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Hamilton--Are We Ready for E-Commerce?

October 1999
With the trade show season in full swing, I thought it'd be fun to discuss the latest rage now "e-merging" in our industry: e-commerce. Anyone who attended Seybold or who headed to GRAPH EXPO 99 this month will be hard pressed to avoid the presence of Internet firms that plan to revolutionize our old-fashioned game of smearing ink on smashed trees.

First of all, let me be clear: I think these guys are on the right track—far more so than the "e-tailers" who think they are going to crush the "bricks-and-mortar" folks like an ant. Business-to-business supply chain management is ripe for the picking, even if it's not new.

Remember EDI, which stands for electronic data interchange? EDI never took off because the supporting infrastructure wasn't there, and the proprietary nature of accounting systems made it all but impossible for anyone other than the largest firms to link up with their major suppliers to perform transactions.

Racing for Market Share
Well, between the Web, Java and good ol' American ingenuity, many of the impediments are quickly going by the wayside. Companies such as Collabria, ImageX, Impresse, Noosh and TriPort Technologies are now racing to gain the market share that many believe to be the critical success factor for Web-based companies—or at least a successful IPO. Backed by significant venture capital, they are building electronic storefronts that will enable printers, their customers and suppliers to link up, reduce cycle time and, according to the marketing materials, integrate their operations.

The real question is not whether the technology is ready for prime time; in my estimation, it's more of a question of whether the market is ready for it. More specifically, which types of printing and prepress services are best suited to e-commerce?

And while the primary emphasis (currently) seems to be on facilitating the transaction between the content creator and the pro-ducer/printer, the relationship between printers and their suppliers may be even more amenable to e-commerce. For example, with paper running upwards of 40 percent of many jobs' cost, the ability to purchase paper on-line (only after a client submits the purchase order) would be a considerable benefit for many printers.

The same is true of ink, plates, film, chemistry and other consumables, though to a lesser extent. Although the e-commerce firms are fully aware of this, the size of this market is dwarfed by print buying and, economics being what they are, they are after the big prize.

Desktop Shopping
From a printing buyer's point of view, the idea of getting a quote for 10,000 brochures, which require four-over-four with spot coating plus folding and cutting, without leaving your desk sounds pretty good. And it should have more than a few printing salespeople thinking about the value they add to the print procurement process. If you add in the ability to just drop the file into a hot folder and wait for the delivery trucks, it sounds even more compelling.

Yet, successful execution is going to require a little more than installing a customized Web interface on your client's desktop. Not only is the relationship between most printing companies and their clients based on a "what have you done for me lately" basis, but the cutthroat competition in our industry makes me wonder how many printing buyers will want to tie themselves to a single vendor. Will we have an

"E-bay" for printing and prepress?

No Sure Java Cure
Another critical factor that no amount of Java can cure—at least on the procurement front—is the current status of digital workflows. Despite the fact that desktop publishing has been in widespread use by the vast majority of companies involved with professional publishing—magazine and book publishers, ad agencies, designers, packaging firms, catalogers, etc.—for nearly a decade, we are still at a point where 80 percent of the files submitted by clients cannot be printed without a fair amount of work.

In fact, according to Collabria's Robert Hu, the cost of prepress as a percentage of the total job has risen with the advent of DTP! While some of that is attributable to the fact that shorter runs means the ratio of prepress to press time increases, this fact does not bode well for those that wish to apply such an economic model to much of the high-quality commercial printing that is generated.

This is where bombproof file formats such as DCS, PDF and TIFF/IT must be embraced by a far greater proportion of the creative community than is currently the case. That means they'll also have to take more responsibility, too. The market being what it is, content creators know they can rely on printers to validate their materials for them. And it's not all their fault, either, as many printers have resigned themselves to having this responsibility and figure it's easier to have the native application files from the get-go rather than have to request them later in the production cycle.

In the meantime, e-commerce pioneers who want to minimize the number of arrows in the back will have to start with simple projects and gradually raise the level of complexity. Thus, the mundane products that require as much effort to procure as to produce, including business cards, forms, stationery, BRP cards and the like, are a good starting point. Not only do these tend to be simple designs, but they're frequently one- or two-color jobs.

Before the business of high-end color printing can migrate en masse to the Web, it's useful to consider the evolution of the cataloging and direct marketing businesses.

Until supporting "technologies" such as toll-free numbers and credit cards were in widespread use, it remained a relatively small industry. For us, e-commerce needs tools that can guarantee proper file assembly. And while PDF clearly looks like the savior in many people's eyes, it still has a ways to go.

Kind of reminds you of the early days of PostScript, doesn't it?

—Alex Hamilton

About the Author
Alex Hamilton, a former technical editor with Printing Impressions, is president of Computers & Communications Consulting, which specializes in digital technologies for printing and publishing. He can be reached at (215) 247-3461 or by e-mail at


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