DIGITAL LEADERS: Going digital lets S&S Worldwide reuse images in multiple titles

As an educational supplies, recreational products and therapeutical items marketer, Colchester, CT-based S&S Worldwide casts a wide net. The multititle cataloger – 12 titles in all – needed to produce and print more than 8 million catalogs a year faster and cheaper; the company also needed a more efficient method of reusing product images for different titles. Digital production helped S&S achieve both goals.

Since going digital in July 1998, S&S Worldwide has “shaved 75% of our imaging costs,” says Mike Fosso, the catalog’s creative director. “There’s no such thing as prepress as we knew it.”

The company produces 38 catalog editions a yaer. Its education catalogs include S&S Brite Start and S&S Education; the recreation division includes the S&S Discount Sports and S&S Recreation titles; and the physical therapy unit mails the S&S adaptAbility, S&S Healthcare, and S&S Primelife catalogs. S&S sells about 15,000 products, including its proprietary line of washable paints, do-it-yourself arts and crafts kits, and playground equipment. Digital production technology helps S&S create and manage the images for all these products. Better still, it used to take the cataloger up to five days to photograph, process, and scan the product images for a catalog; it now takes about two hours.

The old process: Photographers set up the product shots, and took up to eight Polaroids as a lighting test. They then took numerous product shots and sent the film sent out to be developed, and upon its return, selected the best shots. After the shots were sent to a third party, which scanned them in and generated a color proof. The whole ordeal, Fosso says, even with overnight delivery, took five days – without accounting for glitches.

The new process: Digital photogaphy has radically simplified the process. The company’s digital cameras comes with a computer chip called a “CCD-charge coupling” device, which reads the amount of light in the shot. Similar to a fax machine, the amount of light is converted into a number, and that number creates an onscreen image of the product shot. Staff photographer Todd Cutler then goes into the system and adjusts the amount of color and light until he achieves the desired effect. When Cutler is satisfied, he takes the shot, downloads it to a server in creative, and routes it to the appropriate folder. Total time elapsed: two hours.

Although S&S won’t divulge the exact dollar amount it spent on digital production technology, the Leaf Contare Scitex digital camera and software cost about $80,000. The cataloger chose this camera because of its superior color resolution and ability to take multiple shots in succession, Cutler says. The camera is supported by two software applications: Leaf Color Shop, which captures the shot and exports out a digital negative to Adobe PhotoShop software, the program designers use for the customizing operations.

In addition to doing away with film processing and scanning, the digital camera’s accuracy eliminates the need to constantly color correct S&S merchandise. “The digital camera is always going to be more accurate,” Fosso says. “It gives a more accurate color representation of the product.”

Digital photography still has some limitations, however. One minor glitch S&S has experienced with the technology is color fallout, or difficulty in reproducing Neon colors. Also, S&S’s digital camera is not portable. Since S&S Worldwide also does some of its photography on location, the company still needs to maintain the capability for traditional photography. But the bulk of the catalog’s product shots are now shot digitally. Process control, improvement in quality, cost savings, and the ability to spend more time fine-tuning catalog pages are major benefits to this new technology, Fosso says.

If the digital camera saves time on the front-end, then Portable Document Files (PDF) saves time on the back-end. PDF, an Adobe file format that embeds all of the necessary elements of a page while allowing the file to be opened and edited in Adobe Acrobat, has saved S&S Worldwide an estimated 200 hours in the past year, depending on its schedule and the catalog its producing. For instance, when producing catalog pages for the 500-page S&S Recreation catalog, PDF workflows eliminate the potential for errors, such as text flow or shifting fonts – problems that could occur when sending Quark files, says imaging coordinator Jordyn Wnek.

The PDF files are then sent electronically to S&S Worldwide’s printer Quad Graphics’ plant in Saratoga Springs, NY, via WamNet, a digital transmission service. From there, the file goes to Quad’s platemaking system, CREO.

A key advantage

For S&S’s 10-person production staff, the real advantage of digital technology is the ability to quickly repurpose product images – along with the appropriate copy – for different catalog titles targeting different audiences. For instance, S&S sells a yellow playground ball in several of its recreational catalogs, such as S&S Discount Sports, which targets school age children. The company sells the same yellow ball as a therapeutic tool for seniors in its Primelife catalog title. Being digital allows the cataloger the flexibility and speed to tailor its message accordingly in a matter of keystrokes.

S&S does not yet have a digital content management system, which allows the storage and retrieval of images and text. For now, the company stores its images on its server and also backs them up on CDs. But the cataloger plans to buy a digital content management system next year, which will help it better store digital images that can be reused for the catalog or its Website.

When asked his advice for other catalogers considering investing in digital production technology, Fosso says first off, you need good preplanning to buy and implement the system. But more importantly, you need talented, experienced staff. “You can write checks for hardware and software all day,” he says, “But if you don’t have good people, it’s not going to matter much.”

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