Commentary & Analysis
Small Printers and the Big Boxes
By John Giles Office superstores see a ready-
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: March 24, 2005
By John Giles Office superstores see a ready-made market for their services and are gearing up to go after double-digit print/copy growth. March 23, 2005 -- The "big boxes" of Staples, OfficeMax and Office Depot are gearing up their print and copying service. Staples wants to "make copies easy" and is moving its copy operations to the front of the store. Office Depot is targeting the business with 20 or less employees and expanding its services. OfficeMax changed the name of its print-for-pay business to OfficeMax Print and Document and is expanding its online print buying capabilities. According to a recent 4-part report by Cary Sherburne on Whattheythink.com, the vice presidents in charge of the printing operations for all three companies came from the Kinko's organization. Why the big push? Even though the industry experts say sales growth in quick printing, copying and digital printing is flat, it still represents a $15 billion market. The WhatTheyThink.com report said the office superstores see a ready-made market for their services and are gearing up to go after double-digit print/copy growth. They already have small businesses coming to their locations for office supplies and hope to grow their printing and copy work by supplying the printing needs to their captive audience. With each of the office superstore companies having total sales in the billions, they have the capital--and traffic--to make it happen. Each of the companies plans to augment walk-in business with outside sales activities and web-based ordering. Yet as the office superstores try to carve out a larger piece of the print/copy market, small independent printers could be affected. The office superstores are investing in new equipment and technology and staffing to meet the needs of the small business print buyer--investments beyond the reach of some small printers. All are emphasizing staff training to provide a better buying experience for the customer. And the store is only part of the picture. Closed-door production facilities are being opened to support the in-store sales and production facilities and outside sales people are being added to reach bigger accounts. The traditional convenient quick printers all but disappeared--but not the need for fast, convenient printing. The big boxes' sales push comes as many quick printers abandoned the walk-in, convenience printing trade. In the mid-90s, many quick printers saw walk-in business as unprofitable and an interruption. They moved their storefronts away from the more expensive retail locations into less expensive industrial parks. They added outside sales people and moved to new services that didn't fit the while-you-wait model of the '70s and '80s. This made it more difficult for the small business to have access to short-run printing. "Quick printing" became a bad word among small printers. Companies and associations dropped "Quick Printing" out of their names. The traditional convenient quick printers all but disappeared--but not the need for fast, convenient printing. The office superstores have recognized this niche still exists and are going after it, as well as the small business accounts that are the bread and butter of small print shops. Size Does Matter The sheer size of the office superstores will have an impact on the small local printers. The office superstores will increase local visibility with advertising which will surely pull some customers away from their local printer. The big stores are already starting rewards programs that compensate customers for volume purchases. If they provide a positive buying experience customers, the local printer could be in trouble. And since many of the type of printing they will offer are essentially commodities, the office superstore could affect pricing in a market and make it hard for a local printer to compete in the print/copy market segment. Some small printers don't see the office superstores as a threat--yet. The small printer often perceives the office superstore customer as one who takes too much time at the counter for much too small order. The small printers will start to take notice when the office superstores' outside sales staff start calling on their larger customers. Much like the effect Wal-Mart has on communities, the office superstores will push the marginal print shops out of business. Print shops who have not upgraded equipment, trained staff or embraced technology will find it harder to compete as the office superstores set the standards for convenience printing in each market. The printers already running a good business should not have anything to fear. The office superstores aren't running any special equipment that isn't readily available to a small printer. Printers who invest in training for their employees to increase their printing and technical knowledge will keep buyers who look to them for their expertise. The small printer often perceives the office superstore customer as one who takes too much time at the counter for much too small order. While superstores have the deep pockets to invest in the latest print engine technology, there's another area where the office superstores are behind some quick and small commercial printers. Only OfficeMax currently has online Job Submission while Office Depot and Staples both have plans for the service. All have announced plans for more robust systems to support customer ordering. A number of quick printers have already adopted web-based printing services. Several of the franchises have web-based Job Submission systems such as Sir Speedy's Key Customer with electronic ordering. AlphaGraphics offers PDF Express creation program and Allegra Print & Imaging has its Allegra Direct suite of online ordering tools. Independent quick printers are also embracing virtual storefront technology. Many are using suppliers such as PrinterPresence.com and PagePath Technologies to offer web-ordering solutions. CPrint (Certified Printers International), an alliance of independent printers, has branded its own automatic PDF creation and submission tool named SeePrint Driver. Much like the effect Wal-Mart has on communities, the office superstores will push the marginal print shops out of business. Independent small printers won't be affected when the office superstores add distribute and print services and corporate discounts based on global buying power. This is where the office superstore will battle FedEx/Kinko's and franchised printers such as Allegra, Alphagraphics and Sir Speedy. But those are battles yet to come. The major result of the office superstores on the printing market will be an acceleration of the demise of marginal shops. If the local quick printers aren't looking for ways to make the customer's buying experience easier, aren't adding value to their service offerings, or aren't actively marketing and selling, they can expect to see their customers migrate to the big boxes. Local quick printers can maintain customer loyalty with better customer service, better use of technology and a deeper understanding of their customers' needs. The small quick printer has all the tools available to fend off the upcoming aggressive marketing push from the office superstores. All they have to do is use them.