If you ask today’s top printers about online storefronts and Web-to-print (W2P) workflows, many cannot imagine being in business without them.
In part, it is the efficiencies brought to print-on-demand and variable data workflows. However, it’s also the fulfillment of promotional items, banners and signage; ease of shipping and mailing; and detailed insight into sales, inventories and usage. For many print services providers, online storefronts have become the way they interact with their top clients.
Kramer Madison, which offers both commercial printing and design/agency services, is one of these printers. The company, headquartered in Waunakee, Wis., has operated some kind of W2P system since 2005-2006. It invested in its current software, Red Tie, in 2009.
“We fell in love with RedTie and have been with them for more than a decade,” Tracy Mueller, Kramer Madison’s VP of sales, says. “It offers simple, easy-to-use layouts and templates, yet is customizable enough to work for the needs of our customers.” She emphasizes that the solution’s user-friendliness was a huge selling point. “If the system were too complicated, it would deter people from using it,” Mueller adds.
But simple to the user doesn’t mean lack of functionality. RedTie offers advanced functions, such as an XML editor that allows customers to do their own integrations without the need for developers; “Edit Print” functionality that allows users to drag and drop, rotate or do text editing when enabled; and complex approval chains, including the option to give specific approvers the ability to edit the order basket or make changes to the products being ordered (“which is great when you have someone who needs to proofread something before it is printed,” Mueller points out).
Nearly half of Kramer Madison’s top 25 customers have online storefronts. Usage ranges from very simple to complex. “Several large companies use it only for business cards,” she explains. “But they are doing hundreds of names a month. Our largest customer, on the other hand, has 12,000 users signed up — ordering everything from customized postcards to swag. They use every bell and whistle it has.”
“Swag” (promotional products) is a relative newcomer to online storefronts, but it has become a significant element. You see it in most systems now. Kramer Madison warehouses and fulfills the most commonly ordered items directly. Custom and less commonly ordered items (such as t-shirts for employees) are printed on-demand by a local partner.
“We fulfill anything from pens and screwdrivers to banners, shirts, hats and jackets,” she notes.
Mueller also loves the ease of reporting, which clients use for budget and inventory planning. “Our largest user tracks the top SKUs, how many pieces are going out the door, who are ordering them and where they are going. It’s one of their favorite uses of the system.”
Despite the fact that online storefronts have been around for decades, Mueller says that the ability to produce personalized and customized marketing materials is a “hot ticket” right now. With consumers becoming increasingly comfortable with customizing and personalizing products in the B2C marketplace, customers are growing increasingly comfortable with using this capability for marketing, too.
“We allow them to customize direct mail pieces by swapping images or headlines. Depending on what products they are selling, they can swap out photos, as well,” she notes. However, Mueller cautions that clients want to keep the variables simple. “They want more control, but they don’t want to give their users so many variables that it’s too complicated.”
Home-Grown Storefront Solutions
Not all printers purchase packaged solutions, however. The Kennickell Group, in Savannah, Ga., is among those developing their own. Kennickell started developing its own storefronts around 2000. At first, clients only needed simple pick-and-pack. Today, they want access to everything from inventory management, to print-on-demand, to global print and fulfillment through international partners.
Storefronts are built by Kennickell’s programmers. Inventory management functionality incorporates technology from VeraCore (formerly ProMail), specialists in fulfillment and inventory management. Because many of Kennickell’s clients already use VeraCore internally, this helps with RFPs.
“When it comes to inventory management, there is no comparison to other systems,” Al Kennickell, president of The Kennickell Group, contends. “VeraCore gives our clients a real-time, 24/7 look into their warehouses. If my client says, ‘I never want less than 1,000 in inventory,’ when we get down to 1,000, it lets us know they’ve tipped the mark. If inventory gets to zero, we get alerted to that, too,” he explains. “The level of detail of reporting is incredible.”
Building a storefront from scratch can take several months. However, if the client is willing to use an existing storefront as a template, Kennickell’s programmers can have it up and running in as little as a few weeks. Because the build times on some of these custom systems can be long, Kennickell encourages clients to consider the template option to speed up the process. “If all we have to do is change out colors, swap out images and replace copy, we can get these sites up and running very quickly,” he says. “We can also cut our customers’ development costs by more than half.”
