Feast or famine? Staying fed through good times and bad

Rhys Handley
Wednesday, September 18, 2019

It doesn’t bear repeating that these are uncertain times. As the Brexit deadline is delayed once again – and question marks remain over its ultimate shape and consequences – there is very little to reassure business leaders trying to steer their ships through unpredictable waters.

The BPIF’s quarterly Printing Outlook, as ever, attempts to provide something of a lighthouse to help guide the good ships of the print sector; a trove of polling, insight and forecasts to give printers a clearer idea of where they’ve been and where they’re going.

The latest findings show that 32% of printers saw increased output levels and 34% saw a decline in Q2 of 2019, while 42% are expecting growth in Q3 and 23% expect a fall. This cautious optimism heading into the second half of the year can in part be attributed to the double-edged sword that is seasonality.

In a recent Printweek poll,two-thirds of readers said seasonality was still an issue in print.

By way of seasonality, businesses can predict the fluctuations in demand throughout their calendars and brace for both the upticks and downturns that will hit as the year goes on. This can provide certainty in uncertain times, but it can also plant red flags on the path as the quieter periods approach.

Reflecting on his report in this context, BPIF economist Kyle Jardine says: “Companies can plan for recurring factors throughout the year and have strategies in place to minimise or maximise the effects of troughs and peaks. You can look at seasonal downturn and ways to cover for that, but you also need to keep things in mind like staff holidays.

“You cannot plan for shocks, but you can have contingency plans in place, and it is advisable to have those. We have had a few recently that have somewhat disrupted seasonal patterns, and our quarterly survey has picked up on that.

“The movement of Easter can change how a year looks, but a lot of businesses tend to enjoy a pre-Christmas boost with things like campaigns, displays and packaging. They will be big influencers as we go into October.”

He concludes: “The main thing to understand is that there are different sectors within the print industry, and they are affected by seasonality in different ways.”

Jardine’s final words are the ones most worth noting for the discerning, specialist printer. As the industry contracts, there are few print companies left without a specialism, whether it defines them or not. Because of the niches they choose, companies’ seasonal calendars are subject to the whims of the markets they serve.

Within their niches, some of print’s most successful businesses have devised strategies to meet the expectations of seasonality, and to prepare for those unexpected surprises.

Essential infrastructure

Currently, mailing group Whistl is gearing up for what it expects to be the busiest peak period in its 15-year history, with new and renewed contracts to satisfy across all areas of its mailing and fulfilment services.

Chief operating officer Neil Polglass explains how, when mail volumes are expected to shoot up from a weekly average of 70 million items to about 100 million in the build-up to Christmas, flexibility and spread is key to remain steady through the year.

“Since our management buyout around three and a half years ago, we have been focused on developing our infrastructure to help facilitate consistent capacity,” he says. “Mail is a significant part of our business, but we do not want to be utterly reliant on it.

“By having other avenues that we go down, this means we have a bigger spread and can offset our quieter periods in mail, which will not always line up with other sectors.

“We keep our staffing flexible to accommodate for peak periods in our warehouses and depots. Generally, around 90% of our staff are permanent compared to 10% agency, but when it comes to those busy times it can be closer to 70/30.

“Our aim is simply to hold steady and keep that good balance across the business.”

Balance is equally important to Glasgow-headquartered packaging giant Macfarlane Group, which makes the most of the differences in its main client bases to maintain a steady flow of work that mellows the less predictable tendencies of seasonality.

Complementary cycles

According to business development director Donna Lynch, the key for the group has been to span two key sectors that both require a wealth of packaging: industrial and retail. With industrial, seasonality is less of a worry as demand remains steady throughout the year, allowing it to balance out the intense peaks and troughs of the retail cycle.

“We are a market leader in supplying packaging to the major players of the retail sector and, for that, advance planning is key,” Lynch says. “Our normal peak would go right through Q4, though this has been changed somewhat by the introduction of Black Friday.

“Our peak planning sees us get into shape with as much stock as we can in advance, because logistics have improved over the years thanks to digital notifications and progress updates, which means clients generally want quicker turnaround on tighter deadlines.

“For our customers, the challenge in peak is to achieve more output in less time, so we do everything to advise them on how they can make their operations and our work with them more ergonomic and efficient.”

Staffing and capacity are crucial to keep a business ticking along as the seasons fluctuate, especially if the madness of the present day is starting to disrupt or upset those reliable patterns – potentially exaggerating those peaks and lulls.

The books market is shifting, according to Clays sales director Vicky Ellis, and the seasons are shifting with it.

She says: “We are experiencing higher volumes than previous years and believe as we saw at the start of the year that this could be related to Brexit as retailers and publishers increase their stock levels. However, we are yet to have this confirmed.

“Super Thursday has a huge impact with all publishers publishing to one or two dates in October. This not only impacts us as the printer but also the supply chain further down the line, with warehouses also experiencing huge peaks.

“We have been working with the union to increase flexibility in employment contracts and increase the number of hours available during peak weeks. This enables us to flex up and down as and when required and we also use temp workers during peak.” 


Gary White, managing director, Northside Graphics

“Our peak seasons basically run from September until Christmas, and then another in the month of May. I am not 100% sure why we have one in May, but it happens every year. The start of January is always quiet before things pick up and summer tends to be quiet, too. We mitigate peaks and troughs by giving people all the time off they want in the quiet times and having leave ‘blackouts’ during peak, so the amount of labour matches sales. We have no capacity problems and the busier our team is, the more efficient we become these days.”

Ian Clasper-Cotte, managing director, Northern Flags

“Historically, the summer has always been a mad time for us because we are a flag company and get a lot of work for outdoor events and sports. May to September has always been great for us in that respect. In recent years though we have had a growing base in exhibitions and as sport starts tailing off, we have tended to have the exhibition  season starting. It can be difficult to gauge properly sometimes but we remain focused on growth  and business retention to make sure things stay consistent across the year so as to smooth out the unexpected.”

Amanda Creedon-Bass, managing director, Solway Print

“We have two peak seasons. One runs through August and September when we have the local sales of certain breeds of sheep, and we do print for the sellers. Our main peak is Advent – November and December – where we do a lot of work for the hotel sector and SMEs, and also calendars and short runs of Christmas cards. In quiet periods like January and February, we work on promoting what we can do to customers and get the message out there, as well as making sure we find interesting high-end applications for my press operators to keep busy with.”

Zoe Deadman, managing director, KCS Print

“October to December is our peak, but there is another every year and we always fail to predict when it will occur. We do a lot of retail and, since the introduction of Black Friday, we have seen the peak come forward. We tend to alter the number of hours we work in a week depending on demand – between 36 and 42. We use quiet times for training and maintenance, so we don’t put ourselves under too much pressure. We keep an eye on what is happening in the sectors we serve and how it will affect our work levels.”

Wayne Fitzpatrick, sales director, Glossop Cartons

“We generally see an increase in demand in the second half of the year due to the seasonality of some of our customer base. If the approval of seasonal products is delayed or volume demand is not finalised, this can squeeze production lead-times so needs to be managed carefully. We aim to balance the portfolio so seasonal business is not too unbalanced as a proportion of the overall business or we have a counter balance earlier in the year. We also try to keep flexibility within the shift pattern and workforce which allows us to flex capacity during peak periods.”


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