Quality: online print providers’ GTCs under the microscope


People are quick to promise quality, but sometimes don’t deliver. But legally speaking, how does the D/A/CH-based online print industry measure up in terms of tolerances and warranties?

Here at beyond-print we recently reviewed the legal rulings issued in 2017, which will continue to occupy the minds of those involved in the online print business in 2018. If you consider the full transaction when looking at online print orders, one issue frequently comes up short – namely quality. The rule of thumb in eCommerce is: simple ordering process – important; fast delivery – usually even more important. But printing also means manufacturing and not just shipping finished goods. It is therefore particularly interesting to see how online print providers in German-speaking countries are positioned in this respect, but not in terms of quality promises on online banners or elsewhere. I am talking about reliable details here – and I (and the customer) can find these in providers’ GTCs, for example.

So on an entirely print and workmanship quality note, what do customers complain about and how are D/A/CH-based online print providers positioned in terms of their GTCs when warranty claims are made against them? Before I proceed – I am not concerned about examining the legal technicalities in the GTCs (I leave that to our seasoned legal advisor Martin Schirmbacher); instead my primary interest focuses on what quality tolerances the following 10 print providers ”impose” on themselves. To avoid the reader having to plough laboriously through abstruse text, I have taken a closer look at a couple of quality issues.

Source: © Photo by zipcon consulting / zipcon.de

First of all, what does Zipper mean by “standard clause”? “Standard clause” refers to a clause that sounds similar no matter which of the a.m. providers’ GTCs you read. They then refer to “sectorally standard” or “commercially standard variances”. But what on earth is that?

In the print industry, sectorally standard variance simply means that there are manufacturing-related tolerances. But printing is to some extent more complex than other production methods in other industries – and a standard variance for manufacturing industry is not stipulated in the statute books. B2B and B2C customers therefore have to rely on the diligence of the print provider. Legally speaking, case-specific rulings are made if no quantifiable tolerances exist. It is therefore all the more interesting to note which of the online print providers examined genuinely commits to quality statements. Those that provide “comprehensive” information in addition to the “standard clause” more or less detail cut, fold and tonal or color parameters. These print providers create greater certainty in the minds of their customers and give themselves less leeway – but ultimately they are being professional.

If we restrict ourselves to offset products, then Laserline is the only provider that is specific about color parameters. Its production is PSO/PSD-compliant, yet it retains the standard clause with the “usual framework”. That’s still good. Bottom of the class in terms of warranty and quality details, at least in its GTCs, is Vistaprint. These state that “We rule out providing any warranties to the extent permitted by the legal framework.” Just covering their own backs? Probably. Yet as far as I know, there is no legal framework for print production…

Although WmD provides its business customers with the relevant statements about production tolerances, these however do not seem to apply to consumers. If you add Vistaprint’s poor “GTC performance”, then the Cimpress brands don’t look good in terms of quality and warranty transparency.

A fairly uniform picture emerges as far as acceptable over- and under-deliveries are concerned. I can well imagine that some will move towards 5 % in the next two years, especially as the statement is a general one and therefore not related to the printing method used. And given that digitally printed products, as we all know, require few if any leader sheets, that is definitely a realistic figure.

“Extensive clarification about what quality customers can expect would do the online print industry the world of good. The opportunities open to print providers are greater than what is currently practiced by some market players.” – Bernd Zipper

But what do 5 or 10 % mean for customers? For customers that may mean a non-compensable under-delivery. As a reseller you should also think about net quantities, because nobody expects their own customers or recipients to put up with miscut products or those made from start-up sheets – which according to GTCs count as less-than-ordered quantities. But I must add that not only the online print providers mentioned here interpret delivery quantities generously in their favor – some others have similar clauses in their GTCs. It’s understandable, because oversheets cost money. But if no PSO-conform print results –at least for products that are really offset-printed – are guaranteed, the color differences occurring between start-up and overlay sheets can render some CI print products unusable. For the sake of fairness, you need to check out the relevant paragraph in the GTCs of your neighborhood offline print provider. That’s because online print providers aren’t the only ones that have rather “unconventional” rules governing over- or under-deliveries!

Customers need to be familiar with the terms on which they purchase print products. Quality plays a key role here alongside price –and quality is defined in the GTCs (Source:© Photo by Kaspars Grinvalds / 123rf.com)

Despite the quality-related limitations that are stated in the GTCs, you shouldn’t forget when considering provider ratings that some customers just don’t bother with guidelines and scope of performance details. For I have read several ratings by dissatisfied customers, who have complained about textual errors in delivered print products. The GTCs of all stores examined state that the client is themselves responsible for the textual accuracy of their data – and no, that is not specific to online print providers!

Furthermore what some consumers “offload” in the way of comments on rating platforms is unjustified criticism. These ratings often tend to reflect consumers’ ignorance in relation to color display and graphic coherencies rather than the quality of the print products, as in the following examples:

“The screen content unfortunately does not show the real result.”

“The actual color printed was darker than the preview on the PC and the silk effect was really disappointing!”

It’s all the more important to note that most printers now provide print non-professionals with easy-to-understand guideline catalogs, in addition to product configuration aids, which include general details about print quality parameters. Here it’s not just the major players that are setting a good example.

To finish off with, I want to mention two ratings that particularly caught my eye:

“Pricing is good. But you should not expect too much in terms of print quality. Color fluctuations can occur.”

“[…] Simple things like flyers, leaflets or rollups, yes – but you are better off having premium print products produced by a proper printing company.”

Putting customers’ understanding of technical processes to one side, some online print providers therefore need to focus on communicating their quality in an appropriate way. Outside of the GTCs that should not be taken to mean that online print = no quality standards. That would be unnecessary and unwarranted. And to ensure that this – as shown in the above-mentioned comments – does not become a commonly held view, some online print providers should start giving thought to quality. That’s because if aspiration matches corresponding result, then an order can be allowed to cost a little more. No customer had anything to say about that in the ratings!

My take: none of the print providers examined mention gang printing as a reason for potential variances (although I have seen smaller print providers explaining this to customers); I definitely think it makes sense to inform customers in GTCs that follow-up orders or reprints can vary colorwise just as much as the results within a single order… What I also find positive is that – save for a few exceptions – tangible “successful outcome terms” are formulated for print production and the relevant artwork, be it summarized, in an overview or product-related in each case. Both have their advantages, and making both available saves hassle for both parties to the transaction. The tips just have to be displayed prominently enough – which is (still) not the case at some print providers. As far as “sectorally standard variances” are concerned, I am going to follow up with a couple of print providers. That’s likely to interest more folk than just me. Do you have any feedback on the issue of online print quality? Then let’s have it! But one thing I definitely need to emphasize – guys, transparency requires a different approach!!!

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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