Powering profit with print and promo

Home / Cover Stories / Powering profit with print and promo
Powering profit with print and promo

Since computers transformed our world, there has been a lot of talk about the death of print. Meanwhile, some people have written off promotional materials as effectively nothing more than trinkets, of zero interest to the younger generation. But hold off on the eulogies! While today’s definition of “print and promotions” may be less traditional and, in some cases, more practical, both categories appear to be thriving and—according to the independent dealers we interviewed—show no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Print and promotions account for 50 percent, “if not more,” of sales for The Office Boss, Truckee, California, according to print services manager Nathan Gamett, who recently added “marketing director” to his title. He considers the two categories as one, since what customers print is ultimately aimed at promoting their companies.

“The category has grown in the last three years since COVID-19,” he says. “We are surrounded by a lot of small towns and have an office in Reno [Nevada], where there are a lot of real estate transactions. Many engineers and architects come directly to us because there may be only three companies in the area that can print their plans. We also do a lot of direct-to-door pieces. Recently, we did three to four projects of between 5,000 and 10,000 pieces, mainly for real estate agents in Vegas, where there’s been a lot of land growth.”

Yet according to Gamett, direct mail can also backfire. “Truckee is a small town and there’s no real return for companies to send direct mail,” he explains. “Also, the town is very eco-friendly and people don’t want to receive flyers with UV coatings and others that aren’t biodegradable. They feel bad putting them in the trash for landfill and they look at who is sending them. People used to be like me, excited by the look and feel of the paper. Now, many in the area say, ‘How could you!’ So in a small mountain town like Truckee, I don’t push mailers, which can give us a bad reputation.”

In addition to architectural plans, the company does a lot of work for tradeshows—and not just promotional pieces. “I just hung up on a call from the Reno Convention Center discussing whether we’d be a good fit to come in and run its business center,” Gamett says. “They were ecstatic and said it was the first time anyone had contacted them about it.” The contract will include a wide range of services, including printing flyers, stocking office products and handling the center’s shipping.

At Spry, Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana, print and promotions have long been a mainstay, accounting for as much as 80 percent of total sales. In fact, Spry recently merged with Lee Graphics and, according to David Sager—the previous owner of Lee and Spry’s current national director of office supplies and furniture—the company’s prowess in the print and promotions area was a key driver of the merger: “My business partner and I expanded from office products to furniture and janitorial. But we knew there was a hole in the print and promotions category if we wanted to provide total fulfillment. Merging with Spry filled that void.”

According to Spry CEO and president Jeff Williams, while the company’s largest print and promotion customers are in the financial institutions, medical and retail industries, “We are a full-service printer, so we do business in all sectors.”

Legacy Workplace Solutions in Brooklyn, New York, has long focused on printing. Still, it wasn’t until a merger with another company 15 years ago that it broadened its offerings into promotional products. “I have 45 years of print experience, but I wish I’d gotten into promotions sooner,” laments president and chief operating officer Jordan Kudler. “I feel like there were great opportunities and I left money on the table all those years.”

At One Point, Scranton, Pennsylvania, print and promotion account for “at least two-thirds of the company’s sales. Print is massive,” enthuses Patricia McCabe, vice president of sales and marketing. The company’s top buyers include banks, rehabilitation entities and mental health facilities, especially for students all the way up to university age. “We do a lot for those working from home,” McCabe continues. “The organization will buy supplies upfront to get the best pricing and then employees or students can go to the website and order.”

Like Gamett, McCabe has noticed a trend toward sustainability, but primarily for toners: “Buying recycled toner cartridges is huge for some customers, particularly schools, government agencies and healthcare. Recycled cartridges used to have a bad name, but we have a good vendor that rigorously tests them. Now customers want to know one, how much it costs; and two, how much ends up in landfill.”

 

Hot right now

At AHI Enterprises, San Antonio, Texas, print and promotions account for 20 percent of total annual sales, with government and education representing the largest buying sectors. Stanley cups are the latest hottest promotional product for many dealers, followed by Yeti cups and high-end apparel. “It’s been great that our wholesaler carries many of the top apparel name brands, such as Nike, Brooks Brothers, TravisMathew and The North Face, which all the university students want,” says AHI president Sandra Nolan.

