Are paper prices going up, or going down? You might expect that the recession would force them down, but it isn’t that easy. Why even worry about it? The simple answer is because paper is such a large part of printing. Dick Stahle of Spectrum Press, a web printer, says that they are doing jobs where paper eats up 75% of the bid. Even on sheetfed jobs 50% to 60% paper expenses are not unusual. So, if as you might expect with the recession and all, if paper is going down, shouldn’t you expect to see much more favorable pricing?
Paper prices are a true commodity item and are generally ruled by the law of supply and demand. Currently we have a situation where several paper mills have closed. Mill floor inventories were sold at bargain prices. The printers who took advantage of those deep discounts could lower their prices, at least temporarily. Unfortunately we aren’t seeing much of that inventory in the market currently.
One of my local printers found themselves in a difficult situation because they took advantage of a great paper buy and passed the savings along to their customer. The sales rep admitted later that he didn’t discuss the reason for the low price with the customer. Big mistake. Shortly thereafter the customer came back and wanted to reorder. The mill closeout stock was no longer available and to say that the new price upset them would be an understatement. No amount of talking could persuade them that they should have been grateful for a previous bargain. Tempers flared and the customer took his printing business elsewhere because he, “could no longer trust them!” Wow, you’d think that once the situation was explained the customer would have been happy. No way. They get a big discount because of a windfall paper buy, then they expect it all the time, even if the printer loses money–how is that fair?
The truth is that mill closings decrease supply, which should in turn, increase the price. Prices however, haven’t changed much lately. They aren’t trending up or down. Why? Because demand is also down. It is also true that the printing industry has been taking it on the chin during this recession/depression. Some say that nationally printing sales are down by as much as 40%. The decrease in supply plus the decrease in demand, equals status quo.
Supply and demand doesn’t tell the whole story. Print customers have also been suffering during this economic downturn. When there’s less capital coming in there is less ability to pay out, so they cut back on marketing. We don’t need that brochure right now, or the direct mail package can be simplified, or let’s squeeze the printers for better prices.
Printers all over the country have responded to this demand by lowering prices, often to dangerous levels. Some take no-profit jobs just to keep the presses busy. Once one printer cuts costs, competitors follow suit, or else risk losing business. In this scenario no one wins. The printing customer loses, because even though they might get a temporary advantage, in the long run they are unwittingly contributing to driving their suppliers out of business. When the recession ends, they will find that their choices of vendors have shrunk and prices will go higher than ever. The printer loses because lowering the prices to the bone removes any margin for error. Printing as I’ve discussed in previous blogs such as Quality, Price, and Service–Pick Two (link), is a low profit, equipment intensive business. To leave a press idle is an enormous drain. Thus it is better to run it at break even, at least for awhile, than it is to go dry. No printer can survive long working at break even because break even doesn’t really exist. Sooner or later someone is going to make a mistake that will require a reprint. Since there isn’t any buffer, the bottom line quickly shifts from break even to loss.
For those print buyers out there, let me say that we know that things in this market are tight. There is a real temptation to make up for your slim profits by riding your suppliers or changing to new ones. Please be cautious and reasonable. Just because a desperate printer offers a great price doesn’t mean you should take it. The reason for that price could be that they are on the brink of bankruptcy, or some other problem that you don’t know about. The danger in this reckless pricing is that it establishes low water marks that can’t be sustained. You will want to keep the lower prices and maybe insist on it. That’s just the nature of business, but resist the temptation. Try and work with printers and other vendors who run lean but still profitable businesses. Trust me, pardner, you won’t like your options if at the end of this downturn all the guys in white hats are gone, and the ones in black are all that’re standing.
When I became a broker, I dreamed I could serve customers best by hand-carrying their jobs to printers who were the best fit, instead of attempting to bend their jobs to fit the printer where I was employed.