At last fall’s SGIA, Durst Imaging’s Retail 2020 conference included a presentation from three production managers from ANN Inc., talking about what they look for in a print service provider. One takeaway, said several audience members afterward, was that working with a high-end retailer like ANN would be very demanding. 

That basic theme was expanded upon last month at a Retail 2020 reprise event sponsored by Durst alongside the ISA Sign Expo in Orlando, Fla.

“Seriously, you want to go down this path?” said guest speaker Martine Padilla at the outset of the session. “[Retailers] are demanding because buyers are forced to be.” She made no bones about it: “Big buyers will be disruptive.” Padilla is a 30-year printing industry veteran and has worked on both sides of the relationship—the printing side and, at Sprint, on the retail print buying side. “I am what I consider to be an ‘elite print buyer,’” she said.

Padilla’s session, titled “Retail Realities: How smaller printers compete in today's marketplace,” was a no-holds-barred reality check for companies who think they may want to partner with major retailers.

The recurring theme throughout the presentation was that the number one issue for retailers is speed to market. It’s no secret to anyone even remotely connected with retail that timelines have been drastically compressed. Printed materials need to go from design to print to installation—often in thousands of locations—with a speed that threatens to rend the fabric of the space-time continuum. Deadlines that used to be on the order to two weeks have been shaved down to two days. For a lot of this, we can blame social media.

“Because of social media, we’ve thrown out the marketing calendars that most big companies used to have,” said Padilla. Remember marketing calendars? Once upon a time, a company knew what its marketing plan was going to—generally—in advance for all four quarters of the year. Those days are decidedly gone.

“Everyone puts together what their marketing calendar might look like,” she said. “Back-to-school and Christmas usually happen—I think those are the only two predictable marketing goals!”

Now, marketing is reacting to tweets, to what competitors are doing, to what customers are saying. “You think you have a plan for the first quarter. You get art files ready to go on a Thursday, then all of a sudden your competitor comes out with a new TV ad.” It’s akin to the old “stop the presses!” scenario. “You end up throwing away the $250,000 you just spent.”

This may not sound like it’s the printer’s problem, but if you want to partner with a retailer, the customer’s problem becomes your problem. However, misery does not love company in this relationship: any problem you have can’t be the customer’s. “You can do [the job] right every single time,  and you aren’t ever going to get thanked enough for doing a wonderful job,” said Padilla. But when something goes wrong—as it inevitably does—“it’s always about how you handle a crisis.”

It’s also about always being empowered to say “yes.” Retailers really want to work with as few printers and other providers as possible, and despite the adversarial sense it’s easy to get, the fact remains that if you can provide work that is high-quality, on-time, and consistently and fairly priced, it is actually a highly treasured relationship. “I feel like they’re an extension of my team,” said Padilla.

Say “no, we can’t do that,” though—like make a specific deadline or get a particular substrate—and all bets are off. “Saying ‘no’ once will damage your relationship,” she said.

There are different layers of retail, of course, from big, national chains like ANN Inc. to more regional brands, all the way down to local mom-and-pops. The demands may be fewer as you move down the food chain, but the pressures can often be the same.

One challenge, for both printers and print buyers, is pricing. “When digital first came on the scene, nobody knew how to price it,” she said. “All these years later, that’s still the case. I find a lot of printers do not know the real cost of producing what they deliver. I would recommend you really know your business. Find a good financial person. You have to know what your cost is so you know what your price is.” Retail print buyers don’t expect the get the lowest possible price—they don’t actually mind paying a premium for good, fast work—but they do balk when pricing is wildly inconsistent.

Sustainability is also a vital concern. “The assumption is that you will be following best practices,” said Padilla. “I’m going to sign a statement of work with you and I have to know your practices aren’t going to be an embarrassment to my organization.” It’s also important that everyone in the organization be behind sustainability initiatives.

Padilla presented the results of some LinkedIn surveys she had conducted with retail print buyers, and the top two most important issues for these print buyers were:

  • Speed to market
  • Minimizing shipping costs

These are related because it’s not uncommon to end up paying more for shipping—often orders of magnitude more—than for printing. “I can spend $1,300 to print a sign and $32,000 to ship it,” Padilla said. This is because fast time-to-market often means next-day-air or some other expedited service.

Getting materials to all of a brand’s retail locations, which may be located in different places around the country, can be a logistical nightmare—with shipping fees to match. Identifying that everything hinges on speed-to-market, Padilla proposed a solution she called “smart speed.”

“If I were to create a solution, maybe what would work to satisfy buyers is building a national cooperative team of regionally positioned printers,” she said. “You fingerprint where all the brand’s locations are, and figure out how to get materials  there the next day using only ground.” That is, no expedited or next-day shipping. “Four or five locations can work together.”

This can also help with speed-to-market in that each individual facility, instead of printing all 10,000 window banners for all of a brand’s locations, is printing only one-fourth or one-fifth of that. It also helps manage costs, since if you’re buying consumables like substrates in bulk, you have more leverage vis-à-vis pricing, helping reduce costs across the network.

One potential downside to the approach of creating a network of essentially independent print providers is, who’s the boss? What happens when everyone wants to be in control? “Work on a core team,” advised Padilla. “It’s a trust thing. You have to recognize that not everybody is going to be the owner.”

There have been few attempts to create this kind of network, at least among independent print service providers, and as such is a very big void. Filling this void can help solve the speed-to-market issue which, Padilla said, will only become more acute.

“It will take somebody to take the bull by the horns,” she said. “And it will take an entrepreneur spirit. Identify companies that have similar capabilities, but also have unique capabilities.”

It is in creating such a “regional print solution” where print service providers today can offer the most value in working with all brands big and small—and on a scale that may not be as disruptive for independent facilities as serving a brand all by oneself. The opportunities are certainly there.