital workflow, from prepress to print. While roughly half have gone at least partly digital, only 19% of respondents (including 23% of b-to-bers but only 17% of consumer respondents) have a 100% digital workflow. “I’m surprised the percentage of catalogers with 100% digital workflows is even as high as it is,” says Dan Nuthals, president of Big Toe Sports, a soccer gear catalog. “If you asked that question last year, that number would probably have been around 1%.”

Madison, WI-based Big Toe has been fully digital for the past year and a half, having brought its design, photography, image processing, and proofing in house. Converting to an all-digital workflow makes good business sense, Nuthals claims, in that “you eliminate production steps such as scanning photos and producing film and film-based proofs. So it really is a cost reducer because you’re not duplicating any steps.”

But to go fully digital, catalogers need to embrace digital proofing, if not remote proofing (which entails sending the digital proofs via high-speed lines). Although advances in digital and remote proofing have piqued the interest of a few catalogers, the practices have yet to catch hold. Of those surveyed, 48% are not using digital or remote proofing; 23% use both methods; and 17% use digital proofing only, while 10% use only remote proofing. “It’s still the ‘old dog, new tricks’ scenario. Many internal art departments are tied to their proof of choice,” Nuthals says.

Only 32% of respondents report using digital photography, with b-to-b mailers leading the way at 44%, up 21 percentage points from last year’s 23%. Digital photography among consumer catalogers, however, is down slightly, from 33% in last year’s survey to 31% this year. And only 26% of survey participants not using it (including 28% of b-to-bers and 24% of consumer catalogers) say they’re considering digital photography in the future, compared to 31% last year.

Printing Last year we saw a rise in the use of offset printing, attributable to improvements in offset plate technology and new presses, such as the 48-page offset presses introduced last year that can accommodate larger press runs. Traditionally, catalogers with print runs of 500,000 or more used rotogravure printing. But this year, 77% of respondents say they print their primary catalog via offset only, a drop of 13 percentage points from last year’s 90%. The use of gravure printing, however, increased significantly. While last year only 1% of respondents used it to print their primary book, 9% of this year’s respondents do. What’s more, the percentage of respondents that use both methods increased from 8% to 14%.

These catalogers may have been wooed by accommodations on the part of gravure printers. To compete with offset printers that can now handle large press runs, “more gravure printers are lowering their minimum print runs to get more business,” Nuthals says.

Computer-to-plate technology continues to convert catalogers. Forty-six percent of respondents (including 49% of consumer mailers and hybrids and 36% of b-to-bers) report using CTP, compared to 30% last year. Almost half (48%) of respondents not using it are considering it for the future.

Another technology getting attention is on-demand printing, which allows catalogers to produce catalogs specific to a customer. Buyers who request additional information or want products for a specific line of computers, for example, may receive a catalog that sells only those products-making one-to-one catalog marketing a reality. But the practice has yet to be widely accepted. Only 8% of respondents (including 14% of consumer catalogers and 4% of business mailers) report using on-demand printing.

But 16% of those that don’t yet use on-demand say they are considering it. “The concept of on-demand is great, and we’ll likely use it in the future,” Flax says. “But for right now, there just aren’t enough people out there who can explain the technology or the benefits.”

Ink-jetting is also gaining in popularity. Eighty-five percent of those surveyed use some form of ink-jetting on back covers, compared to 75% last year; 70% of respondents ink-jet messages on the order form, an increase of 14 percentage points from the year before.

In terms of ancillary services catalogers receive from printers, 75% of respondents rely on their printer to advise them on postal matters, an increase of 11 percentage points from last year. The postal rate changes scheduled to take effect on Jan. 10 may have something to do with this sudden shift. Only 11% rely on their printer to be a database expert, compared to 15% the year before. And only 65% of catalogers surveyed say they solicit advice about paper buying from their printer, compared to 83% the year before.

PAPER Historically, coated groundwood and coated freesheet have been the most popular paper grades among catalogers. Among this year’s survey respondents, 42% use the former and 36% the latter. These two paper grades are also the most expensive on the market. But prices for these grades have remained relatively stable throughout 1998. A depressed pulp market, inventory buildups at the mills and printers, and the introduction of a new supercalendered grade killed a proposed July price increase. Nonetheless, the use of supercalendered paper, a cheaper alternative to groundwood and freesheet, rose from 8% of the total respondents last year to 13% this year.

More than one-third (38%) of this year’s survey participants bought paper directly from paper merchants, brokers, and mills, compared to 17% last year. Conversely, the percentage of catalogers that bought paper from printers declined from 88% to 69%.

Big Toe Sports, which prints five catalog editions on a 45-lb. #4 coated groundwood grade, buys paper a year in advance from a broker and stores it at its printer. “There’s more incentive for us to buy paper ourselves,” Nuthals says. “If you buy paper from your printer, the cost gets added to the print bill. When paper prices fluctuate, your print bill fluctuates.”

Indeed, “the advantage of buying through a broker is the consistency of the paper grade,” Flax says. “You’ll always get the paper you expect to get rather than the ‘house paper’ that printers use.” But for small catalogers, buying paper through a printer can be an advantage, he says, “because you’re expected to pay a broker regardless of whether you use it all or not.” Flax Art & Design buys its 45-lb. and 70-lb. #4 paper from a broker.

This year, the mean page count for respondents’ primary catalog is 84 pages, up from last year’s mean of 66 pages. B-to-b respondents’ mean page count came in at 144 pages, compared to last year’s mean of 88 pages. Consumer catalogers’ page counts also increased, to a mean count of 69 pages from last year’s mean of 57 pages. Hybrid catalogers reported a mean page count of 74 pages, compared to 70 pages the year before.

Overall, participants dedicate a mean of 41% of their total printing budget to paper. But 22% of respondents say that paper accounts for more than half of their print costs.

NEW MEDIA Despite advancements in Internet technology and a wider acceptance of online buying, our survey indicates no growth in electronic marketing among catalogers. A little more than one-third (36%) of the total respondents report having an electronic catalog, compared to the 38% last year. But the number of participants that are considering creating electronic catalogs rose, from 34% last year to 48% this year. “Catalogers that went online a tad early may have expected immediate results. When they didn’t see those results, they may have pulled back on their electronic initiatives,” Flax says. “But it takes time to change customer shopping habits.”

Those survey participants that do have an electronic catalog, however, remain cautious about allocating dedicated personnel to this department. Fifty-two percent of respondents with an electronic catalog do not have any full-time employees assigned to their Website, while 38% have at least one.

Flax Art & Design, however, is dedicated to making its Website an integral part of its business. And in September, Flax hired its first full-time employee responsible solely for designing and maintaining the company’s Website. Part of that responsibility includes working closely with the multimedia firm Flax hired.

“The Website is a living organism unto itself. It’s like walking into a store and finding no employees,”

Flax says. “You need someone to help keep it fresh.”

But more than half (58%) of the survey participants report designing electronic catalogs internally, compared to 50% last year. Almost 17% report using a design consultant for electronic catalogs, while 15% use a creative agency.