Leaflets, Invitations, Postcards, and Greetings Cards
Commercial Books
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Banners and Advertising Boards
Folded Brochures

Buying Print: The Secret Is Knowing How to Choose (Part 2)

Buying something usually presents no big problems. Choose the product. Select the vendor. Pay. Take the product home. This works with most products, but the printing is different. You're not actually buying a product. You are buying the manufacture of a product, that is, an entire production process.

Part 2: Making Informed Decisions

Asking the right questions and getting the right answers can make decisions about how to choose a print provider more simplified and easier. Buying prints can be difficult, as you're not just buying a final product, but an entire process. From design to delivery, it is necessary to decide how to handle each job. That means facing the challenge of determining what type of print provider to use.

Whether you're looking for guidance for your first print job or are reevaluating your process after years of work, it's a great idea to ensure you know your options. In the article “Buying Print: The Secret to Knowing How to Choose (part 1)”, I explained the basic concepts of the different types of suppliers - working directly with a printing company, web-to-print platforms, intermediaries, and agencies. I also provide a table to help you start making decisions about which vendor is right for your job.

Printing is a complex process, and the table in Part 1 quickly became complicated. Even if you're clear about the restrictions that influence your choices—such as budget or timeframe—, determining whether a supplier is the right choice for you may depend on more specific details. Don't worry, you're not alone. Here's an explanation of some of those complexities. I collected the most complex questions that guide decisions about print suppliers and delved into how their reality should impact those decisions.

Is production time critical to the project?

First of all, it is important to clarify that printing companies generally specialize in providing a specific type of product, such as books, plastic cards, gifts, or large format materials. Their focus impacts the type of equipment they purchase and often defines the type of products and the specific range of runs for which they are most competitive in terms of price, quality, and delivery time. A printer that specializes in comic books may not be the best choice for printing large format posters, and even if a printer specializes in books, it may not be the ideal choice for soft-cover and hardcover books. Many printing companies also have a preferred customer profile, which may include the size and type of the company, such as direct customers or resellers, advertising agencies, or publishers. Many printing companies have sales representatives who exclusively serve the printing company's products and services (and interests). These work to find a good fit with the client and are generally the main point of contact within the company.

Option 2: Online Platforms (Web-2-Print)

These are online stores that specialize in the production of printed products. They are linked to one or more printing companies and generally use a business model focused on reducing the technical options of the products. Its objective is to increase the production volumes of each type of product and, thus, reduce costs. By processing many different jobs from several clients at the same time, they save money. Due to the high volume of production, customer support can be less personalized when working with web-2-print, and it's often difficult to talk to someone about orders after they've been placed.

The online purchase option through web-2-print, in our opinion, is the most risky, since you will probably not encounter problems until the work is sent and delivered. The minimum availability of customer service means that there may not be enough time to repeat the work if problems arise.

Both agencies and brokers must be able to offer good production times and ensure compliance. Overseeing deadlines is one of your main functions in the process. In addition, they usually have several printing companies to turn to, which can not only reduce initial delivery time estimates, but also expand the range of solutions to any last-minute problems.

If you don't have a need to follow a tight schedule and there's time for unforeseen events, you can relax and worry about other factors. But if time is of the essence, ensuring that the print management option can meet deadlines and respond to unforeseen problems is crucial.

Does the project involve a variety of product types?

If your needs are very diverse in terms of product types (for example, if you need business cards, flyers, rolls, catalogs and printed boxes) and you don't have the knowledge or internal support of a specialist, the efficient management of graphic production can present some complex challenges. At the very least, completing everything will require closer monitoring. It will also be more difficult to obtain competitive prices and manage production.

Working directly with a single printer to manufacture a variety of products will be an impossible option or, at least, less advisable because, when working outside their area of expertise, printers are often unable to provide good service. It could end up with problems with deadlines, pricing, or quality—or perhaps all three. If you want to use a printer directly as your supplier, the solution is to look for at least one good printer for each type of product you need. Then, work to build and maintain relationships with each of them.

Opinions about web-2-print production in such circumstances may vary considerably depending on specific product requirements. In many cases, if one attempts to manufacture types of products or functionalities that don't align with the standard offerings of a platform, using this method can become substantially more expensive or even unattainable. However, if platforms are found that specialize in the desired printing services and there is time and capacity to oversee production on several different platforms, web-2-print can be considered as a viable alternative.

Is price a crucial factor?

Price may not be the most important element in every situation, but the truth is that nobody likes to pay more than is fair for a product or service. In printing, because of all the different options that may be available for products and all the different production solutions that printers may have - machines, workflows, paper suppliers, etc. -, you can end up with a wide range of prices when you request quotes. If price is a primary concern, the rule is obviously to get several proposals to compare. However, it is important that these proposals are technically prepared and very competitive printers for your specific product needs. It's also very important to ensure that you're comparing the same characteristics between all suppliers, which can be as challenging as comparing multiple brands on a grocery shelf.

