Where have all the printers gone?

June 1, 2006

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

The single fact most often cited by economists regarding printing might be that the total number of printing plants peaked in 1993. As far as I can tell, this statistic is based on Printing Industries of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (PIA/GATF) data reporting 54,462 shops in 1993, which decreased to 39,387 in 2005. That’s an overall decline of 28 percent. Taken at face value, that is a shocking statistic—proof, say the Chicken Littles, that printing is in its death throes.

If you need your own analysis, there are many economists lurking on the periphery of print, and all of them are for hire. I’m not one of them. I interpret this oft-quoted “fact” differently.

Remember ‘You want it when?’

In the 1970s, a new type of print shop appeared on the American scene. Dubbed “quick print,” it was popularized by franchise operations.

Instead of opening dry cleaners or doughnut shops, people instead began buying quick-print franchises, and soon it seemed there was a small print shop on every street corner. The commercial printing establishment first tried to ignore these shops. “That’s not printing,” they said. To them, the “quick printing” moniker was pejorative. Perhaps they felt slow printing was more prestigious.

The new quick print shop owners quickly (no pun intended) discovered they needed business guidance above and beyond the support offered by their parent franchisors. Naturally, they first turned to traditional print associations for help. Finding themselves disdained and rebuffed, they took the next step and founded their own trade group, the National Assn. of Quick Printers.

This organization, now known as PrintImage Intl., remains the association of choice for quick printers. These small shops largely ignore the major associations, even though the “quick print” stigma is mostly gone.

The fact is, differentiating between a “quick” and a “commercial” printer is difficult, nowadays. The franchise gurus have moved on to sandwich and coffee shops, and many original quick printers have dumped their franchise agreements. They’ve been around for decades and are mature businesses. So mature, in fact, that one quick-print shop owner told me digital printing plants like mine were hurting “real” printers like him. Ah, success.

The appearance of the quick print shop radically changed the face of the printing industry. It changed customer expectations about buying printing. It changed the focus of some technology developers and providers. And it radically changed the statistics used to measure the behavior of the industry as a whole.

Looking backward, trade association historians readily admit it was a mistake to dismiss the fledgling quick print movement. The late Ray Roper confided to me that his interest in forming the Digital Printing Council was driven partly by a determination not to be blindsided by another demographic shift.

Where is the business going?

Quick printers were seen as different because their parents weren’t printers. They were located in strip malls, and their shops were clean. Yet they bought their paper, ink and presses from the same suppliers as their commercial print brethren. They were insured, regulated and taxed as printers. Not so with many of today’s new print establishments. Many of today’s new printers don’t even know they are printers!

When Family Litho and Joe’s Fast Copies close their doors, the U.S. Commerce Department and our trade associations dutifully inform us that two more small printing companies have ceased operations. These two shops are added to the sad statistic that began this article. But what happened to their printing?

Some volume will go to Fred’s Printing and to Fastcopy Press, who will report a slight sales increase next quarter. Other work will go to Office Depot or Staples. Some will go to China. Some will land with the blueprint maker who just bought an Indigo.

What do Office Max, the Chinese and that repro printer have in common? None of them buy from traditional ink, paper and iron vendors. None of them pick up any employees or equipment from old shops that close their doors. None report any of their sales as “print” to the commerce department. And none have ever given a thought to joining a printing trade association.

We don’t know they exist. They don’t care that we exist. I’d like to reach out to them, but they certainly aren’t readers of this column. Too bad, for there is strength in numbers and value in shared knowledge.

If we are to continue to grow and prosper, we must find a way to include these bold new printers in our associations, clubs, foundations and societies. These guys aren’t rendering our industry obsolete; they are its future!

We have much to learn from each other. And in these interesting times, there is much to be learned.