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Are Print Shops Going to Stay in Business?

Growing with technology is key to the success of print shops in today's competitive markets.

"Print shops are dwindling because they don't keep up with the times and technology," says Mike Laughman. He is a print shop president and manager in Oregon. "We have had three go out of business here recently."

Printing Industries of America reports a 12 percent decline in all types of printing plants. Since 1993, the numbers dropped from 54,000 to less than 48,000. Of those, about 36,000 are general commercial printing or quick printing plants.

However, the National Association for Printing Leadership reports that digital technology and growth of the Internet are causing major changes in the industry. "Printers are on the leading edge of the information revolution," it says.

Fred Trainor is the owner of a full-service print shop. He says his company must adjust to technology on a regular basis. "If you're not doing a million dollars, you're not going to survive," he says. "In today's global market economy, bigger is better. That's where the opportunities are."

Philip Terry owns a print shop in a small Arkansas resort town. He says that upgrading equipment has been crucial. He started out in 1988 with just $2,000 in capital -- just enough for basic equipment. He now operates a successful print business.

"When we started...most print shops were still using the old Compugraphic typesetting systems for setting type. I had the foresight to see that the typesetting part was rapidly changing, and purchased a Mac and laser printer shortly after starting business," says Terry.

Since that time, he has regularly updated equipment. For example, he bought a used color press on the Web that allows the shop to do four-color process work. "We have grown over 13 years from zero to $270,000 a year in business. Still not a lot for a print shop, but it's great for a small town of 6,000," he says.

Terry believes the main difficulty facing small printers now is consumer demand. They want higher quality and, in particular, color printing. Both of these take a lot of expensive equipment.

"It also takes a different mindset," he says. "Customers aren't as easily pleased as they used to be. And a lot more people are getting educated in graphics by using their home computers."

Even though he's printing fewer flyers due to home computer use, Terry doesn't think desktop publishing is hurting the print shop business.

"In fact, I think it's the opposite," he says. "If people become more educated about printing -- can produce their own flyers, business cards and stationery -- then they are also thinking about the printing process. They will eventually use a printer for help."

He also says that most small printers don't make their money from the general public. "They make their money off of businesses. The general public may produce a few color flyers off their ink-jet printers, but when it comes to mass production, there is still no substitute for the print shop," says Terry.

Laughman agrees. "To some, it's just plain fun to do it themselves. And it doesn't matter that it takes them four hours to do what we can do in 15 minutes," he says.

"But for professional businesspeople, they are still willing to pay us to do a professional job for them. Our typesetter is constantly backlogged, even with prices of $70 an hour."

For large commercial orders, Trainor says many clients have outside graphic artists do the work. "Then the graphic house shops for a printer and we offer them trade discounts. These people are very good and we work closely with them," he says.

Laughman says print shops must be able to service these high-tech customer needs. "File transfer is tough to do and is a science. We have spent many hours learning from our mistakes. We also attend many seminars on the subject."

Trainor says computers and the Internet have become a big part of the printing business. "We do an awful lot of work off e-mail, .PDF files and on disk. And this is growing," he says.

The most recent advance in the print industry is being able to send information from computer directly to press.

"It's a big leap and a big expense," says Trainor. "There are those who say it's the future, and others who say they'll be long retired before it happens. But if you don't do it, you get left behind."

He expects the process he's using now will serve the needs of the community for another five to 10 years. But his equipment will likely be upgraded in that time.

Terry and Trainor agree that the future of print shops lies in diversification. "One saving grace for print shops in the future is new products, and the growth in new products," says Trainor. These may be Internet-based sales, Web design or advertising-type programs.

"We sell the advertising and print the pieces -- not something print shops have been doing. Historically, print shops have been artisan-driven, not sales-driven."

The printing industry is a healthy part of the economy. According to Printing Industries of America, commercial and quick printing plants had sales of $59 billion last year.

"I think there's still a place for commercial print shops, just like there's a place for newspapers in the future. Even with the [increased] availability of news and information," says Trainor.


Printing Industries of America
Visit this site for news on trends in the industry

Communication Workers of America
A list of print shops throughout the United States

National Association for Printing Leadership
This site offers resources for printing professionals

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