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?
To possibly get more complete information from the Internet sites of the cyberbrokers, one must register with the broker and get a secret password. Since I'm neither a prospective buyer nor seller of printing, I didn't register. Should I have registered?
No More Middlemen
Lately success in e-commerce appears to be related to disintermediation—eliminating the "middlemen" no longer necessary in cyberland. It's also called "supply chain integration." Another facet of this trend is so-called "partnering." Partnering amounts to increasing the intensity of the relationship between customers and suppliers. Customers put more of their eggs of supply in fewer baskets. Call it supply integration, or partnering, or both—it results in reduced inventories and a more focused attentiveness to customer needs. Are the Noosh, et al. entities swimming upstream—against the current of these trends?
Please understand I'm not knocking these businesses, but simply trying to understand how they fit in the scheme of commercial printing. It may be foolish to seek to force their efforts into arbitrary classification buckets of the past—if that's what I'm doing by questioning.
It may very well be that commercial printing has now achieved such a state of technical competence that the product has become more like a commodity than a service. Has it? Or it may well be that the subject matter of this brokerage activity will be limited to the shelf-type printed products with restricted need for interactive creativity. "Bid-and-asked" bargaining on these trading floors may add value by driving down print prices and, thereby, mandate increased process efficiency. If so, then gung-ho for capitalism!
It may be that the three identified Internet companies seek to fulfill the functions of both sales and customer service representatives in the print-customer relationship. In that case, would the printer be relieved of the costly activities of sales and service? The printer would be contracting those activities to a third party—a third party that also represents other printers, as well.
Thirty years ago, Peter Drucker taught us that there are but three things that must be managed for business survival: liquidity, productivity and tomorrow. Internet supply integration and partnering are increasing liquidity by reducing inventories that slow conversion to cash. If cyberbrokerage for print is advancing the liquidity cause in that respect (and it may be), then we must applaud. We must also learn whether the brokerage intermediary hastens or slows the collection cycle of receivables as a liquidity utility.
(By the way, does the broker invoice the customer and collect, then remit to the printer after deducting commission? Does the broker thereby delay the printer's liquidity?)
Several e-commerce companies now provide "white papers" on their Websites that are available by the mouse click, without the registration ritual. These are, for the most part, content-laden documents that enlighten about issues and subjects. The FAQ (frequently asked questions) literary device, if thoroughly and thoughtfully prepared, might also develop needed, basic information.
Until we can see more clearly how the Internet, as a communication resource, enhances the creative interactivity aspect of printing, I submit that the jury's still out for cyber-brokerage. But we'd better keep an open mind. At the speed that our business models are now shifting, we dare not do otherwise.
—Roger V. Dickeson
About the Author
Roger Dickeson is a printing productivity consultant based in Tucson, AZ. He can be reached by e-mail at Roger@prem-associates.com, by fax (520) 903-2295, or on the Web at http://www.prem-associates.com.