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Jun 1, 1997 12:00 AM

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Back in the late 1960s, when quick printers first started out, securing a good retail location was the basis for establishing a successful business. Today, it seems that location is still important, although the specific market you're aiming at will determine precisely which location will serve you best.

Some quick printers swear that being in a highly visible retail location is the key to success. Their rationale is that out of every 100 people who may come in with orders under $50, there will be 10 who will place big orders and become regular customers.

Tom Crouser, president of Charleston, WV-based Crouser and Associates, a consulting firm specializing in the quick print industry, believes that walk-in customers should always be welcomed, no matter how small their order.

"When I had my print shop years ago, we had walk-ins all the time," remembers Crouser. "Once, someone came in and needed to have a bunch of invitations printed. That someone happened to be from AT&T and the order placed that day was the first of many. AT&T became one of our biggest clients," enthuses Crouser.

Crouser also doesn't believe that accepting walk-in customers is something that happens with small shops only. "I've worked in a large printing company with $2 million in sales, where walk-ins still were welcome."

Another quick printer who thrives in a retail location is Dick Albrecht, owner of Business Imaging Group (Brighton, MI). Because Albrecht is in a rural area, on a main road between two major cities, his customers, by definition, drive in as opposed to walk-in.

According to Albrecht, these drive-in/walk-in customers create lots of repeat business. "Although we serve both major corporate accounts and walk-in accounts/cash accounts, our cash accounts still outweigh our major businesses. Last year we did $1.6 million in sales: Of that, our cash sales were almost $300,000," exclaims Albrecht.

"Our growth has come from being open to all business however small. We've tried salespeople on the road and that hasn't worked. We've advertised in the trade magazines, too, and still find that it's still location and visibility that's bringing in the business."

Being open to walk-in customers does give quick printers the opportunity to turn a one-time customer into a regular buyer of services. "One way of doing this is to work with all walk-in customers on the assumption that they are potential long-term clients," continues Albrecht.

Albrecht is convinced that establishing a relationship with customers is what gets them to come back to the quick print shop rather than going into a Staples or Office Max, where they are basically an unknown entity.

"We believe that if you give good helpful service to every walk-in customer, the customer will come back. We don't buy the view that people come in once and then never again. It's up to the sales staff to sell products and solutions so that a one-time walk-in will become a life-long customer," explains Albrecht.

Dave Fellman, president of David Fellman & Associates (Cary, NC), however, disagrees with the premise that every walk-in customer should be given the same time and effort. He believes that rather than attend to every walk-in customer, quick printers should make some sort of distinction between the walk-ins in an effort to assess whether they are, in fact, worth the time and effort.

"An important consideration is to make sure that the time you spend is proportional to the value you're likely to gain," explains Fellman. "A small or occasional customer can still be a good customer, but not if he or she takes up more of a salesperson's time and other resources than it's worth. Part of the key to making good decisions with occasional prospects is to factor in the size of those occasional orders," he states.

Fellman suggests that a prospect who might place two or three $1,500 orders each year might be worth spending some of your resources on, whereas the prospect who might give you two or three $80 orders is not.

Fellman's advice is to put the $80 prospect on your mailing list, but not on your contact list. For him, direct mail or some other form of advertising, is the only cost-effective means of marketing to low-volume, occasional prospects.

As for how often to follow up with a worthwhile occasional prospect, Fellman suggests that printers stay in contact, without turning into a "pain in the butt."

"If the order's worth pursuing, it's worth at least a couple of phone calls and at least one face-to-face meeting. The 'cost' of those activities is what you have to consider in determining your minimum "pursuit standards." Once you win the first order, you can start to factor in the longer-term value of an occasional customer, including the possibility that the customer's needs will grow," states Fellman. "When that happens, you know that the time and effort spent were profitable."

On the spectrum of quick printers are those who began in retail locations, where their business has become successful mainly through walk-in customers, but who, over the years, have added a number of corporate clients, too.

Gordon Knowles of Perfect Image Printing (Charlotte, NC) owns a 17+ employee concern that averages $1.5 million in sales a year. Walk-in customers were responsible for their huge success for the first few years. Later on, however, walk-ins became more of a headache than anything else and they were the primary reason for Knowles' decision to move out of the retail environment and into an industrial park.

"I first opened a quick print shop in 1981 on one of the busiest streets in Charlotte," states Knowles. "It took only a few months before we got incredibly busy. Eventually, we decided to hire an outside salesperson to bring in more corporate work but we still had huge over-the-counter trade," Knowles continues.

"By 1991, we had outgrown our location and realized that all our retail business consisted of wedding invitations, $6 rubber stamps and $.10 copies. The business had reached a point at which we were spending an hour on a $10 job. It just wasn't worth our while anymore," concludes Knowles.

At this point, the once profitable walk-in customer was an aspect of the business that Knowles wanted to move away from. To achieve this goal, as well as save on rent, the company moved out of the retail location and into an industrial park.

"Being in this sort of location rather than in a busy visible street, definitely solved our problem of walk-in customers, but at the same time, our sales dropped and continued to drop for the next three years," continues Knowles.

"Then, because outside salespeople were bringing in a lot of corporate business, our revenue picked up."

Ironically, even though they were off the beaten track, Knowles started seeing walk-in customers again. "The difference, though, was that the walk-in customers we got at the industrial park location brought in a different kind of work than they did in our retail location. Instead of the onesy-twosys and rubber-stamp jobs, we're getting the $400 to $500 orders and even some $1,000 orders."

"Now and again we still get a $20 and $30 business card order, but mostly, what we're seeing is walk-in customers bringing in a much greater volume of work. This ultimately means that the dollar volume being generated by walk-in customers is much greater than it was before," exclaims Knowles.

"We lost most of our retail lobby copy and fax customers when we moved. And, we were glad we did. Their business amounted to about $1,500 per month, but we make it up by spending more time chasing good commercial business," Knowles opines.

"We also had a marketing plan that involved hiring a full-time outside sales person one year before we moved," continues Knowles. "This, together with a new focus on printing rather than copying, has resulted in our average order size being doubled."

Carl Gerhardt, from American Speedy Printing Center (Colorado Springs, CO), agrees that it's the type and volume of work that walk-in customers bring in that's important.

"The question, for me, is not whether walk-in customers are worth a printer's time and effort, but rather 'retail business' versus 'commercial business'," says Gerhardt. "Most quick printers will tell you they want the walk-in commercial business. As far as I am concerned, that definitely comes from being in a highly visible location and not stuck away in an industrial park."

Even printers who believe that walk-in customers contribute to the success of their business don't want to rely on walk-in customers who bring in limited revenue. "Often self-service operations bring in as little as $300 a month in revenue. It pays us to focus on the more upscale business and head away from the war in the low-end marketplace," he concludes.