Lacklustre Q3 for print as output skips seasonal boost

Richard Stuart-Turner
Friday, November 15, 2019

The third quarter of 2019 was disappointing for the UK print industry, with both output and orders failing to live up to expectations according to the BPIF’s latest Printing Outlook, but the general election should provide a Q4 boost.

The quarterly published study of the health of the industry found that there was also no repeat of the seasonal boost experienced by the industry last year.

The survey found that 37% of printers increased their output levels in the third quarter of 2019. The remaining respondents were split fairly evenly, with 31% holding their output steady and 32% experiencing a decline in output.

This was some way short of the expectation for Q3 and the worst Q3 report for three years, since the aftermath of the EU referendum result.

Orders and output had been expected to remain subdued in Q4, with 50% of respondents predicting that they will be able to hold their output levels steady, compared with 26% forecasting output growth and 24% expecting their output levels to fall.

However, the survey was carried out during 1-17 October 2019, prior to the subsequent confirmation later that month of the 12 December general election.

“Now that an election has been announced, we do expect things to be slightly more positive when we find out what actually happens in the current quarter,” BPIF Economist Kyle Jardine told Printweek.

“I would expect to see some evidence of a boost, with some companies doing election work.”

With heightened uncertainty surrounding potential Brexit outcomes and the potentially extremely short timeline for these to be realised, Brexit continued to be respondents’ most voiced business concern, with 69% selecting it as one of their top three concerns, up from 61% in Q3.

The primary Brexit concern – selected by 81% of respondents – is maintaining a reliable and secure supply chain. General cost inflation and non-tariff barriers were second and third, with 46% and 42% respectively.

“Some companies have done a certain degree of stockpiling though not all companies are able to, whether that’s due to a lack of space or cashflow,” said Jardine.

“It puts a strain on companies from an administration point of view, sucking up resources and cashflow. It’s something that companies can do without.”

Competitor pricing was the second ranked business concern once again, selected by 49% of respondents, down slightly from 52% last quarter. Pricing pressure and unsustainable pricing in the industry are themes that were repeated in comments from survey respondents, with particular reference to competition from online printers.

“This is always a problem – there’s a perception that competitors are pricing below cost and there is always a concern amongst printers that some companies from time to time will strategically price,” said Jardine.

“With tender processes in particular there is often one company somewhere that is strategically pricing.”

Late payment by customers rounded off the top three concerns, selected by 24% of respondents, while paper and board prices fell out of the top three after it was selected by only 19%.

Meanwhile, the report also included a detailed financial health analysis of data for the 5,000 largest print and printed packaging companies, featuring Red Flag Alert data from Begbies Traynor.

The red section of the analysis, which depicts high risk companies with poor credit scores and/or serious detrimental information filed against them and companies that have undergone insolvency or have a striking-off action registered against them, has grown from 3% to 8% between 2011 and 2019.

Meanwhile, the green section, which shows the share of the top 5,000 companies that are in a strong and secure financial position, has increased from 27% in Q1 2011 to 42% in Q3 2019.

The BPIF Outlook survey polled 125 companies employing 10,940 people with a combined turnover of almost £1.5bn.

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