Not all customers require a robust system. For smaller clients without complex inventory or international printing needs, the Kennickell Group uses EFI’s Digital Storefront. These storefronts can be built in a day.
Moving forward, one of the trends Kennickell sees is continued growth in requests to fulfill promotional items. For these jobs, his team works through the client’s existing supplier — if they have one — or one of his own. Everything is handled through the system via credit cards. “We never have to touch these jobs,” he says.
Kennickell’s business is building rapidly. In large part, this is due to one service that he could not provide without online storefronts: international printing and shipping. Working with the International Printing Network (IPN), Kennickell developed a stable of vetted print partners around the world. International work flows through custom-built storefronts that route the job to the closest international partner based on postal code.
“By printing closer to the end location, our clients save a tremendous amount of money on shipping and can often deliver items at a speed impossible to do from the United States,” Kennickell explains. “Plus, our international partners stay on top of the changes in regulations and know the ins and outs of the written and unwritten rules in their markets.”
Today, 25% of The Kennickell Group’s business is credited to this offering, whether from jobs printed and distributed internationally or to other business brought by clients who contracted with them because of the international printing component, whether their jobs are printed internationally or not.
The Kennickell Group does offer the option to design projects online using templates. The level of personalization and customization is a balance between flexibility and no unnecessary complexity. “Most clients want a high level of brand control and don’t want to allow their users to alter things too much,” he says.
But sites can be complex, as well. “For one client, we built a proposal generator that can create documents up to 60 pages long, with high levels of variability in the copy and the ability to alter dozens of photographs,” points out Kennickell. “It is also linked to their accounting system, so it can add in pricing automatically.”
Having the ability to automate these processes is one of the factors to which Kennickell attributes the company’s success. Even in the small Savannah market, The Kennickell Group continues to grow 10% per year. “My 10 biggest customers all have storefronts,” he reveals. “I don’t have anyone in the top 10 that we haven’t built a storefront for.”
Doubling in Size Thanks, in Part, to W2P
DigiCopy is among those whose high-volume W2P use has put it on a rapid growth track. The company is headquartered in Milwaukee and has eight locations in six cities. As many printers struggle or, worse, shutter their doors, DigiCopy has doubled in size since 2010.
Part of the company’s success is due to the production, inventory management and analytics offered by its online storefronts. It has been using Aleyant Pressero for the past 13 years. DigiCopy chose the solution for its open architecture, pay-as-you-go structure, regular software updates and enhancements, and ongoing tech support.
Today, 200 customers have DigiCopy B2B storefronts, which are branded DigiXpress. Before DigiCopy will start building one, it requires a contract.
“We used to do field of dreams — build the site and they will come,” Craig Shuler, president and founder of DigiCopy, recalls. “But sometimes clients used it and sometimes they didn’t. Now, we require contracts, which has actually improved our close rate.”
At DigiCopy, CSRs and members of the sales team are trained to sell DigiXpress. Even the programmers can “talk the talk,” if necessary. After more than a decade (and so many installations), selling this solution has gotten much easier. Even so, Shuler advises, it’s important not to rush into a sale, even if a client has an immediate need. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” he notes. “We don’t want to go from crisis to crisis. We want to build relationships.”
As Shuler looks back, he muses how these systems have changed. Today, there is a strong focus on inventory management, as well as shipping. One of DigiCopy’s customers, for example, analyzes the sales of every product in the catalog. “They can look at whole pages, or individual items, to figure out what sells best,” he says. “Is the whole page a loser? Or just the design? Does it help if they move the product around in the catalog? Or is it just a losing product?”
Moving forward, Shuler expects clients to continue to ask for more customization and personalization. Increasingly, for example, colleges and universities are producing highly personalized follow-up letters to their graduates based on information gathered on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
But one thing is for sure. Marketers are less hesitant to give up control of their branded materials. “There is a greater realization that storefronts allow them to do more work and give them more control than ever,” according to Shuler.
Of the 175 customers who use DigiXpress, however, no two use it the same way. “That’s part of why we have success,” he says. “We queue up non-competitive sites and show them what other companies are doing. It turns the light bulbs on in their heads.”
