If today’s online storefronts and web-to-print workflows don’t look anything like they used to, there’s a reason. The software has advanced leaps and bounds from where it was even a few years ago. Amazing Print Tech has long been a leader in this area, so I appreciated the opportunity to interview Slava Apel, founder and CEO of Amazing Print Tech, about how the technology is changing...and how it is changing those who use it.

Here are some of his thoughts:

Heidi Tolliver-Walker: If you had to describe the changes in online storefronts and web-to-print, what would you say?

Slava Apel: I see web-to-print advancing in waves. The first wave was the Vistaprint wave. When someone would say “W2P,” they meant Vistaprint. (It’s worth pointing out that we offered design online three to four years before they did!) Over time, that evolved into the second wave, which I see as gated storefronts, primarily for corporate clients. Today, the third wave is a mix of everything. Old estimation systems have become outwardly visible to the customer. Customers are getting real-time quotes on even complex print jobs. Companies can download detailed reports to use in their planning.

HTN: I imagine that, while this is creating a more friendly environment for customers, it’s forcing more transparency, too.

SA: Yes, especially as it relates to pricing. Custom pricing, for example, used to be proprietary to every printer. You couldn't get that information unless you emailed or called for a quote. Today, customers want to be able to receive online estimates on demand. Unless those requests come through a gated storefront, they require printers to expose their pricing and product lists. “Email for a quote” is disappearing, and you can easily compare Vendor A to Vendor B.

HTW: How has this impacted printers’ relationships with their customers? Does it make them more fragile?

SA: Not necessarily. It forces printers to compete on more than price. They have to compete based on the relationships they build. Services and relationships are separating one printer from another.

HTW: So the old ways of interacting with customers are gone?

SA: Largely, yes. Customers don't want to call you. They don’t want to email you. They want the Amazon experience for print. When customers are shopping on Amazon, they aren’t calling to ask for prices. They are clicking and self-defining what their product will look like, then they get the price immediately. They want the same from their print vendors.

HTW: How about for the more complex products?

SA: Even for those. Right now, most systems allow customers to go into the virtual “stores” of their favorite print shops and get a basic product (like a business card) designed and priced. But what about a 48-page, soft cover brochure on 60-lb. stock with aqueous coating? Not a lot of printers have great estimation software, so all their websites say, “Ask for a quote.” But customers don’t want to call you. They want it now. Software (like ours) that offers true online estimation is becoming increasingly important.

HTW: What’s next? Is there a fourth wave?

SA: Of course. In the next wave, W2P will become fully open and integrated. Printers will be able to have multiple W2P systems talking to multiple MIS systems talking to multiple shopping cart systems. They will be able to use the best software for each application, even if it’s from multiple vendors. Right now, many systems are still proprietary. Even elements such as email and imposition only work within the software vendor’s ecosystem. But that will become a thing of the past.

HTW: How can printers without web-to-print systems compete?

SA: I’m really not sure. Anyone without one of these solutions is really behind the curve. They need to take a hard look at their profitability. W2P is driving so many business models that it’s hard to imagine how you can be competitive without one.