Regional printing industry healthier as consumers renew confidence

Keith Maki, lead pressman at W.A. Fisher Co., prints envelopes for a client on the company's new digital envelop printer.

Any thoughts that the printing industry may be dead have been greatly exaggerated.

Despite increasing levels of advertising being conducted over the internet and competition from huge printing companies, regional printers say the traditional print industry is alive and well.

In fact, print may be experiencing a comeback.  

“It’s not dying,” said Dan Ericksen, vice president of Arrowhead Printing in Duluth. “For a number of years there was a big shift and the thought was that the internet was going to kill printing. But every time there’s a virus or a security breach in computers and with all the scams that are happening, people are coming back to print and taking it seriously. If I were to sum it up, people trust print more.”

Arrowhead Printing, headquartered in downtown Duluth serves a broad mix of customers, including large commercial, small business and private parties. Arrowhead Printing is capable of printing a variety of products, from a small amount of business cards to thousands of advertising copies.

To keep up with the latest in printing technology and competitors, regional printers are making substantial investments in digital printing equipment. Digital equipment performs high-speed, high-quality printing. At the same time, regional printers are facing stiff competition from online printing giants and having a tougher time finding well-trained workers.

“The digital presses are changing every single year,” said Ericksen. “Twenty years ago, you had a color copier that would do five eleven by seventeens every minute if you were lucky. Now, the new hybrid machines, which are a cross between an offset press and digital, run at high speed.”   

Digital and social media have a key role in helping businesses reach customers, said printing industry experts. However, many customers still see the value of using traditional printing for products such as invitations, advertising and for nonprofit fundraising brochures, said Ericksen.

“If someone thinks they’re going to switch it all to Facebook, such as for invitations, they’re going to be disappointed in the results,” he said. “For a number of years, people wanted to go away from printing and go to paperless to help the environment. But we’re now seeing a comeback. Print still holds a strong value.”

Like many other industries, printing has undergone significant changes. Events such as the nationwide economic recession of 2008 and 2009 hit the industry hard. Businesses trimmed advertising and marketing budgets. Some businesses closed. And printers felt the crunch.

A $90 billion per year domestic printing industry 10 years ago, has shrunk today to about $80 billion with approximately 25,000 printers across the nation, according to Creston Dorothy, owner of Pro Print in Duluth.

  Pro Print is the largest commercial printer in Minnesota north of St. Cloud. The 41-year-old company primarily serves commercial businesses, along with universities, hospitals and business-to-business.

With people leery of internet security issues, traditional print advertising provides peace of mind to recipients, said Dorothy. 

“Lots of people just click through their emails and banner ads and delete them,” he said. “But if you get something (printed) in your mailbox, at least people look at it and say, ‘somebody went to the trouble to put this together’.”

Visually appealing print products featuring raised textures or digital foil along with print distribution strategies targeting specific audiences can make print advertising and marketing extremely effective, said Dorothy. 

“For sure, print has not gone away and if you do it correctly, it has a better response rate than it has for years,” he said. “Sometimes people don’t give it the credit it deserves.”

Yet, the industry has challenges.

Investment in expensive equipment is required to keep up with the latest technology. Replacement of worn out equipment requires additional capital investment. And, a lack of skilled workers trained in printing means many printers need to train their own employees.

“There are fewer people,” Dorothy said. “Like other industries, finding good people is one of the biggest challenges for us. Now, it’s pretty hard to find anybody coming out of school with knowledge of the printing industry. It’s hard to find people trained in it, but what we do is find a good candidate and train them.”

“There are definitely less people everywhere,” Ericksen said. “With the technology, just like everywhere else, the new machines can do the work of five people.”

  Like other printers, W.A. Fisher Co. in Virginia, a 96-year-old printing company, is adapting to rapidly changing technology and competition. Its major clients are the mining, heath care and tourism industries.

“As long as the economy is locally stable, we remain stable,” said Jeff Leese, W.A. Fisher Co. president. “The best indicator on how our local economy is doing is based off how our local mines are doing. Most area businesses are directly related to the mining industry. Whether you are a local manufacturer, car dealership or a local retail store, mining impacts every business around here. It is why we are here.”    

Within print shops, more changes have occurred in the print industry over the past 10 years than in the 30 previous years, Leese indicated.

The old days of printing, where stripping, plates, chemicals and water-based ink are gone, said Leese. Instead, digital presses producing high-quality products quickly and at a low cost, are overtaking the industry.

W.A. Fisher recently invested in a digital envelope printer to better serve its clients. 

“Over the years, printing certainly has not gone away by any means,” he said. “The quantities people are printing have declined, I think in part to other forms of media such as Facebook, Twitter, online ads and email, but clients have not stopped printing their brochures, envelopes, rack cards, and postcards.”

Online printing companies, rather than any other local or regional print shop, is the biggest competition facing regional printers, Leese noted.     

“I think the online giants like Shutterfly and Vistaprint have taken a good chunk out of the small printer market with their low prices, just like what Amazon has done to the retail market industry,” he said.

In addition to its print shop, W.A. Fisher Co. offers design, marketing campaign, and web design services, which has diversified the company’s business model and helped re-position the company.

Despite competition from printing giants, the need to keep up with technology, capital investment requirements, online challenges and workforce needs, printers expect the printed word to be around for a long time.

“Print is still a very powerful medium if used correctly,” said Dorothy. “I think there’s going to be more folks dropping out and more consolidation until we get down to the level that the market truly bears. And then I just see it ongoing and still a component for the foreseeable future. I think it’s going to be around in some way, shape and form for quite a number of years.”    

Lee Bloomquist is an Iron Range based freelance writer.