The one commonality, Shuler hopes, is that wherever users are, DigiXpress is on their desktop. To help get that buy-in, DigiCopy likes to add humor to the naming of its printers’ drivers. “In Green Bay, they are named after Hall of Fame Packers players. In Milwaukee, they are named Laverne and Shirley,” he says. “Ultimately, whether it’s a business card, a sign for a special event or a piece of direct mail, we want ordering to be as convenient as sending the job to an office printer.”
Print Three Franchising Corp., based in Concord, Ontario, is another high-volume, Web-to-print user. Andrew Hrywnak, president of Print Three, invested in W2P nearly 20 years ago.
He has built his business on high-quality digital printing and commercial printing franchises throughout Canada and now has nearly 50 locations. All franchisees use the ePower Web-to-Print Cloud by Racad Tech to custom build their B2B sites, giving them a consistent solution across all stores. This allows them to win national accounts because of the uniformity.
After going through two other vendors, Print Three has been with Racad Tech for 15 years. Hrywnak chose the solution both for its ease-of-use and versatility. Racad Tech offers four design editors: a PDF editor, an HTML 5 editor, InDesign/XMPie, and a vector-based editor for wide-format and photo editing.
“We have a broad use because many of our franchise customers are taking advantage of the B2C elements through Racad’s W2P Shop offering,” Hrywnak notes. “The ability to plug into WordPress and Shopify appeals to the stores that want to reach out to the B2C market. Racad also integrated XMPie into their ePOWER - W2P CLOUD system, which is a beast for data-driven applications and image-based personalization.”
How often do clients use this capability? “It seems that for all the RFPs that we are bidding on, that’s the way the customers want to go,” Hrywnak notes. “In fact, as we win more contractual RFP work that requires a distributed print marketplace, I am actively looking to fill in the gaps by purchasing or franchising existing (profitable) shops.”
Print Three’s W2P solutions support commercial and digital printing, variable data, engineering drawings, promotional products and wide-format. But it’s not just the production and fulfillment options that draw in the customers. It’s the ability to track the spending and order history, including money spent and on which products.
“We can give them any type of report they want: brand control, cost control, volume control,” Hrywnak says. “They can see what their spend is on a weekly, daily or monthly basis. Because users can pull their own reports (and they do), they can see that day, even that minute, what is happening.”
Do clients make changes in their product offerings and marketing rollouts based on the reporting? Absolutely. One national retirement community just went through a rebranding. It had existing inventory of about $100,000 and didn’t want to waste its existing materials.
“We could tell them when we should introduce new materials based on order history and inventory,” Hrywnak adds. “In each region, we could anticipate when they would use up their inventory of existing materials and what date to go to production with the new ones. This allowed them to schedule open houses using the new branding. Without a system like that, this never would have happened.”
For Print Three, the flexibility and ease-of-use of the Racad Tech system are key, but so is the ease of building totally custom sites. If a customer wants something that the Racad software doesn’t offer, if it’s something Racad thinks would work more broadly, they add it, according to Hrywnak. “They start developing it immediately. Normally, I’ll get it in a short time — days, weeks or months, depending on the scope of the request.”
Franchises Using Storefronts Are Growing
Consistently, the strongest growth is from franchises with online storefronts. “Every customer we put online, we see market share growth,” he says. “Everyone who isn’t, we don’t.” Franchise-wide, Print Three saw between 6-10% growth last year.
The goal, Hrywnak says, is just to get franchisees to use the system and let users experience the value for themselves. “I tell them all the time to get as many customers as they can,” he adds. “It could be a local restaurant, pet shop, landscaper or a plumber. We have one Canadian beer manufacturer that allows local bars to order promotional posters and paraphernalia for special events, such as ‘wings’ night. Just get them using it, and the system will sell itself.”
It’s become clear that W2P has become more than a value-added service to differentiate from competitors. It has become a central component, not just of printers’ business models, but the marketing, business planning and inventory management models of their customers, as well.
Hrywnak speaks for many of his peers when he says, “I’m still shocked that there are printers who don’t have a W2P solution. I don’t understand how that’s even possible. What are they waiting for? How are they still in business?”