Shipping in the online print industry: how flexible are German online print providers?

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Performance speed and price are the main aspects of eCommerce. It’s easy to put a value on shipments of finished goods. But what shipping options does the online print industry provide its customers with?

Anybody who buys print products via the Internet usually wants an inexpensive price at a certain level of quality. But inexpensive does not necessarily equate to fast.  And it would help if the online print provider’s production and shipping processes are quicker than those of the offline print provider around the corner. Some customers perhaps tend to forget that print products ordered online have to be printed first – yet their buying behavior and their expectations of online print provider flexibility remain the same “thanks to” Amazon et al. So the question that still needs to be answered is how flexible is the online print industry in terms of production and delivery. What product configuration options are customers provided with? I have turned my attention to this topic and taken a close look at more than 25 German online print stores. What interested me in particular was whether German online print providers offer different production options and shipping methods and how they shape up as shipping service providers in terms of shipping costs and flexibility. That’s because ultimately all four aspects have a direct impact on price and speed, and therefore on the attractiveness of an offering.

In order to obtain a proper comparison of production and shipping options, I have chosen a standard business card in 8.5 x 5.5 cm format, four-color, one-sided on 300 to 350 g/m2 coated art paper or other substrate – depending on what the in-house standard is – as a reference product. I was not able to determine in every case whether the business cards were produced using offset or digital print methods – which for the purposes of this comparison is immaterial, since the print provider has to manage the fastest production lead time at a promised level of quality, including delivery, themselves. Data delivery (upload) deadlines, which have to be met when certain shipping options are chosen, are normal – I won’t be revisiting this issue separately.

Starting with product configuration – and with ready-to-print data to hand in PDF format – other optional production lead times are featuring more and more in addition to standard production. In my opinion this is a fundamental aspect of rating overall delivery quality, since delivery lead time = production time + shipping time, and neither express print nor express shipping need tally with the fastest possible delivery option. Production lead time equals delivery lead time – wrong! Furthermore express production is in most cases significantly more expensive for print providers than express shipping, which can be attributed to order planning and printing press utilization. What therefore needs to be done here is to distinguish between what is actually offered during the ordering process.

Source: zipcon

As far as the print providers examined are concerned, the choice of production options seems to be significantly less appealing, in contrast to the choice of shipping options available (see next chart). I have previously described the reason(s) why. After all, offering a choice of production lead times also needs to be translated into sales figures, which makes pricing more difficult not only for the print providers but also more difficult for customers to understand. But we can see that more than half of the 26 online print providers “already” offer a choice of several production lead times. So I was a little puzzled to learn that major industry players like Cewe, Flyeralarm, Vistaprint and others like WirliebenDruck only offer a single “standard” production option. Standard print production lead times vary between 1 and 5 (!) working days, and that has an impact on overall lead times. In such cases customers need to get an exact idea of overall delivery lead times for themselves. That’s because adverse combinations of production and delivery lead times have the potential to reduce the appeal of a store, drastically in fact. Smaller and mid-sized print providers are in that respect – apparently at least – better placed, which can also be attributed to the fact that the big boys basically have higher capacity utilization at correspondingly shorter lead times. Indeed additional production options don’t provide any benefits to customers – and only disadvantages for the provider. And it’s anyone’s guess as to whether those market players offering 3 or more production options really operate cost-effectively. Around 15 % of the selectable options featured here and in the following diagram can be directly linked with one another at the product configuration stage. That means that if you select express print, you automatically select express shipping etc. And this brings me to the second point that plays a role in determining delivery lead time.

Source: zipcon

Economy, Standard, Express, Overnight, Next Day – these are the most common terms used for shipping options in the online print industry, which does not mean that every print store offers every option. But in each of the cases considered, the fact is that the first additional option is express delivery and the second is overnight delivery –dependent in each case on the time of data delivery and production duration. What I haven’t listed here separately are deliveries by trucking companies. Anyhow this shipping method is usually only used for very large print runs or high product volumes – and in the case of business cards there is usually no reasonable alternative to parcel shipping. Some 10 percent of German online print providers currently rely on “just” one shipping method. Either these usually niche print providers don’t offer a choice of other shipping methods in addition to “standard” or they offer at least one more production speed. None of the online print providers considered relies on standard production plus standard shipping. A wise decision, as customers want to have a choice. And as long as speed of delivery, i.e. production and shipping, meets customer expectations, those print providers that don’t offer extra shipping options don’t need to upgrade in this respect. Somewhat more exotic are those print providers that offer more than 3 shipping options alongside standard. These include to some extent the major players mentioned above.

Source: zipcon

But the hottest topic as far as shipping is concerned is always costs, which is why I have of course taken a look at this issue as well. Here the result is more clear-cut than for all the other aspects. Free standard shipping is now common in the print industry too. The habit that both B2B and B2C customers have now formed thanks to the major eCommerce platforms is too strong to allow many online print providers to experiment here. Nevertheless there are still a handful of bold providers that charge a fixed or flat-rate surcharge irrespective of order quantity or that do not provide transparent shipping costs during the configuration process. I can only advise you to reconsider this particular issue ?.

“Online print success is defined by simple ordering procedures and fast delivery – assuming an appropriate cost-benefit ratio. Anybody that blunders in that respect can say goodbye to customer retention! Delivery quality is the keyword here that customers value.” – Bernd Zipper

Of course free standard shipping is not a “steal” in every case, i.e. for every product configuration. Where larger print runs or higher order values are involved, one of the faster shipping methods is often more lucrative for the buyer, since the shipping costs are lower in relation to the order value. But both supposedly cheaper standard shipping and fixed surcharges for shipping tend to put off consumers that order just 100 business cards.

Last but not least I would like to tackle an issue that not just online print providers sometimes underestimate – the number of linked-in shipping service providers or logistics partners. Without naming any consigners here – every reader has heard of cases of delay, damage and other negative sorts of things that happen to shipments on the way to customers. It is then all the more annoying if the print provider has done a great production job only for the consigner that it trusts to virtually destroy that customer relationship. Giving customers a choice of shipping companies can help in such situations.

Source: zipcon

So as far as the choice of shipping service providers is concerned, I believe that the online print providers considered are in a reasonably good place. And I am certain that the almost 50 % that only rely on one shipping service provider will in future add further partners to their networks. That’s because the quantity of parcels shipped is increasing substantially every year, because it’s not just the online print industry that’s growing, the entire eCommerce sector is utilizing the parcel services to capacity and to some extent – like at Christmas – overloading them. If a company – and of course the customer – relies on just one option, calculating those “promised” delivery lead times is potentially more difficult.

My take: my primary concern in looking at this topic was to provide an overview of the options available in relation to shipping in the online print industry. Without stating any values in the diagrams or explicitly naming any names, every online print provider based in the D/A/CH region should be able to locate where they are positioned in this overview. And yes, I know that I spoke explicitly about German online print providers – but customers in Austria and Switzerland don’t have a different mentality to their German counterparts – their demand for production and delivery lead time transparency is the same. Consideration of other delivery channels abroad also complicates the comparison. And of course the delivery lead time is a fundamental aspect of delivery, and the reliability of times stated is also vital. If a customer selects a production or shipping option that differs in price from the standard, this option must also deliver the expected benefits – quicker receipt of print products ordered. Nothing is quite as annoying in retrospect as a late delivery, not even too high a price. And any online print provider that communicates clearly is certain of having satisfied customers. It doesn’t necessarily require masses of production lead time and delivery lead time options. I will be shedding light on whether stated delivery lead times are always complied with in another article.

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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