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McIlroy--Where Are We Going On the Web?

September 1998

The next factor is the commoditization of the product. A book is a book is a book. The major differentiation in book retailing in the last few years has been the scope of available inventory (hence the growth of the superstores) and price cutting (which every retailer has been forced to do). moved into this space and was able to take advantage of inherent aspects of the Web to offer the widest possible inventory at competitively low prices (not necessarily the lowest). The company has been a runaway success from day one, and arguably is reshaping the entire publishing business.

So What?
That's all well and good, I hear you saying, but why should I care?

The questions to address regarding the printing business are: (1.) What market changes are already afoot? (2.) How can the Web facilitate these changes?

While it wasn't true five years ago, it can now be said that the average print buyer is relatively technologically sophisticated, and presumably is willing to consider using the Web to transact business. There are some holdouts, but let's just assume that the average buyer would be willing to obtain prices and place orders via the Web.

They would, that is, if what they were buying was a commodity product. The problem is that most printing is still a custom-manufactured product. With a wide variety of trim sizes, substrates, inks and bindings, there is no such thing as an average printed piece.

This is why the three most interesting Web-based print services—each taking a different approach—are focusing on two categories of product they consider commoditized: letterhead and business cards (with some attention to "product data sheets" as a potential third commodity category).

iPrint is a quick print store on the Web. It's happy to take first-time customers right off the street, and process a $25 order. ImageX is looking at larger repeat customers. Neither one actually does any printing, instead farming the mundane manufacturing out to a host of contract printers.

The third player is Digital-Net, which offers a custom software system to existing printers that, in turn, creates the infrastructure for printers to provide the same kind of services that iPrint and ImageX are trying to offer on a broader scale.

I believe that most printing is purchased today because of strong relationships between printers (mostly via their sales reps) and customers. These relationships are necessary to facilitate the flow of custom-manufactured product.

For printing to be bought on the Web the customer has to be willing to view it as a manufactured product, with the assumption that the product will be delivered on-time, on-budget and as-requested, without extensive human interaction.

I continue to imagine that a new breed of print buyers will team up with a new generation of print manufacturers, and take advantage of the efficiencies and cost savings that the Web affords. But compared to computer buyers and book buyers, this new breed remains a tiny minority of today's market.

The question before us is: When will it reach critical mass?

—Thad McIlroy

About the Author
Thad McIlroy is a San Francisco-based electronic publishing consultant and author, and the associate conference director of Seybold Seminars.



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