A time-served profession at the cutting edge

By Simon Creasey, Monday 17 July 2017

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There are few better examples of the recent commoditisation of print than the stationery sector. Type the words ‘business card printing’ into the search engine of your choice and you’ll be bombarded with a series of enticing offers - ‘500 cards for £9.28’, ‘£4.95 for 100 premium cards’, ‘business cards from £3.99’.


Many of these operators offer a series of attractive pre-designed templates to choose from in addition to 24-hour delivery. This means that you can design a card from scratch in a handful of minutes and receive the digitally printed product the next day all for under a tenner.

You would think that the rock-bottom prices these companies offer would have killed off the traditional stationery printing market, but think again. The market for high-quality printed stationery is in rude health at the moment. 

So what’s driving the renaissance of the sector, what sort of things are customers asking for and how is the sector responding to these demands?

Stationery printers appear to have benefitted from the same consumer backlash that has driven the revival of vinyl records versus digital downloads and of printed books over e-books. It seems that people are increasingly interested in buying and receiving things that they can look at, touch and interact with, according to Dominic Sharland, co-founder and chief executive of Laser Bureau by Cutture.

“I think because everything is just so digital now, the appreciation for printed goods is far greater and its tactile nature really resonates,” says Sharland. “We’re obviously not huge fans of the ‘eVite’. They had a place a few years ago, but with the volume of emails we get now they get lost in people’s inboxes. So we are advocates for the printed invitation for obvious reasons.”

It’s a view shared by Andrew Edmondson, managing director at Purely Digital. He thinks that digital communication such as email is viewed by many as impersonal and as a result it’s easily and often ignored by many recipients.

“Many marketers have now cottoned on to the fact that real physical material – whether it is in the form of a letter, an invite, a business card or a brochure – makes a far greater impact on recipients,” says Edmondson.

He adds that another factor in printed stationery’s favour is the greater levels of security it offers users and recipients. “There is much less chance of having a letter intercepted than, say, an email,” argues Edmondson. “So, for example, if you’re holding an event and you are famous or in the public eye, using traditional printed invitations can ensure that you attract only the attention you intended.”

Comeback kid

It is this combination of factors that have led to what Sharland describes as stationery’s “huge comeback”. 

“There seems to be a real attraction to stationery pieces that are beautifully designed and detailed with specialist finishes, or on unusual stock,” he says.

Stationery’s recent revival is a trend has also been detected by Jessica Roberts, marketing manager at Blake Envelopes. 

“Demand for the envelope in all of its forms has continued, particularly for postal packaging where we have actually seen exponential growth over the past years in terms of both requests and ultimately sales,” says Roberts. “With the rise in digital communications and ‘always on, always visible’ nature of the web, brands and businesses are having to think really carefully about how they stand out from the crowd.”

This desire to create a point of differentiation has fuelled demand for all manner of different print techniques and finishing embellishments. One of the biggest beneficiaries has been letterpress printing. 

“It is a great example of a skill that  almost vanished, but is now back in vogue and demand is strong,” says Alex Cain,  sales director at Mount Street Printers. “The most common press for this type of work is the Heidelberg windmill and fortunately the machines are virtually indestructible so there a lot of them around as well as specialist engineers to keep them running.”

Another rapidly growing area is die-stamping, according to Cain. “I may be biased, but by far the most beautiful process is die-stamping and for those in the know there is nothing quite like it. Customers are once again really beginning to realise the value of this most traditional and niche process which will always be regarded as the best of the best when it comes to personalised stationery.”

There is also renewed demand for hot foil printing, says Sharland, who adds that these trends appear to follow cycles. 

“Letterpress was very popular about five years ago, for instance, whereas now hot-foil printing is big again, but obviously just because one or another is more popular at a particular time does not mean the others disappear – they are required for certain applications all the time so hopefully the craftsmanship will remain,” he explains.

It seems that at the moment at least there are very few boundaries for customers who are looking for stationery that stands out from the crowd. “As first impressions really do count the cards we would produce are often duplexed or triplexed,” says Fenton Smith, managing director of Boss Print, which produces high-spec cards for design clients and high end brands. “Gilt edging is a nice touch, foil-blocking and embossing, laser die-cutting – all the things that would make someone look at the card as a statement of creativity rather than just an information carrier.”

The traditional more hand-crafted approach also seems to play well with customers, which is why some companies, like Blake Envelopes, have created a dedicated service offering to cater for these needs.

“Our ‘bespoke’ team work closely with the client to design a mailing piece that embodies their brand, product or service,” says Roberts. “With the shift in brands now producing more targeted mailings, greater investment can be made into the mailing piece sent. Our bespoke offering aims to target this demand, whether it is something handmade or a run of flexo-printed envelopes individually personalised, this service has added a modern touch to the traditional envelope.”

And the good news for stationery printers is that many customers are willing to pay more for this sort of handcrafted quality, according to Paul Haslam, director at Benwells.

“Many of our customers are not spending a lot of money on letterheads and comp slips anymore,” says Haslam. “Their marketing is predominantly done through Instagram and and as a result they are not afraid to spend perhaps £2-£3 per unit on a business card because that is the one piece of printed marketing – personal marketing – that they still buy.”

