A market that looks pretty as a picture: postcard printing

Jon Severs
Wednesday, July 18, 2012

There is more to postcards than meets the eye. Through added value and website apps, this sector could offer plenty of growth for innovative printers

Considering the postcard is generally a rather unassuming item, it seems remarkable that it was invented, so some believe, by a man crying out for attention. Back in 1840, the writer Theodore Hook drew a caricature of postal workers he felt needed wider acclaim. So he pasted a stamp and his own address on the back of the card on which he had drawn his creation and popped it in the post, allowing all who encountered it to gaze upon his self-defined masterpiece. Out of this ego trip, the postcard was born.

From there, the postcard rose to become a staple part of any holiday, souvenir hunt or DM campaign and a cast-iron money-maker for printers for the next 160 years. Today, however, while the DM side of postcard printing remains almost as key to the digital age of the past 10 years as it ever was, the retail side of the business – souvenir, holiday and collectables – has suffered under foreign competition and digital rivals. Yet there are signs that this plucky 150x100mm bit of card is fighting back, presenting brand new opportunities for the printing industry.

The retail side of the sector is usually thought of as consisting only of glossy images of beaches and resorts, received through the post from smug friends and family. In fact, the souvenir market – postcards bought to mark a visit to a gallery, museum or city – is just as big, as are collectable cards sold to film and television buffs.

"Most people are stuck seeing a postcard as a seaside item, but they are much more than that," says Harry Skidmore, managing director of Easibind, a leading printer for both DM and retail postcards. "As a souvenir item, a postcard is a low-hassle, low-cost buy, and so it cannot really be beaten."

"The collectable market is also substantial," adds Nick Morley, commercial director at postcard publisher Pyramid International. "We have licences for a range of high-profile brands that we use for our postcards, including Spiderman, Batman and James Bond."

Mixed fortunes
The retail side has three defined areas, therefore, and each has slightly differing fortunes. In the holiday postcard market, the current situation is a mixed bag.

"Not as many postcards are now posted, that is clear," says Brian Lund, publisher of Picture Postcard Monthly magazine. "However, people are still buying them en masse, they just keep them rather than sending them."

Rodney Villiers, managing director of Northern Ireland printer The Postcard Company, agrees that volumes in the holiday market are pretty stable currently, but warns it is an extremely volatile market, rising and falling depending on world events.

"When the foot-and-mouth crisis hit 15 or so years ago, that really hit our business, as people were not moving around the country and so had no need to buy postcards," he explains. "That was followed by September 11, which caused another dip due to the lack of American tourists coming over. You could see the impact of these events on sales. So for some postcard companies – those that just do holiday work – one event could really put them in trouble."

Villiers also warns that, although the print volumes remain high, it is not necessarily UK printers doing the work in the holiday sector. He explains that the past five years has seen a lot of work move to Southeast Asia for cheaper production.

Much of the UK work has also gone short-run, adds Lund, with photographers and small local publishers doing short runs at local printers, rather than long runs at the traditional litho postcard printers. The fact that two of the leading traditional postcard printers in the holiday sector declined to comment for this feature is possibly testament to the shift in how and where the volumes are printed.

That said, Colourstream managing director John Green claims that the problem of foreign encroachment on postcard work could be partially self-inflicted. Colourstream recently printed 7m postcards for Autobond to finish live on stand at Drupa and Green says doing this work made him realise that he – and other UK printers – should be seeking out more of it, rather than assuming they cannot compete.

"In the UK, we are quite down on ourselves about what we can do and so we don’t try," he says. "We don’t do postcards normally, but we printed 7m for Autobond, so we obviously can do them competitively. Part of it may be that we don’t get approached for it – this may also be the case for others – and we just don’t seek it out. Perhaps we should."

Precision Printing managing director Gary Peeling says innovation is also important to win postcard work, adding value to win work back to the UK. He says that ultra short-run postcard work emanating from the web is growing and, because it demands very quick turnarounds and extensive infrastructure to be able to deliver to the UK market, it favours UK printers.

"We are printing a lot of postcards emanating from the web-to-print retailers we work with," he explains. "This is where the consumer uploads a picture and we print it and send it as a postcard. Then you have the apps market with firms such as sincerely.com. You take a picture on your iPhone and you can send it straight away as a postcard, which we print and send to the stated recipient."

Peeling says both of these areas are booming and that they prove there is still a real affinity for the holiday postcard format – printers just have to go looking for the work.

"The photos could have stayed in the virtual space, but the fact is people want a printed, physical representation of that photo and I think this has given the format more longevity – it has given another outlet for the creation of postcards," he says.

In the souvenir sector, things are just as buoyant, says Lund. "You only have to walk around any big city and you will see how many postcard racks are still about. Walk into any museum and gallery and it is the same story," he says.

For the city souvenirs, the imagery tends to be iconic landmarks or design pieces with proverbs or sayings on them; for the galleries and museums, the postcards tend to show current exhibitors’ works or famous artistic achievements. But Villiers says that whatever the image, the format is always the same.

"People have tried to change from that traditional design – especially in terms of size – but varying from the bespoke model in our experience means the product does not sell," he reveals. "That includes novelty items, like a postcard the size and shape of a pint of Guinness or a magnet or sticker back – these still don’t sell."

Adding value
Others disagree. Easibind’s Skidmore says being able to add value – for example, with 3D effects, magnetic backs or sticker backs – to souvenir postcards is bringing work back to the UK after the sector has spent years abroad.

"Postcard printing is migrating back to the UK from Southeast Asia because UK print is becoming ever-more competitive. We are adding value because we are being innovative," he says. "We have to go to the agencies with the solutions, and really show them what we can do at a price that is still competitive with what they could get in Southeast Asia."

John Gilmore, managing director of Autobond, says that his company’s laminators are being used by many printers to give this innovation, with the machines being used to place a magnetic back onto postcards. Falkland Press is one such printer.

"It is another option we can offer and that is obviously something that attracts customers," says managing director Jon Lancaster.

In terms of run lengths, this sector shares a lot in common with the collectables sector. Pyramid’s Morley explains that initial run lengths for both are relatively stable, but whereas before a line would have several reprints, this is less common now. Total volumes would be significantly less than in the past. That said, a recent first-run for a James Bond promotion in the collectables sector ran to 500,000 postcards, so the workload is still significant.

The souvenir market and collectables market are similar in many ways – added-value is equally important to both – but with collectables, there is a key difference: success depends on licences, according to Morley.

"We only do postcards when there is a licence involved," he says. "Costs are going up – we can’t hide from that. And at the moment, prices cannot rise to compensate. However, because we deal with licences, our margins are not as hit as others may be. We are the only publisher in the UK with, say, the James Bond brand, which means you can only buy official James Bond postcards from us. So we have a unique offering."

Whichever the particular area of retail postcards, both Peeling and Skidmore say that DM postcard printers would do well to take a look at this market for inspiration, and vice versa. Skidmore in particular feels there is not enough crossover.

"There is so much to learn in DM from retail and vice versa, that there should be a closer relationship between the two," he says. "They have a lot of potential, they are really great communications mediums and more crossover would see the whole of the postcards sector prosper."

So though the threats of cheap foreign printing and encroachment from digital channels may have dampened the UK retail postcard market, the signs show plenty to cheer about and plenty of potential for innovative or proactive printers.

 Indeed, this is an area that Peeling says will grow further, because he believes postcards are the original social network, so there is an appetite for its functionality. "The postcard was the original form of social media. A postcard, by definition, is open for everyone to see. It is communicating to everyone it comes into contact with. It’s basically Twitter in print."


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