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Photo Books : Never Too Late for Profits

March 2011 By Erik Cagle
Senior editor
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In his song Beautiful Boy, John Lennon cautions, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The same might be said for photo book production in the grand scheme of offerings for the printing community. It was never meant to be a cornerstone product but, as the digital printing era exploded during the past six years, it grew in popularity as an ancillary offering.

Ancillary? Well, that may be understating the truth for many companies. Manufacturing personalized photo books may not have been in the master plans but, for many companies, it has become the primary—or only—offering on the production menu. And, it promises to be one of the few markets for which explosive growth is possible for those graphic arts establishments with the right equipment, savvy marketing skills, partners and software. And, of course, golden customer service capabilities.

Ah, but not so fast, pal. Consumer demand for photo books has been gaining in popularity for several years, led by heavyweights such as Shutterfly and HP’s Snapfish. And, while the focus of this story is photo books, there is a bevy of “social expression” products built upon this foundation—personalized calendars, key chains, mugs, posters, buttons, cards, calendars, mouse pads and countless other goods.

It’s as if promotional products married digital printing and gave birth to personalized, online Hallmark stores.

Beware, the photo book market is a finicky, moody, cyclical sector with a high customer dropout rate. The historic demographic is women ages 25 to 45, looking for that ideal gift to capture the precious memories of a birth, wedding, vacation or holiday. But, there is ample room for growth; even though most big-box stores offer photo book kiosks, research suggests that product penetration is less than 10 percent in the United States.

For those who believe the photo market is already oversaturated, a basic business tenant to consider: The first to market isn’t necessarily the best to market. Just ask Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The demographic has room for expansion beyond “life event” applications—organizations abound and those printers that are industrious enough to hammer out templates that cater to any number of social groups (scouts, youth sports, fraternities/sororities) can tap into virgin markets.

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