6 tips for selecting a printer

Catalogers spend nearly 40% of their total marketing expenses on printing and postage, according to the 2005 Multichannel Merchant Benchmark Report on Critical Issues & Trends (December 2005 issue). Considering that there’s not a whole lot mailers can do about the cost of postage, selecting the right catalog printer is an important decision. But it’s not necessarily about finding the printer with the lowest price. Rather, savvy catalogers should be looking for a printing partner that can provide the best quality and services that add value to the relationship.

Production technologies such as computer-to-plate (CTP), digital photography, and remote proofing have enabled printers to become full-service prepress vendors and logistic experts. And most printers have added other functions including list hygiene, catalog delivery tracking, and paper management to their roster of services. Some of these services are value-added — the printers provide them to customers as part of their contract — while others are applications that catalogers can purchase on a pick-and-choose basis.

In short, catalog printers have developed their services around the needs of their clients, says Bruce Jensen, vice president of Montreal-based printer Transcontinental’s U.S. Sales Catalog and Magazine Group. Especially for larger catalogers with complex mail plans and multiple titles and versions, cultivating an effective relationship with a printer is crucial. Catalogers often rely on their printer not merely for producing the print books but also as a postal consultant, a paper consultant, and a database expert.

As a result, Jensen says, printing companies continually augment their technological expertise with strategic skills to aid clients in marketing and business development. “You can make changes technologically now that you couldn’t make five years ago,” he says.

Steve Sanfelippo, vice president of commercial catalog sales for Waterloo, WI-based printing company Perry Judd’s, contends that there isn’t a large difference in the services provided by many printers today. “But I believe that the effectiveness of the services provided can differ greatly depending on how well tailored the solutions are to that particular customer,” he says.

Catalogers and printing pros agree that a printer must provide great print quality at a competitive price; a strong mailing program that will meet expected in-home windows; comailing partnership opportunities; and forward-thinking and new technologies that will provide benefits to the partnership. If you’re not convinced that your current catalog printer meets those criteria, you may want to evaluate other printers. Here are six suggestions to keep in mind:


    For certain, pricing has to be competitive, says Janie Downey, president of Cumberland, ME-based production consultancy PublishExperts. “Look at three printers, because [their] pricing gives you a good clue,” she says. “Once you get through that hurdle, talk about a specific printing plan. Do they have the right type of equipment for your needs? They will tell you if your program fits with them.”

    When sourcing a printer, Downey says the first thing to look for is a good sales representative. “I’m a big believer in a lot of information,” she says. “I want to know if they’ve looked at my book and asked intelligent questions, if they’re someone who I feel knows the industry and is interested in me. They have to have your back.”

    Pricing among printers doesn’t vary significantly, Sanfelippo says, if the catalog is a good fit with the printers’ core competencies. But occasionally, he says, some printers choose a “short-term strategy of lowering price significantly to regain lost volume due to lost customers or reduced circulations or page counts in their base business.” What’s more, you may be able to negotiate better prices if you’re willing to modify factors such as schedules, trim size, and paper stocks, Sanfelippo adds.

    But determining pricing can be difficult, unless you get a detailed laundry list of services and charges, says Lisa R. Warburton, associate production manager for the catalog division for Langhorne, PA-based Lenox Collections, a manufacturer/marketer of tabletop items and collectibles. One printer might break out the charge for handling supplied paper, while another may include the paper-handling cost within some other charge. “Unless you do a deep dive in the pricing from each vendor,” Warburton says, “you’re not making an informed decision.”

    When Lenox negotiated its last contract, Warburton compared everything from paper consumption to postal penetration. “This gave us a better overall look at which vendor was the best fit for Lenox,” she says.

    “Always ask for an a la carte listing of the printer’s service fees,” agrees Deb Dyer, marketing director for Portland, ME-based upscale bedding cataloger Cuddledown. “Be sure you’re looking at the details for the best comparison. You might be surprised at the differences in pricing.”


    Many catalogers fail to actually visit the plants of printers they are considering signing with — and that’s a big mistake. “Over the years, I have had numerous prospective customers share with me that as they were touring our facilities that they quickly knew that we would be a good fit for their company culture and how they liked to conduct business,” Sanfelippo says. If you want to make an accurate judgment on the printer as a prospective partner for your business, “see their facility and meet the people who you will trust to do your work.”

    Downey agrees: “My best advice is to go to the plant, meet the people who are doing it. There are things that you can never pick up if you don’t go to the plant, like if the place is vibrant or if it’s messy. The more information you can get, the better.”


    Another reason to visit printers’ facilities is to ensure that they have the correct equipment to produce your catalog efficiently, based on your specifications and print run, says Monique Berger, director of print production for Santa Barbara, CA-based apparel cataloger The Territory Ahead. During your tour of the print and bindery facilities, take a good look around, she says: “Make sure equipment is well maintained and in good working order.”

    Berger also suggests finding out what percentage of each facility’s output is catalogs vs. magazines and other publications. The quality-control, binding, scheduling, and mailing needs of catalogs differ to some degree to those of magazines, so ideally you want your catalogs produced in a plant that specializes in catalogs. When working with the larger printers, she says, you should negotiate which of its plants you want printing your books. “All plants within one company are not created equal,” Berger says.


    “Check to make sure the plant has a history of reliable delivery,” Berger says. “Find out how much volume leaves on a daily basis. Check to make sure that this volume will still allow you to receive optimal postal discounts.”

    While you’re at it, check that the printer has sufficient bindery capabilities to handle your volume in a timely fashion. “The last thing you want is for your catalog to bottleneck in the bindery because there is not enough equipment,” Berger says. “Ask for a sample schedule so that you can see how many days it takes from start to finish.” This schedule should include when mailing lists are due, the bindery time needed and the in-home delivery dates, so that you can be certain it works with your company’s schedule.

