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Commercial Printing--The Economics of Printing's Evolution

December 1999


Sony and Cher, Laverne and Shirley, Thelma and Louise, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe. You can now add commercial printing and the economy to the list of couples who no longer exist.

For many years, the growth of the commercial printing industry walked hand-in-hand with that of the nation's economy. Recent findings indicate that other factors are having more of an influence in the growth of printing than the economy, according to Andrew Paparozzi, chief economist for the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL).

"For the first time since we've been tracking data, we're finding that the print industry is growing slower than the economy," Paparozzi reveals, noting that sales growth slipped to about 31⁄2 percent from the 4 percent to 5 percent realized in 1997 and 1998.

"The economy in 1999 was absolutely spectacular," says Paparozzi. "Since we know that the printing industry is closely tied with the economy, and with the economy at its strongest in 35 years, how is it possible that the printing industry's growth slowed?"

Perhaps with the coming of the new millennium, a major shift in the way communications are being delivered is at the heart of the matter. While it's hardly the time to sound ink-on-paper's death knell, it would be foolish to believe in an era of new media, partnerships and changing strategies, that the manner in which business is conducted would remain the same.

Paparozzi offers a sampling of some findings made by the NAPL that sheds some light on the market's shifting economic condition. Among the variables affecting commercial printing:

  • Internet, CD-ROM and other electronic alternatives to printed communications. Certain market segments have enjoyed complementary relationships with electronic media, but others have not been as fortunate and may be looking at a replacement scenario.

  • Mergers and consolidations—partnering either by working agreement or the total alliance of multiple companies. Companies are downsizing, relocating, outsourcing and forming purchasing organizations. This industry-wide streamlining is affecting demand for print.

  • A shortage of qualified labor. This was another "findings first" for the NAPL in the 20 years it has been soliciting information: The growth of some companies is being retarded by an inability to find adequate personnel. With unemployment rates still near record lows, employers in the graphic arts are having trouble finding experienced, skilled and productive employees.

"All these relationships are independent of the economy," Paparozzi notes. "It is kind of a structural change. How people communicate is changing, and print's role in facilitating that communication is changing. We're making the change from lithographic printing services to providers of a much broader range of communication services—digital, personalized, short run, on-demand, Internet or CD-type services, or database management, fulfillment and facilities management. These are all potentially very profitable, but, in the short run, they can be a drag on the bottom line because they do carry severe learning curves."


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