Caught in the net

The web-to-print (W2P) revolution – for industry analysts predict that such it will be – has been a longer time coming to the UK than other parts of the world. Last year’s The Industry Measure research into the uptake of W2P services found most of the industry’s early adopters had already adopted, but just 6% of printers were intending to invest in W2P systems in 2008 – and of that 6%, only 8% saw it as a key business opportunity. Contradicting that, however, a Canon-commissioned InfoTrends study published in Q4 of last year put the level of growth in W2P at a staggering 68% in the next five years. According to this later study, only 20% of UK printers already have a W2P solution, and this will double to 40% by 2014. “Web-to-print is no longer a phenomenon restricted to digital printers,” remarks Canon’s head of professional imaging, Ben Milford. “Litho printers are also beginning to understand the benefits of reduced administration burden and automated workflows.”

Some suppliers to the UK W2P market maintain that UK printers are taking a deliberately downbeat attitude to promoting their W2P investments, and that there are more W2P systems out there than are known about. “We have more than 1,700 systems installed worldwide, and about 10% of those are in the UK,” says Transeo Media’s product manager Neil Bather, “but only the tip of the iceberg is ever known about in the industry because, at least for now, a W2P system represents a strong commercial advantage, and printers don’t want their rivals to know they have it.”

Which is dismaying for the industry because, as The Industry Measure senior analyst Heidi Tolliver-Nigro says, “it’s important to a developing industry that potential technology users see plenty of successful role models – without those, adoption will be slow”. Interestingly, Bather says that one W2P installation often leads to a cluster of enquiries from rival printers, “who are worried about losing sales to the printer who does have the system, and want to get on board”.

Currently, there are two main models of use for W2P systems: what could be termed ‘closed-loop’ and ‘virtual storefront’. In a closed-loop implementation, a W2P system is used to set up customer-specific micro-sites, that are often branded to the customer’s own visual identity, via which the customer can either order stock call-offs or specify print. By contrast, in a virtual storefront environment a W2P system is open to orders from any customer, including new customers who may not even be businesses but private individuals.

Pretty much all of the W2P systems currently on the market can be used in either or both ways, and both are capable of generating plenty of extra revenue without leaching from existing workstreams. A virtual storefront, properly advertised and pushed up the Google results listings, can pull in business from all over the UK and further afield from entirely new customers who are often attracted by the convenience factor of being able to order print on the web “just like they can order books from Amazon”, says A Local Printer’s managing director Ray Burn. The firm’s self-developed W2P system now generates around £800,000 of extra income each year, “from customers who know nothing about print and don’t want to know anything about print”.

Sealing the deal
The closed-loop system, on the other hand, generates extra revenue by attracting greater levels of work from existing customers, placed “because the ordering process is made easy by the W2P front-end”, says Transeo’s Bather. “We have one user who thought he had all of a big company’s print, but when they switched that customer over to online ordering, they got a big shock because suddenly they were pulling in loads more.” New customers, too, are increasingly beginning to specify an online ordering capacity from their printers; sometimes sales can be made on the basis of having the facility. One South Shields-based printer recently approached one of the big unions and, after a demonstration of their new W2P system, collected a contract for £2m.

In this patchwork way, the UK print industry is moving into wider-scale adoption of W2P, and as it does so the impact on its salesforce is high. But maybe not in the direction that many printers might have expected. As A Local Printer’s experience shows, new business generated by a website is often additional rather than replacement work, and crucially what it can do is to free up sales staff “to have different kinds of conversations with customers”, says Bremy UK’s sales director Colin Sarling. “Plenty of print industry sales staff are in reality just glorified order-takers – they build a relationship with a customer but then just go to see them to take the details of their next order. If you have a W2P front-end scooping up all that kind of work, what you suddenly get is a sales force that’s free to actually sell and develop new business.”

Getting personal
In any case, says Nick Bourne, managing director of MIS developer Imprint, customers still prefer to meet face to face – particularly when you’re talking complex print solutions. “Web-to-print is about order-placement, not about developing relationships in any other sense than simple basics. Once you have salespeople selling more sophisticated print you need a good personal relationship to develop trust and win orders.” Bourne, whose W2P module WebDesk is integrated to the overall Imprint MIS, believes that total automation is “where the possible people savings lie – but it’s much more likely that administration costs, rather than increase, will remain static because the whole administration burden can be automated”.

Bremy’s Sarling reckons that the average W2P solution is more likely to replace administrators than salespeople. “It’s all about business flow automation. Orders from a W2P front-end can be configured so they simply drop into the queue with a job ticket, get printed and delivered, and then the MIS is automatically triggered to send an invoice – you can immediately see that if there are casualties in implementing W2P, they’re more likely to be back-office guys than sales people.”

But if the experience of one West Midlands printer is typical, all it takes is a little creative thinking to avoid redundancies: this printer, 18 months into full implementation of its W2P system, found that the stockholding side of its business was growing “while our bought ledger clerk was sitting around twiddling her thumbs”, according to the MD. “She was happy to retrain, so we made her warehouse manager and now she runs our materials planning side as well.”

With dropping margins, rising equipment prices and overcapacity, the key to survival in a tough market, Sarling believes, is ultimately in printers’ recognition that “at the moment they’re managing customers’ print, but they need to be managing customers’ data”. He believes that a W2P front-end is only the thin end of a very positive wedge: “There are all kinds of services that printers could be adding to their basic proposition, which take the data from the customer and repurpose it to whatever media channel – brochure, email, point-of-sale work. In theory, as long as those jobs can be templated, they can be ordered via a W2P system – which should more properly be called a web-to-fulfilment system, in that case.”

The Sheffield-based commercial printer got its first W2P system four years ago, but switched last year to PressSense iWay: “We learned first how not to do it, and now we’re putting that to good use,” says managing director Jon Bailey. ProCo runs its system in a closed-loop configuration, selling general marketing communications print to existing customers and enabling them to call off stock from its warehousing facility; the system feeds to both platesetters for conventional litho print, and to the company’s raft of HP digital presses.

Now the W2P system is up to cruising speed, Bailey is free to quantify the benefits: “It has pulled in more work from existing customers,” he says, “but to us the great plus is that it takes away all the little time-consuming tasks like chasing artwork and placing the order – so we get to focus on building the relationships behind the orders.”

Bailey says (“fingers crossed”) implementation hasn’t meant shedding staff. “Instead, we’ve had to recruit people to sit and run the dashboard like an accounts manager, and we’ve also had to take people on to make sure the jobs all fit in our workflow.” He is committed, he says, to using the W2P system, “maybe more like a customer relationship aid than an order processing system – it means our sales people are free to ring up and chat and make the customers feel special. Without that, no W2P system in the world is going to keep our business ticking over.”

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