According to AHI promotional and apparel specialist Denise Bueche, “Gifting is also big: nice ladies’ cardigans, caps and embroidered jackets, whatever is nice that you can put a logo on.” But this doesn’t mean some of the more traditional items are out. “We still have some customers who order calendars each year for their customers, and we sell a lot of envelopes and business cards,” says Nolan.

At One Point, “Top sellers are cyclical and depend on what’s trending,” explains McCabe. She agrees that Stanley and Yeti cups are the current winners: “There’s also a lot of streamlining for efficiencies. We make welcome boxes for companies to give to new hires, new customers or for banks for new mortgage holders. We fill the boxes with things like a Yeti, journal, pens and maybe a letter from the company president. Before, human resources or someone would have to take the time to go and collect all these items themselves. I know I did at my last job and my office was full of boxes; keeping track of what we had was difficult. Now, with a click of a button, the box can be sent and the company can go on our website to see its inventory. It saves employees a lot of time and hassle.”

“We sell a lot of pens, pencils, mugs, tote bags, embroidered garments—anything you can put a logo on,” says Legacy’s Kudler. “We do a lot of beverage napkins. Large law firms will use them in the breakroom, two or three conference rooms and other places. We just received an order for 50,000 napkins and they will go through those in four or five months.” Yet he warns that some brands have promotional limitations: “Sometimes the brand has restrictions on who can do what. For example, Yeti only allows logos to be laser etched. But there are plenty of similar products.”

 

Print in the digital age

The dealers we spoke with unanimously agreed that while the digital revolution has disrupted traditional print, it has not heralded the category’s demise but merely a shift in how print is defined.

Given Truckee’s focus on sustainability, whenever possible, Gamett tries to ensure that the architectural plans, business cards, flyers, brochures, postcards and other mailers the company prints are on recyclable paper—or perhaps not even printed at all.

“Creating designs for social media and using QR codes that people can scan instead of printed pieces are really big,” he explains. “It comes down to how customers can get their message onto people’s phones. Phones today are a part of people. No one goes anywhere without their phone, so the focus is on email, social media and QR codes that can be accessed by phone. Getting in the door can be challenging for our salespeople, but we tell customers we can provide the graphic design for their business card or event flyer. We create a QR code that can be scanned and takes the viewer to the full poster or a video where all the details come to life—all without paper. It’s digital augmented reality, which is the future.”

“There is no question print has declined since so much has gone digital,” agrees Kudler. “Many print shops have gone out of business. But we look for opportunities from other categories. For example, one customer used to spend a few thousand dollars a year with us on office products. We got a small order for promotional products and the department heads loved the high level of attention we gave them and the fact that we took their deadline seriously. It wasn’t self-serve; we even helped the company improve how its logo appears on things. Now that customer spends $30,000 to $40,000 a year with us at a much higher margin than office products. These jobs also help lock customers in because they like that we are a one-stop shop.”

While Point One experienced a decline in print during COVID-19, McCabe says things have picked up again in the last three years. “However, the category continues to evolve,” she continues. “We are seeing some banks and other clients that want digital brochures where the bankers can add their names and not worry if something changes two weeks after it is printed. They can just update the digital file.”

Bueche explains how digitization has changed the approval process at AHI: “Typically, we would quote a job and provide a proof after the purchase order was approved. Today, many customers’ marketing departments are very entrenched in the process. So we will do a quote and produce a proof that has to be approved by marketing before the purchasing department approves the purchase order.”

Nolan admits that doing the work before receiving approval was scary, but it has turned out to be an advantage in the long term. “Involving the marketing department in the process allows us to build stronger relationships,” Bueche elaborates. “We’ve had an excellent success rate, in the 90s, with very few orders not being approved, and those were because the customer had exhausted its funds and had to push the project into the next quarter.”

 

Home or away

Williams, Bazemore and Bueche agree that to succeed in this segment, in-house design capabilities are essential. “Trying to take care of customers soup to nuts requires our own in-house team,” insists Williams. “We not only create video, blogs and other content, but also help customers with their digital strategies—even pay-per-click.”