He acknowledges that the online operators selling heavily commoditised products have made life difficult for companies like his where the emphasis is on quality rather than offering bargain basement prices, but he says that more sophisticated customers recognise the value of what they are paying for.

“Online printers have lowered the value of printed matter so much that if you go to a customer and say ‘that card is going to be £500 for 1,000 copies’ they will reply that they can get some online for £30,” says Haslam. “Sometimes it makes it difficult to justify the cost, but we get through that because the vast majority of people we work with get it. There will always be people who don’t get it but they are not my target market.”

While these online operators, which rely heavily on digital print engines, may have driven down the price of stationery, what they have also done is caused many companies that employ traditional printing methods to explore how they can use digital technology in their own business.   

“We are really interested in how the latest digital technology can work with beautiful printed matter,” says Cutture’s Sharland. “We have designed a number of stunning invitations which contain mini video screens, for instance, and more recently we have used augmented reality within a printed piece, so they [digital and traditional printing techniques] can work together beautifully and we are constantly thinking of ways where we can introduce new technology as well as original craftsmanship.”

Purely Digital’s Edmondson also recognises the benefits that digital print technology bring to the mix.

“Digital printing gives you the scope to offer a custom service which will produce individual items in your print run that can be tailored to specific people – including varying names, images and information contained on the print material,” he says. “This personalisation is then combined with traditional techniques like foiling to produce a high-end finished product that appears personal and targeted. And the beauty of it is that the technology allows this all to be done at great speed.”

The speed factor is the main benefit Mount Street’s Cain thinks digital print technology offers stationery printers who might be looking to diversify and potentially open up new markets. 

“Traditional processes take time to produce and as a result their supply will be restricted – this is what makes them valuable and desirable,” he says. “However, the digital revolution has in some areas revived and fuelled traditional print production processes by making the design stage easier and more accessible. This can only be a good thing for advances in design and maintaining traditional values.”

Orders up

That’s partly why Cain is optimistic about the future outlook for the printed stationery sector, as is Haslam, who last year swapped two GTO presses for a Speedmaster 52 two-colour that the company expressly uses just to print stationery. 

“We could have come out of the market completely if we wanted to, but I definitely see a future [for printed stationery] and we have a full order book for at least a week at a time at the moment and that’s not something to be sneezed at,” says Haslam.

He adds that in addition to the growing demand from domestic customers the company is also starting to see more work come in from overseas customers who are looking to capitalise on the weak pound.

“We get work from parts of the world where the fine detail and high quality market is not quite there yet, so every once in a while we are contacted by someone in the Far East or from the Emirates who have a job that requires attention to detail that they could not get done locally,” says Haslam.

The prospect of more work flooding into the UK market from overseas, coupled with the recent resurgence in demand from domestic clients is why the likes of Cain believe there is still plenty of legs left in this market.

“I think there will always be a place for the written word and the more we communicate with each other the more instances there will be for meaningful communication and self-expression,” says Cain. “A letter or a card requires effort and the recipient will always recognise and be appreciative of that effort. What’s happening now is that we have come to the realisation that there is a place for the traditional alongside the digital, and one can enhance the other.” 

Keeping old skills alive

As has occurred in many sub-sectors of the printing industry in recent years, the rise of automation and digital technologies has seen many of the traditional skills associated with stationery printing start to dwindle. However, some companies are doing their damnedest to ensure that these skills don’t disappear completely.

Take the example of Mount Street Printers, which has operated a high-end stationery business from the heart of Mayfair since 1981. Mount Street sales director Alex Cain recognises that unless something is done about it there is a “very real danger” that traditional skills could be lost.

“For this very reason we actively buy a lot of old kit, in particular die-stamping presses that are now very hard to source and expensive to move,” says Cain. “We then restore them and train the next generation of print artisans to operate them in the hope that they will continue the tradition.”

Benwells takes a similar approach, according to director Paul Haslam. The company has ‘future-proofed’ itself by running an apprenticeship scheme for the past 20 years or so. 

“We bring on new apprentices every 18 months or so and we now have a reasonably young workforce that have learned different methods such as how to litho print, foil block, emboss and die cut,” explains Haslam.

He says the youngest member of staff – who is currently 19 – started working for the company via the apprenticeship scheme at the age of 16 and he has become a “really good foil blocker”. 

“There are half a dozen or more employees ahead of him that have been through the same process,” he adds. “They are all doing this beautiful thing on machines that are the age of their parents, which is not lost on them. We’ve also got another minder who is a bit older and more experienced and he’s currently operating a foil blocking machine that he learned his trade on as a letterpress minder 35 years ago. It is exactly the same press – it has just been converted for foil-blocking.”

The good news for Cain, Haslam and Cutture’s Sharland, is that there is a new generation of young people coming into the industry who are interested in learning these traditional techniques and, in Cutture’s case, some of the more modern equivalents, like laser cutting. 

“Laser cutting is a relatively new application for stationery fields, however, we and others are working at being the best in our field,” says Sharland. “Hopefully this will continue for many years to come.”

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