PIA chief economist predicts slow but steady growth for US print industry

By David Ward, San Diego, Thursday 28 April 2011

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The US printing industry can expect annual growth in the region of 3% - a positive shift after several years of significant declines.

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In an interview with PrintWeek, Dr. Ronnie Davis, vice president and chief economist for the Printing Industries of America (PIA) said, "The big driver now is the economy - it's not a big or robust recovery from the recession, but it is lifting the print market because as recoveries mature our industry tends to do better. We had about 3% growth in print revenues last year and we expect about the same growth this year and 3% or more next year."

The improved picture is being seen in all parts of the country, Davis added, noting "It used to be there were more distinct regional patterns to the US, both in the economy and in print, but the overall US economy is more integrated and printers now solicit and get business outside their local and regional markets."

Davis noted the total number of US printing plants continues to decline by about 1,000 on average each year, going from about 54,000 in 1993, to 33,000 today due to both closures as well as mergers. But he pointed out, "It remains a fairly diversified industry - there are just as many printing plants and there are McDonalds in the US."

Due to increased efficiencies, the total number of US print industry employees has also declined steadily in recent decades and is now down to about 870,000. But Davis insisted it remains a major industry, adding "With $144bn in printing shipments, 33,000 plants and that many employees, we still have a very large footprint."

Davis suggested he's becoming more upbeat about the US print industry's longer term prospects as well. "I don't quite see the risk of print suffering declines that I did a few years ago," he said. "The dollar volume of magazine and newspapers and books continue to go down, but marketing and promotional print, including direct mail, should do well."

One of the big economic challenges facing the US right now is rising energy prices, which not only drive up the cost of running presses and shipping for the printers themselves, but can also dampen consumer demand, because the more money spent filling up cars means less disposable income for families. That means reduced demand for not only labels, owners manuals and other things related to consumer packaged goods, but also lower ad and marketing spends.

Still Davis seems cautiously optimistic, saying, "As long as the economy can keep plowing through these issues, the US printing industry will be OK. What you're seeing a lot of US printers do now is change their business models to not just sell print as a commodity - they're looking to sell further into their customers with ancillary services like managing mailing lists, database maintenance and analysis, as well as inventory management, fulfillment and web-to-print services."
 
The key issue for many US printers-above and beyond short-term concerns such as the rising cost of paper, is how quickly and successfully they can make that transition, he said, adding, "The long term goal is to include print as one of their core products, but not have that be their sole product."

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