Dickeson–Where Does e-Commerce Fit?

If I asked you “Is printing a product or a service?” I’d likely get a variety of answers, such as “Product,” “Service,” “Yes and No,” “Both” and “In some cases . . . ”

Does it make any difference? Yes. It’s the business “model” for our printing companies. The difference is the intensity of relationship to the customer, isn’t it?

Marketing, we often say, is finding and filling a need. What’s the “need” we’re filling? Is it for a “shelf” item—a product—a commodity? Then the customer relationship is impersonal. If it’s for a “service,” then it’s personal, up close.

In most commercial printing, there’s an element of mutual creativity between customer and printer. Proofs fly back and forth with discussions and comments between the parties, until some esthetic objective is attained. On one hand, the customer can simply order letterhead from a catalog—a shelf-type product.

On the other hand, the customer can debate color, fonts, layout, paper, screening and quantity in personal communication with the printer’s salesperson or customer representative, and maybe even come to press side during the make-ready. Spec changes before print order, as well as any customer and/or printer changes after production starts, are all part of the relationship. That interactive, creative exercise is a service provided by the printer.

So, again I ask: “Is your printing business selling a product or providing a service?” What do your customers think? Commodity or service?

Here’s what’s troubling me at the moment: What value-added function do Impresse, Noosh, PrintBid and perhaps others (by the time this copy of Printing Impressions reaches your desk) provide? These companies are part of what we call e-commerce; businesses doing business on the Internet.

Pre-Internet, we’d have called them print brokers, wouldn’t we? Are they still print brokers, now that they operate from “sites” in cyberspace? Do we now call them cyberbrokers? And how do they fit with the service model of commercial printing? Is what they provide simply a print-exchange, a “trading floor,” for “bid” and “asked” prices on sets of specifications for printing jobs? Are they useful primarily for the print-as-commodity model? Or is there value above and beyond simply providing a pricing nexus that enhances the print-as-service model? Although their sites are lovely displays of hypertext markup-language technique for the World Wide Web, they lack explicit content that immediately informs us of function. (I’d settle for less dazzle and more information.) Do they charge a commission on each transaction like a cyber stockbroker? Who pays for the brokerage service? Buyer? Seller? Both?

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