Requesting a quote from multiple printers is a common practice when looking for a cheaper way to print a job. Prices vary widely between companies in a way that is not always logical, making it difficult to anticipate which printers are the most economical. There are several reasons for this, but the main ones are differences in production costs, the price of paper and other raw materials, and the commercial interest that suppliers have for a particular job or customer. When working directly with printers, the biggest difficulties you may encounter may lie in identifying the best option for your product types. Nowadays, to achieve this, sometimes means looking far away from your location. Also, if you're managing the process yourself, it's important to ensure that you're comparing the same product features with different printers, as I mentioned before, and that you have time to manage the process of requesting and comparing quotes.

With online platforms, because they generally have real-time budgeting systems, you should be able to obtain instant quotes, which helps a lot in the selection process. As for the most competitive products to print using web-2-print, this tends to vary from platform to platform. Generally, each one has a set of standard products with functionalities optimized for economic prices. For non-standard products and larger quantities, web-2-print costs may be more expensive than other solutions.

When working with brokers or production agencies, it's safe to assume that your knowledge and experience can be an aid in finding the most suitable suppliers based on customer restrictions. Part of your business strategy is to make good value propositions for customers. Thus, when the budget is tight, turning to a broker or production agency may be a good choice.

How important is print quality?

Of course, here's the revised version:

Although the quality standards of a graphic product are similar to any other product, there are many moments in the production of a job that can go wrong and create serious problems and unmet expectations. This is an industry focused on specifications, with all products differing from each other (which significantly increases the possibility of production errors). Printing is an industry where explaining what you want to achieve at the end of the production process is not exactly easy. The endless possibilities of finishing, printing, and raw materials are challenging to manage. All of this leads to frequent errors. For this reason, the best way to try to avoid problems is to obtain evidence and prototypes of the work you intend to produce, although it is not always possible to do so without associated costs. Additionally, the support of someone with experience in the field can be crucial to avoid unwanted surprises during or at the end of the production process.

By working directly with a printer, it will be possible to closely monitor the production process and detect any deviations from the expected quality. Another great advantage of this option is that there will probably be some approval of the work before going into production mode. The only limitation of this option is the fact that the maximum level of product quality will be directly related to the printer's production possibilities. If you have a high standard for the quality of the desired finish, depending on the equipment, production schedule, and personnel, the printer you choose to work with may not be able to achieve the desired results. Working with web-2-print platforms generally means dealing with high-volume, production-ready services. These automated processes generally have very efficient systems for identifying products with quality problems.

However, discrepancies have been observed between customer expectations and the services offered by the platforms. For example, the color a customer is expecting can be very different from the result because platforms' fully standardized color management systems are blind to the specificities of an individual image. This also happens because, generally, there are many different works to be printed on the same sheet and the color calibration will be adjusted to better serve the group and not to a single work. Some platforms provide (or sell) samples to try to mitigate these problems, but in general, it's not possible to obtain proof of work before production.

Product quality is one of the main pillars of commitment on the part of brokers and agencies. To be successful, they must ensure that the customer receives a product with the quality they expect. Meeting these expectations requires understanding both the customer's needs and the capabilities and limitations of a printer.

It is the job of production agencies and brokers to manage projects with a focus on adding value to the service. This means aligning customer expectations with the technical skills of the printers to ensure quality. Issues of time, product types, budget, and quality tend to be the most important in determining the best ways to manage a print job. However, you may have other questions as well. Take a look at “Buying Print: The Secret Is Knowing How to Choose (Part 1)” for a graphic that helps you think about all the conditions and restrictions that may impact your work, and which suppliers will offer the best results for your specific needs.

Analyzing these questions and information about suppliers can help you make a choice for the next job. Remember, however, that it's not necessary to make a long-term decision. Instead, you can create a quick and efficient system to consider all vendor options whenever you start a project and attempt to establish relationships with more than one type of print vendor. Especially for new projects, you can also seek help from someone specialized in the printing industry, who can explain the advantages and disadvantages of different options in relation to your specific job.

When you're not sure if you can invest time to monitor the production process and you have no other way to do this job, opt for a graphic production agency. Most of the time, managing the printing process is best done by an experienced print producer. Printing is a process in which it is difficult to anticipate many of the problems that may arise. Selecting the best supplier for a product depends on so many factors - what you're printing, quantity, type of printing, materials, etc. Even if you decide to manage everything directly with a printer, before starting your next print job, take a moment to assess your needs and restrictions to ensure you get the best print management provider right from the start. When boxes, rolls, or material packaging arrive perfect, on time and within budget, you'll thank yourself.

Design & DTP: Spice. Creative Seasoning

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