Can SMEs take on W2P’s big three?

For web-to-print giants Photobox, Truprint and Vistaprint, personalised print is their lifeblood, but it is a market that most commercial printers have either struggled to compete in or not entered at all.

However, as the sector continues its rapid growth – Photobox said last month that it still sees 70% growth year-on-year in canvas printing – there may still be an opportunity for smaller commercial printers to get in on the act too.

Photobox group technical innovation director James Lawrence-Jones says canvases are popular because the demand from consumers for personalised gifts, or to personalise their own homes, is growing. 

“Historically people would perhaps go to Ikea or similar and buy a framed print, knowing that 10,000 other people might have the same picture in the same frame on their wall,” he says.

“Now, the quality of cameras and automatic after-image processing means that people can capture and produce pictures to a similar standard and resolution as they would have previously bought off the shelf.”

He adds that this trend has also started to expand into other areas of home furnishings, such as cushions – another major growth area at Photobox.

Since 2009, Ken Messom Creative Artwork (KMCA) owner Tim Messom has mainly operated his small canvas printing company through a Facebook group called ‘Save Tim from Bankruptcy’, which he started when his business was struggling during the recession.

Like Photobox, he uses Epson wide-format machinery to produce canvases. When the business started out he only sold his father’s artwork on canvases, but he has since expanded his offering.

“I now spend most of my time looking at people’s weddings and babies, and standard images that the general public want putting onto canvas,” says Messom.

He says canvas printing is popular because canvases are simple and look good in most homes.

“These days we’re a bit more minimalist and less busy inside our homes. Getting rid of the mount and the frames and keeping it simple but big, bright and colourful suits the modern interior better.”

Very few commercial printers actually offer canvas printing – or indeed many of the other types of personalised printing – as a service as it is a market that many feel is completely dominated by the large web-to-print firms.

But Messom thinks that the way into the market is by getting the price right and effective marketing.

“I like to think that my prices are competitive with any of the big companies, so if commercial printers can get their price right then they can compete,” he says.

“After that it’s about how you get your name out there so if you haven’t got a big budget you have to be quite inventive.”

Niche work

For some printers, it seems that one successful way to offer personalised print as a service is to tap into a niche. A Google search shows that these can range from printing on wood through to producing t-shirts and mugs decorated with, say, coarse fishing artwork aimed at anglers.

Lawrence-Jones believes that 3D dye-sublimation – the method that Photobox uses to print on phone and tablet cases – is a major opportunity for the future.

“That technology has some good opportunities to produce a range of products that can’t be produced through traditional flat press sublimation, from Christmas ornaments, to portable battery packs, to tableware or glassware,” he says.

“Any suitably coated 3D object could ultimately be personalised using this process.”

Folkestone-based garment and gift specialist Frizbee was established in 2003. Managing director David Harvey says a head start into the personalised print market was key for his business.

“I wouldn’t want to start in this market now; it’s very expensive if you want to do it properly,” he says.

“The only way for a commercial printer to go into this would be to go into it big. If you had half a million pounds to buy the kit and had a lot of salesmen then you could do it. 

“We see sign companies buy a single embroidery machine, but then if somebody comes along and wants 100 garments, their machine is then tied up for two weeks, whereas we can turn that around in a day.”

A commercial printer could use personalised print for other beneficial purposes, for example as a marketing and communications tool, according to The Magic Touch managing director Jim Nicol.

His company sells an OKI A4 laser transfer printer with white ink for £2,000, which Nicol says printers could use to print personalised gifts that could be used to both retain customers and target new clients.

“When you send somebody a personalised mug, t-shirt or card, it has that extra meaning. If you want to get somebody’s attention in the print industry, you’ve got to give them something that does that,” he says.

“If printers pick their top 50 customers that haven’t traded for six months and send them a nice little message on a mug with that company’s logo and the person’s name on it, they could all retain those clients.”

While tapping into the consumer market dominated by the likes of Photobox, then, may prove tricky unless you can afford the investment to make it work, it seems that all commercial printers might be able to use personalised print to their benefit in some way, providing they use their imagination.