The Unstoppable Move to Less Paper, and the Upcoming Upheaval of the Print-Mail Industry
Roaming through a used book store, I came across "Writing with a Word Processor" by William Zinsser. Written in 1983, the book chronicles Zinsser teaching himself how to use an IBM Displaywriter — one of the first office word processors. More than just a look back to the adoption of modern technology, the book provides some insight to what we can expect in the future — less paper.
At the time Zinsser was writing this book, I was beginning my career in print and mail, working at a law firm in downtown Boston. The partner’s offices were furnished with oak desks and leather chairs, and the library looked like it belonged in a Victorian home. But the firm also had something special — a Wang OIS system. The CPU was the size of a refrigerator, floppy diskettes were 8˝, and printing took place in a central room. But the secretaries could edit contracts without retyping documents, and the bookkeeper could enter billing hours and generate invoices.
While we didn’t have the capabilities to email or fax documents to other firms (that was the job for me and other messengers), we did have an Exxon Office Qwip machine. The machine required special thermal paper that had to be attached to a roller, reminiscent of a mimeograph printer. It took several minutes to transfer a single page, and a hiccup in transmission meant starting from the beginning.
Unlike Zinsser, I didn’t realize that I was witnessing the beginning of a movement. Perhaps not a movement to the “paperless office” touted by some companies, but certainly a future with less paper. And the culmination of that change is reverberating across the print-mail industry today.
Each year, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) reports a steady decline in First Class Mail. While not the seismic shift portrayed by outside critics, it’s still a decline. This isn’t related to the laments from uninformed government leaders talking about how “millennials don’t write letters” (baby boomers didn’t write letters either). Since 2012, the volumes for Presort Letters, mail companies send to their customers, have dropped 12%.
This decline is due to a combination of movement to electronic communication, as well as the advancements from innovative technologies. While some industries (e.g., banks) have been able to force customers to receive statements online, many other industries (e.g., health care) have customers that want physical documents. Those companies have developed ways to lower volumes — decreasing the frequencies of mailings, householding across business lines, and combining different documents into a single mailing.
At the same time, the speed and capabilities of processing equipment continue to improve. Inkjet printers are not only replacing offset presses, they provide color documents at faster speeds than toner-based black-and-white equipment. Inserters run at more than twice the speed of the fastest machines from 1999. The “white paper factory” concept is getting closer to reality.
Decreasing volumes combined with faster equipment means that there’s too much production capacity in the print-mail industry.
Many service providers are lowering their prices to remain competitive. Lower prices lead to reduced profits. Reduced profits lead to either consolidating plants, merging with competitors, or closing the company. It’s not just small and mid-sized firms that are impacted. The last several years have seen some of the largest mergers and acquisitions in decades. Expect more announcements in the future.
In-plant operations are evolving as well. In some cases, installing advanced technology, especially inkjet printers and next-generation inserting equipment, has helped reduce costs and improve service, keeping the work from being outsourced. Sometimes, companies can’t afford the investment, so a Request for Proposals becomes the path forward.
Print and physical mail remain an important part of customer communications. However, current market capacity is greater than the demand, so a correction is needed. Only innovative operations will survive the upcoming upheaval.
Lois Ritarossi is the President of High Rock Strategies, a consulting firm focused on sales and marketing strategies, and business growth for firms in the print, mail and communication sectors. Lois brings her clients a cross functional skill set and strategic thinking with disciplines in business strategy, sales process, sales training, marketing, software implementation, inkjet transformation and workflow optimization. Lois has enabled clients to successfully launch new products and services with integrated sales and marketing strategies, and enabled sales teams to effectively win new business. You can reach Lois at email@example.com.
Mark M. Fallon is president and CEO of The Berkshire Company, a consulting firm specializing in mail and document processing strategies. The company develops customized solutions integrating proven management concepts with emerging technologies to achieve total process management. He offers a vision of the document that integrates technology, data quality, process integrity, and electronic delivery. His successes are based upon using leadership to implement innovative solutions in the document process. You can contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.