    Another delivery capability to look for is comailing. Having your printer bind your catalog at the same time it binds one or more other clients’ catalogs and then mail all the books together can enable you to take advantage of deeper postage discounts based on the combined circulation. According to Jim Coogan, president of Sante Fe, NM-based consultancy Catalog Marketing Economics, it’s not unusual for comailing to cut your postage bill 10%-15%.


    “Different printers offer a different range of services, but they all offer more than just putting ink on paper,” notes Lenox’s Warburton. “The larger printers offer everything — design, photography, scanning, color correction, list management, laser imaging, printing, binding, ink-jetting, mailing, trucking, and bulk distribution.”

    Eric Blohm, director of Quad Direct Marketing for Sussex, WI-based printer Quad/Graphics, believes a printer should be involved in the “desktop to doorstep” approach. “What we really do is try to become a full-service provider: data services, in-home dates, directing better postal savings, prepress, creative, and binding,” he says. “Our contact with clients can be on a daily basis. Sales reps are probably in contact with clients a couple of times a week. Customer service is critical.”

    Jim Treis, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Menomonee Falls, WI-based printer Arandell Corp., describes his company as “a one-stop shop for our customers’ prepress, press, bindery, and logistics needs. Our customers also have access to our prepress division, Arandell Color Science, and our Falls Express Transit logistics division.” As for the customer service aspect, Arandell’s online proprietary e-communications tool, Customer-Connect.net, “allows the customer real-time access to track and know exactly where their job is throughout the entire print production process from quote to delivery,” Treis says.

    Warburton of Lenox especially appreciates the transparency of her dealings with her printers. “I’m currently able to access their Websites where I can build my own quotes and estimate my own paper, postage, and freight costs,” she says. “This enables me to be a more effective print buyer, since I can provide the catalog marketing team with tighter estimates in a short period of time, allowing them to be more responsive to our customers.”

    For similar reasons, Warburton finds the regular industry updates that her printers send her extremely useful. “All three of the large printers we use or have used keep us up to date via e-mail or newsletter with what’s happening in the paper market, the Postal Service, the transportation industry, etc. This timely information helps us better plan and budget for the upcoming year.”

    Perhaps the most important service is one that you might not think about until you need it, says Treis: the importance of flexibility and the printer’s ability and willingness to accommodate last-minute changes to press dates and also in-home dates.


    Checking references on a supplier as important as your next catalog printer should be a no-brainer. But in addition to looking at current samples and discussing the printer’s strong suits, you want to ask the references how the printer handles things when something goes wrong.

“As in any manufacturing industry, at some point in time something will go wrong,” Warburton says. “Perhaps your copy reflowed and got cut off, or your paper came in damaged. Maybe the truck that was carrying your mail caught on fire. Responsiveness is the key. How was the problem handled? Were you notified in time to make a change? Did your printer offer you options and notify you of the added costs to implement those solutions?”

When shopping for a printer, it’s difficult not to become preoccupied with pricing, especially with paper prices going up and the recent — and impending — postal rate hikes. But cost shouldn’t be the bottom line when shopping for a printer, insists Arandell’s Treis.

“It comes down to more than just price when choosing a printer,” Treis says. “All of the little things that occur from the beginning of the process to the end mean more to a satisfied customer than just a few dollars saved on printing when it could drive sales upward on the other end.”

Capability and convenience are extremely important factors for catalogers seeking a printer, says Quad’s Blohm. “For a lot of clients, that’s their first stop,” he says. “Number two is price and what can a printer do to reduce my overall costs.”

Catalogers have more diverse printing and finishing needs now than ever, he adds: “The more a printer offers in front-end services, the better. That’s becoming the differentiator out there today.”

What catalogers want

Last month Montreal-based Transcontinental, Canada’s largest printer and the seventh largest printer in North America, released results from a survey in which 158 U.S. catalogers were asked about the services they want from their printer.

Nearly 70% of the catalogers surveyed said that the most important factor in sourcing a printer is flexible printing capabilities. “Flexibility is looked for not only in the printing process, such as being able to print in multiple formats, but also for the ability to make last-minute changes,” says Bruce Jensen, vice president of Transcontinental’s U.S. Sales Catalog and Magazine Group. Other top survey responses included high printing quality and a swift turnaround time.

Catalogers also rated variable data printing capacities for personalization strategies, selective binding capabilities to personalize catalog content, and comailing solutions as integral factors they seek from their printers, Jensen says. “Catalogers look for a printer with extensive premedia services to try and keep costs down, services such as page workup, a digital workshop, asset management, and job assistance,” he adds.


Not a comprehensive guide, but a selection of catalog printers and some of the services they offer

262-255-4400; 800-558-8724
Services include web offset catalog printing; prepress management; list management; paper sourcing; short-term paper storage; catalog consulting.

920-751-7777 www.banta.com
Services include web offset printing; paper management and storage; soft proofing; ink-jetting.

Services include web offset printing; paper buying and storage.

Services include web offset printing; paper buying and storage; product tracking; inline finishing.

Services include web offset printing; full electronic prepress; list services; logistics and distribution; paper sales and storage.

414-566-6000 www.qg.com
Services include web offset and gravure printing, with 96″ and 108″ gravure press widths that can accommodate catalog sizes from tabloid to digest; paper buying and storage; photography; scanning; photo retouching; color correction; ink-jetting; list management; direct mailing, laser imaging; distribution.

514-877-5317; 800-567-7070
Services include web offset printing; paper buying and storage; prepress; distribution.

Services include web offset and gravure printing; online content proofing; soft proofing; imagery; creative; prepress; translation services.

Services include web offset printing; digital photography; digital asset management; remote proofing.

Services include web offset printing