There are no magic print markets

July 1, 2009

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

Several years ago, long time printing industry sales guru Ron Kendig ( shared his observation about a hitherto overlooked trend, which he dubbed “virtual packaging.”

Apparently Ron ordered some sort of product online. The e-commerce website showed a graphic of the product in its package, looking all marketable and spiffy.

When the actual product arrived in the mail, it was packaged in a plain chipboard box. Of course we all had a good laugh at Ron's expense, wondering what he might have ordered online that warranted a “plain brown wrapper.” After all, the ubiquitous plain wrapper once was synonymous with something naughty, something that you would not want the postal carrier or your neighbors to know you were ordering.

In fact, Ron's identification of a trend toward “virtual packaging” is serious business.

Is packaging king?

During the Internet bubble of the nineties, the “death-of-print” doomsayers were in hog heaven. Finally, they declared, their predictions of a paperless society would be fulfilled. Stationery and correspondence would disappear, replaced by e­mail. Transactional and financial printing would be a thing of the past, with all financial information posted on secure websites. E-commerce would end catalogs, and E-books would supplant printed books.

Some of these predictions were reasonably accurate, in a simplistic way. Others haven't come close to coming true. What has come true is that print no longer has the monopoly that it once held in many product areas.

“Ah, but there is still one niche where the Internet cannot supplant print,” the pundits say. “That is packaging.” This is usually followed by the suggestion that packaging is a niche market every printer should enter because it will remain impervious to the doldrums that seem to be plaguing many areas of print.

These admonitions usually are not followed up with supporting facts, nor any details about how general commercial printers should approach the packaging niche.

The grass isn't greener

Packaging is a good example of a solid niche already filled with printers who are experts at their craft, having invested many millions of dollars in the specialized equipment needed to service their demanding clients. Have I said this before? (See “The green, green pastures of home,” AMERICAN PRINTER, August 2005.)

Guess what? Packaging printers are feeling the current downturn just like everyone else.

I'm certainly not saying you shouldn't enter the packaging market. I'm not saying you won't be successful at it. What I am asking is that if you aren't doing well in the markets you already have the expertise to serve, what makes you think that you are going to perform better in a new (and very capital intensive) market?

Note that “capital intensive” means buying stuff; the very same stuff that is sold by the equipment manufacturers that some of those aforementioned pundits work for.

Another note: Some of the printers who are listening to the pundits and buying that stuff are located in China. They're betting that the best place to print packaging is near the items to be packaged.

Print no longer has a monopoly. Its value must be proven. (See “Don't dilute the value of print,” American Printer, April 2005.)

Every market is subject to change

We can moan all we want about price pressure and competition from the printer down the street, the printer in Asia and new media, but it is within our power to establish the value of our print.

Magic bullets are few and far between. Ron's story of “virtual packaging” demonstrates that the use of virtual storefronts on the Internet can cut the packaging printer right out of the deal.

The packaging designer still made a buck, for the design was pictured on the website. The mill that provided the paperboard and the converter that diecut and glued the carton still made their share.

But the package printer was out in the cold. So was the point­of­purchase printer, as there was no retail display. Even my company missed out, because we would have printed the shelf planograms that detail how the merchandise is to be displayed on the store shelves.

Don't fret! I'm not saying packaging, point of purchase or even planograms are going away, nor have I seen any evidence that virtual packaging is anything more than an anecdote.

I'm just reminding all of us that no market is exempt from change. Change can be good or bad. It is almost always uncomfortable. It is also what we make of it.