Monday, October 27, 2008

Sales or distribution? Wholesale or Retail?

Different players in the print business look at it from different points of view. It's the blind men and the elephant story. If you're trying to earn a living from Print, the only really important point of view is the end user. Only the end user brings new money into the production network. Everything else is just an expense.

At Graph Expo print manufacturers are the end user. But in the real business of print, they are just an expense. The money they bring to the table is earned from the customer at the end of the process. If there are lots of customers, they have lots of money to spend. If not, then not.

The focus at Graph Expo is how to manufacture print - better, faster and cheaper. Every year the vendors showcase great new tools to improve manufacturing processes. Every year successful printers can find the right tools for them.

But further improvements in manufacturing only have an acceptable time to value when there is not enough capacity. Under capacity - too much work, not enough time - is a high class problem. High class problems are amenable to better manufacturing solutions.

Over capacity - not enough work - can become a question of survival.

So...the question at hand is "how to get more work?" That means more sales. Which is just another way of saying "increase the efficacy of the customer acquisition process."

When Print was the default method of communication customer acquisition was an ill defined problem. What worked in the past was still working. Sales were often accomplished with a couple of stars and commonly accepted pricing.

Another approach was the "trade printer." Those firms cherished their place as manufacturers. They understood that manufacturers had to deliver good enough quality, in acceptable time frames at low enough prices. They left the sales process to sales experts who spent 100% of their time talking to customers.

When work started slowing down, some "trade printers" thought the best way to capture extra margin was to "sell direct." It was just common sense. But what many overlooked was an appreciation of the mechanisms of the sales process. At the time it seemed so intuitive that the idea of standards based process was not necessary. Some "direct" printers started doing more work for the trade. But it was hard to adapt to the rules of good enough, fast enough, cheap enough.

Meanwhile, new words are emerging to describe the emerging business of print. The overall business model is well established: manufacturers and distributors. It's not different from manufacturing clothes, food products, lighting fixtures, or copiers or forms.

Being a manufacturer or a distributor doesn't sound as good as being a solutions provider or a marketing partner. But given what a bad rep salespeople and printing brokers have always had, it might actually be a step up.

The good news is that there is a deep and wide knowledge base about what a "distributor" needs to do. It's pretty much the same thing as running a Starbucks or a TJ Maxx.

Just got this from a press release at GAM:
Graph Expo opened yesterday with brisk attendance and vendors announce a steady stream of equipment sales, despite tightening credit markets. Trade printer 4over, Inc. took the occasion to announce it was purchasing six Komori Lithrone presses for three new plants it will build in Florida, New Jersey and Texas. When the massive expansion is completed, the Glendale, CA-based trade printer, annual sales of $80 million, will operate five locations allowing it to ship to 90% of the U.S. market via two-day ground service.
I guess they haven't heard that Print is dead.

To see what this looks like from the distributors point of view check out the Print Services Distribution Association. They just completed their trade show in Baltimore.

The Print Solutions Conference & Expo, the only national show for the trade, has long been understood to be the premier show in the print distribution industry, designed to unveil and demonstrate new and exciting products, services and technology. Top executives and decision makers, along with their sales managers, see the Print Solutions Conference & Expo as the one show during the year where they can learn about new sales channels, new products, and network with other like-minded individuals.

A description of PSDA from their website:
Our association is comprised of the largest network of print distributors and trade printers, collectively aiding in building better partnerships to advance individual businesses as well as the industry as a whole. Print distributors can easily connect with like minded business executives through an array of networking tools that PSDA has designed to facilitate business-to-business communication. While our events prove to offer the most exciting and beneficial personal networking experiences, our online databases, directories, listervs, and regionalization program are second to none.

Similarly, PSDA’s membership base of trade printers gives print distributors immediate access to printers who specifically sell through the trade. This network of prospective partners, allows our distributors to quickly and easily place the most common to the most discriminate order, build printer contacts around the world, expand the services they offer their clients, and build lasting relationships with some of the industry’s top printers.

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