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Picky, picky, picky

Dec 1, 2003 12:00 AM

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When it comes to paper, print buyers tend not to focus on the technicalities. While printers may consider such characteristics as paper grade, basis weight, finish and brand name when selecting the best paper for a print job, customers approach paper selection in an entirely different manner.

Ask professional print buyers and designers what influences their paper choices, and their answers will usually focus on six areas: appropriateness, performance, shelf life, history, availability and cost. By understanding their selection process and their paper priorities, you can serve your customers better.

  1. Appropriateness

    Choosing a paper that's appropriate for the project is a common first step in narrowing paper selection. Knowing how a piece will be used, and by whom, helps determine what papers should be considered. Is it a direct-mail piece? Is it a media kit for a trade show? Will it be tossed in the trash quickly or will it sit on an executive's coffee table for a year? Is it for a consumer or a corporate environment? Amy Hitt, director of production services for marketing communications agency Crosby Marketing Communications (Annapolis, MD), calls this “perceived value.” Determining this value is usually her first goal when choosing paper.

    Paper selection definitely contributes to a job's perception or image. Jim Hamilton, a sales representative for Quebecor World Universal Press (Westwood, MA), encourages printers to ask their customers, “What is the piece supposed to convey?” If, for example, the end user is environmentally conscious, he or she might notice whether a recycled sheet has been used. Nonprofits conducting a fundraising campaign might choose uncoated stock over high-gloss, coated stock to avoid looking too high-end. A different substrate would be chosen for an annual report that needs to convey a message about a firm's robust financial health.

    Part of determining “appropriateness” includes consideration of how a piece will be delivered to the end user. If the final product will be mailed, then weight and other mailing issues are vital. Will it need envelopes or some other form of carrier? Does this piece need to match other corporate materials?

    Printers should try as much as possible to get in on the ground floor of their clients' project planning, to help them begin preselecting stock that makes sense for the job.

  2. Performance

    Paper performance is probably the most critical of buyers' paper concerns. Customers want to be sure the paper will perform well on press, as well as in postpress, and will deliver the expected results. For this information, customers rely heavily on their printers for paper expertise.

    “If a printer has encountered problems or concerns with a paper, I'd like to know about it — especially if I'm planning to use that paper for a big project,” notes Debbie Kipp, vice president/production manager for the Stobie Group (St. Louis), a marketing communications agency.

    Customers appreciate knowing if printers previously ran into printing, folding, inkjetting/lasering or other issues with a particular paper. For Jill Alex Connolly, corporate communications manager at semiconductor company Analog Devices (Norwood, MA), for example, quality issues concerning dot gain, color and folding weigh heavily. Connolly typically buys four- and eight-color printing, including brochures, kits and folders; her department is responsible for establishing and maintaining the standards for Analog's corporate visual identity system.

  3. Shelf life

    Since most print materials don't come with a “use-by” date, like milk or other dairy products, customers expect guidance on a sheet's shelf life.

    “How does the paper stand up in storage?” queries Linda Powers, principal of Powers Design (Wellesley, MA). “Hot and muggy weather makes some paper look wilted.”

    John Bergdoll, creative director of Creative Solutions (Needham, MA), tends to consider a paper's acidity: “How quickly is it likely to fade or yellow? Problems arise when a client overbuys a stock because of a great price — and then has to throw out the unused balance because it lost its ‘new look,’” he observes.

  4. History

    A paper's history is a big deal — buyers want to know if their printer has had experience with the client's chosen substrate, particularly with specialty papers. When Stobie Group's Debbie Kipp encountered problems with a print job, she moved the reprint work to a different, and presumably better, printer. Ultimately, however, Kipp ended up educating the printer about the paper's performance, since she had the most experience with the sheet.

    Some designers are cautious about specifying trendy paper. It might be hot now, but will it look dated next year? “It really hits a sour note with clients when the paper we selected six months ago is no longer being stocked for a reprint because it sold poorly,” says Creative Solution's Bergdoll. “It's horrendous when that is one sheet of many that needs to fit in with the rest of a client's presentation.”

  5. Availability

    Tell your customers as early as possible if a paper selection is a mill item, and whether there's an extended delivery time. While printers generally purchase paper for their clients, print buyers often rely on advice from mill and merchant reps to stay current. (If the production schedule on a print job is particularly tight, some buyers do count on their spec reps to obtain paper on their behalf.)

    Print production specialist Karen Casale McLaughlin, who works for a national clothing retailer based outside of Boston, maintains a paper-sample file. When considering a new sheet, she asks her paper rep to send a sample to her printer to tail on an upcoming job. A team meeting between the client, the printer and the paper company rep ensures there are no surprises on press.

  6. Cost

    Since paper can account for a third to even half of the total cost of a print job, experienced customers keep price in mind when specifying paper. This is where paper knowledge really makes a difference.

    Customers want to know whether an alternative sheet can give them the print quality they want, at a lower price. Designer Debra Beck of Beck Designs (Wellesley, MA) asks printers about house sheets, as well as what they might have “on the floor,” left over from a previous job.

    Quebecor World's Hamilton cautions customers about being “penny-wise and pound foolish” when specifying paper, though. “The difference between a mid-price sheet and a premium grade is a small price to pay if the intended result is an excellent reproduction of illustrations,” he notes. “The established grades that have stood the test of time will always perform well for you.”

The future of paper and digital printing

The total demand for the five major paper grades (coated and uncoated freesheet, coated and uncoated groundwood and newsprint) have declined between 1998 and 2003, according to a recent study by the Graphic Arts Marketing Information Service (GAMIS) of the PIA (Alexandria, VA). Demand declined for all major paper grades except for uncoated groundwood during this period. A faltering economy, reduced advertising spending and a shift toward alternative communication media were primarily responsible for reduced printing paper demand.

The GAMIS study, however, projects a 0.45 percent growth in printing paper demand in the coming five years. All major grades, except for news-print, will experience low, but positive, growth.

“The electronic print process will continue to be an area of significant developmental focus by equipment, paper, ink, chemical and postpress suppliers,” claims the GAMIS study. “Continued improvements across all aspects of the process will… enable it to penetrate traditional print markets to a greater degree in the future. Most of the existing major formats (monochrome, color, liquid toner and dry toner) will grow… as a result of strong value propositions relative to competing conventional print processes and an increasing interest level in variable printing.”

The emergence of the digital-printing process (vs. traditional processes) will depend on the success of joint-development initiatives on the part of industry suppliers, according to the study. Due to the importance of the paper/ink/process interaction, joint development activities are expected to increase. The study suggests that the digital-print process will steadily improve in terms of print quality, relative cost, low-cost-paper availability and overall market penetration within a five-year timeframe.

“Potentially, the inkjet process may someday become the dominant digital printing process,” asserts the study. It is expected to grow faster than any other printing process over the next five years. To drive this growth, new applications that leverage the color and variable-print capabilities of inkjet will continue to be identified and developed.

The increased availability of lower-cost/higher-performing substrates will be a critical driver of future growth in both the wide and narrow inkjet format markets. “An increased variety of lower-cost papers with unique combinations of absorbency and surface/optical properties will be required,” says the GAMIS study.

For more information on the “Characteristics of Paper Substrates” study or details on becoming a GAMIS member, contact Jackie Bland, executive director of GAMIS, at

Printer/buyer guide to printing

“Put It on Paper! The Newcomer's Guide to the Printing Industry,” by Margie Gallo Dana, offers print buyers a plain-English guide to working with their printers, and printers a perspective on buyer issues. “Put It on Paper!” is available for sale as an e-book at Hard-copy books will be available for sale later this winter through