Online print: It’s all about the process


It’s time to talk about online print again – even at the risk of boring those who have long since recognized the signs of the times.

However, in our industry it seems that some people have yet to fully grasp the business model and the idea of e-business print. Especially when speaking with representatives of the supply industry, I always have doubts whether they have recognized the necessity or even want to understand the meaning of online print.

Now you could say: Never mind, that’s their problem. But one could just as well be frightened and flinch and realize: They didn’t hear the shot. This is a serious problem – and we are carrying it into the market. After 20 years of success with Online print and with Online print accounting for approximately one third of the print product turnover in German-speaking countries, the issue cannot be ignored or minimized. It is essential for all types of print.

Not just for fun

Ultimately, Online print was not created just for fun. Nobody was looking for this solution. Online print became possible after the processing power of computers was sufficient enough to produce collective forms in a reasonable time, after computer-to-plate became faster and the printing presses more automated, after networks became fast enough to transfer large amounts of data, and after the Internet became so widespread that it reached practically every customer.

Online printing became necessary when, at the turn of the millennium, the connection of ERP systems and the Internet had long since become the norm for hotels, trains and airlines – selling tickets and beds via Internet booking systems. Department stores no longer sold only “face-to-face”, but in parallel via the Internet, and car manufacturers likewise saw their opportunities in what is now understood as e-commerce or e-business. Used and new cars can be bought on the Internet, as well as music, books and anything else that can be bought anywhere. Everything.

If the printing industry hadn’t also started selling via the Internet, they would have been left behind. But it wasn’t the entire industry. It was a handful of people who now have a head start. Take Cimpress, flyeralarm or Onlineprinters, for example. These clever and forward-looking companies have come up with solutions that have not revolutionized printing per se, but the way people handle print products or order printed products.

The major players have found their place in the commodity print sector (the market for utility print products) and it will be difficult to position oneself as a newcomer here. The market that well-known online printing companies have conquered, with a great deal of technical and marketing investment, cannot be developed so quickly by any medium-sized printer. Nobody expects that either.

Omnipresent platform for business

But that’s not the point. The market conditions that have affected the entire industry are forcing us to break up old structures: Circulation is declining, the number of individual orders is increasing and the time frame between order and delivery is becoming shorter and shorter. So how else could this be countered, other than through online printing?

Don’t get us wrong: Of course, not everything has to be sold online. But the production method must be adapted to that of online printers. After all, Online print conveys the idea of Industry 4.0 and thus also of Print 4.0, which is why there will only be a few exceptions among printers who will manage without process-optimized production, without a web shop and without the Internet.

The Internet is the largest global infrastructure that mankind has ever created. Not everything is good – but ultimately the “web” is the omnipresent platform for communication and business. In this context, the days when printing companies knew exactly where their competitors were and what they could do are finally over. Printing companies that were more than 50 km away were regarded as colleagues but not as direct competitors for a print job. That has changed dramatically. Since 2000, printing is not a regional, let alone a local matter, but an international matter, where the competitor is just a mouse click away.

“The Internet is the largest global infrastructure mankind has ever created – and the “web” is ultimately the omnipresent platform for communication and business.” – Bernd Zipper.

The German-speaking region alone, i.e. Germany, Austria and Switzerland (D/A/CH), has a print volume of around € 24 billion, so large that hundreds of online printing companies serve this market. In 2019, print sales via the Internet in the D/A/CH region amounted to around €8.10 billion. Open Shops alone, i.e. online printing companies that offer their services to everyone, generate € 3.40 billion.

Additionally, some € 4.70 billion are generated in the B2B (business-to-business) sector by printing companies that offer their customers services in closed shops specially tailored to their needs. These printing companies use the potential of the Internet to provide their regular customers with their own platform for ordering print products around the clock and to simplify the ordering process for customers. The portals usually offer the possibility of updating predefined print products with modified content. These shops offer existing customers an additional service. It is certainly possible to involve the customers’ customers in the ordering process.

In any case, it is a matter of standardized or standardizable print products (about 85% of all print products are suitable for online printing). At the same time, the market continues to move towards the Internet.

Perfectly oiled machinery

There are printed products offered at prices that nobody would have thought of before. This is due to the trend towards industrial printing, especially the integrated online print business model. Offering good value for money and producing economically at the same time only works if all processes of a printing company are networked, coordinated and optimized. It’s all about perfectly oiled machinery and a combination of optimized purchasing of materials, IT-controlled processes from prepress to finishing, services, dispatch and logistics.

Successful online printers are e-commerce companies that also print. This definition clearly shows the distinction from conventional online business. This is because online printers do not just trade in goods but produce them individually and according to customer requirements (a form of mass customization in a sense). Printing is the prerequisite for this. However, it is no longer just about the quality of the prints, but about the quality of e-commerce. The effort to be and remain attractive for customers is not insignificant.

Seen in this light, it is no longer just about printing, but about the logistics process. Printing is only one of about a dozen steps in the chain from Internet presence to customer service and invoicing to on-time delivery. Incidentally, the price of the printed materials plays only a minor role. Other factors such as material selection, product variety, delivery times, finishing or services such as climate-neutral printing are far more important for customers.

Completely online in ten years

Print shops have to orient themselves much more towards the market and their customers. This calls for new skills and working methods, print shops must invest in information technology and corresponding know-how, and establish a corporate culture that is characterized by a strong team spirit.

But companies don’t have much time left for their digital transformation. What you need to understand: Digitization, digital transformation and online go hand in hand – nothing works without the other. In an estimated ten years’ time, print jobs will only be handled via the online channel. It may take a little longer in one local market or another, but all those who fail the transformation will disappear from the market.

My Take: Nothing can stop the upheavals in the printing industry. And certainly not ignorance. But what you can say goodbye to is the belief that a printing company still has a chance of survival in the future without its own online platform. Whether a B2C portal, a B2B shop, a marketplace or an open end-customer shop – strategy and perseverance are decisive. What counts are concepts that complement the existing range of services and products offered by the printing company and supplement them with suitable online offerings. For companies that simply open an online shop and then – well removed from any e-commerce capability – hope for walk-in customers from the Internet, things are getting tough.

Which reminds me: those who want to delve more deeply into the subject matter will have the perfect opportunity to do so at the 8th Online Print Symposium on March 3 and 4, 2020 in Munich.

Online print: It's all about the process
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Online print: It's all about the process
It's time to talk about online printing again - even at the risk of boring those who have long since recognized the signs of the times.
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Founder and CEO of zipcon consulting GmbH, one of the leading consulting companies for the print and media industry in Central Europe. The technology and strategy consultant and his team actively support practical implementation in a wide variety of customer projects. His work involves developing visions, concepts and strategies for the players active in the print production process across a wide range of industries. His areas of expertise include online print, mass customization, strategy and technological assessment for print, and the development of new strategies in the print and media environment. Bernd Zipper is the creator and chairman of Initiative Online Print e.V. and, in addition to his consulting activities, is an author, lecturer and sought-after speaker, orator and moderator. His visionary lectures are regarded worldwide as trend-setting management recommendations for the print and media industry. (Profiles also in Xing, LinkedIn).

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