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Print Buying on the Web

September 1999
Last fall I wrote: "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. When will it reach critical mass?"

I referred to three companies that had begun to offer print purchasing via the Web. The list has expanded considerably since then, and now includes Collabria, ImageX, Impresse, I-Print, Noosh, Print Bid, PrintChannel, PrintMarket and Printing Network. Although I'm trying to closely track this category of services, there are certainly a few others that I haven't heard of yet.

Since I last wrote about print buying on the Web, I've met with many of these vendors, and I've listened to their pitches and to the reasons why they think they'll be successful.

Build a $ Billion Business
Several of them have pointed out to me that the commercial printing market in the United States is estimated at $125 billion per year or more. They each modestly state that even if they were to gain 1 percent of this market, they would build a business with sales of more than a billion dollars. Impressive.

But I remain skeptical. Let's just give them, right off the top, the possibility that they can, between them, garner the lion's share of the market for business cards and letterhead. For the most part it's straightforward, repeatable work, well-suited to on-line purchasing.

But the bulk of commercial printing does not fall into the category of straightforward, repeatable work. You know it and I know it. The bulk of commercial printing is one-off jobs: brochures, spec sheets and other forms of collateral, that are anything but a commodity. As Oliver Pflug, CEO of PrintMarket, said to me recently: "Printing is an emotional kind of product; print is custom manufacturing."

Custom Manufacturing?
I have a whole series of issues around the notion that print is custom manufacturing. I don't deny that it currently is custom manufacturing; I just don't think that it should be.

I believe that workflow management, PDF, color management and process control—together—can move print out of a custom manufacturing mode. But that, apparently, is in the future. Today, print is just not automated. It is custom manufacturing.

Print buyers have very personal relationships with their printers. They have literally thousands of firms to choose from, but most work with just two or three.


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