Yet others believe that where the work is done is less important than a deep understanding of the process. “There’s a huge difference between someone who just sells print and someone who understands it,” suggests Kudler. “We have a lot of print experience, so if ink goes on it, I am going to sell it. A shop with no background will subcontract out the work to one company, which will put layers of cost on the job. I know which shops are good at what; we can eliminate layers of cost by sending work to the right place. Understanding printing also puts us in a better position to quote because we know what can and can’t be done. Today, anyone can create a brochure in Photoshop and think it is printable. However, the artwork will often work on a website but will be unusable for print. It’s a great opportunity for us because there are not a lot of true print brokers with this knowledge. The result is higher margins and a better product for our customers.”

Similarly, Kudler sees opportunities come Legacy’s way from customers whose do-it-yourself attempts fail. “One of my favorite signs is one I saw for a hair salon that said, ‘We fix $15 haircuts,’” he says. “That’s how we feel when people talk about making their own cards online. They think they are saving money, but at the end of the day, the product comes back looking horrible and gets thrown in the garbage, and they come to us. We pay attention to detail and make sure the job comes out right from the start.”

McCabe says One Point used to have a print shop in its basement, but as business grew, it gave up, instead relying on local vendors.

 

Ruling out the “big boys”

The dealers were unanimous that any print and promotional business lost to Amazon has been minimal. Bazemore summed up the general sentiment: “We build relationships and give customers the personal touch they don’t get from Amazon. We don’t get products mixed up or leave packages outside in the rain; and you can’t call Amazon and get anyone in an hour.”

Bueche adds: “We measure and customize every piece of apparel we sell. We do stitch-outs no matter how often a customer has ordered from us. We also do tabletop shows at schools, for example, so administrators and teachers can see and touch what we are selling; and we give out samples. Amazon does not do these things.”

Williams adds: “We’ve never lost a print or promotions job to the big boys. It’s about service and they just don’t get custom printined items.”

 

Sage advice

Gamett firmly believes that what dealers sell in the print and promotion category should be tied to where they are based. “It depends on location and the specific market,” he explains. “If I were still in Las Vegas, I’d do direct mail for realtors four to five times a month. Here, we hardly print anything. We do our promotions differently, like digital marketing and QR codes.”

For Bazemore, the segment is full of promise: “It is a great area to expand because there is so much you can do, so there are lots of benefits to adding the category if you don’t have it. However, you need people who are very focused on details and are good, clear communicators, who can explain what you can and can’t do.”

Kudler likewise highlights the importance of specialist know-how: “Find or align yourself with someone with the technical print knowledge and don’t be afraid to ask. I am always happy to give guidance. It’s a great area where you can enjoy healthy organic growth, but don’t look at selling it like you sell office products because they are two totally different things and require different skills. There’s no price list. Print and promotion sales are regional and market driven, so you have to test the waters. Very rarely, from my experience, is price an issue. Customers just want their jobs handled effectively and efficiently.”

When asked for his top tip, Williams advises—tongue firmly in cheek—“Sell your company to Spry!” “But seriously,” he continues, “it depends on where you are in your career. If you are in your 40s or 50s and want to reinvent your business by getting involved in print and promotion, it won’t be easy, but you have more time. If you are in your 60s, you have to ask if you want or have the skill set to learn all the software and print/promo industry knowledge. But you have to sell a lot of office products to make it without selling print and promotional items.”

 

Shared enthusiasm

Predicting the future of the print and promotions categories, McCabe sums up the dealers’ overall enthusiasm: “The promo space is a $26 billion industry and continues to grow. I get super-excited about the creativity in the space, thinking about new cool, unique ideas. I also see artificial intelligence as being massive for things like the digitization of logos and cost and time savings. A lot of companies are just scratching the surface and I look forward to seeing what it will look like a year from now. I also like that there is a lot of camaraderie in this space—a lot of openness, a willingness to share ideas and vendors and to discuss what is and isn’t working for them. Print and promotions are about relationships and a high level of service, and that is never going away.”