I just checked my calendar and noticed that 2014 is almost over – so you can see I’m right on the ball this morning. Despite the fact that I have all the latest digital toys; including a spanking new IPhone 6 which I love, I still maintain a printed calendar in my portfolio. I print out a month-at-a-glance sheet from Outlook and write in appointments. I like being able to see where I was and where I’m going all in one spot. Obviously those of us who grew up in the mid to latter part of the 20th century have a certain affinity for the printed page. That’s most likely from whence this strange obsession comes.
So since it’s almost the end of another year I thought it would be a good time to recap our year and the year in general for our beloved printing and envelope industries.
Elite Envelope and Graphics, Inc; the company I co-own along with my intrepid partner Dave Theriault, had a very good year. Like most printing and envelope companies, the last recession hit us hard. My theory is that the slow decline in overall print volume was accelerated by the economic downturn. So we were forced to overcome the general slowdown in business plus the cyclical and historic trend in our specific industry. We’ve regained and increased our volume gradually over the past six years and now find ourselves in a good position for continued growth.
I’ve never been one to use macro-economic conditions as an excuse. Aside from being something over which we have no control, “the economy” cannot really be regarded in any unifying sense for every firm. Even during the deepest recessions, certain states will outperform others. Some companies grow even during the worst economic times. 3M and the Tyson chicken companies grew steadily through the 1930’s in the midst of the Great Depression. Blaming the economy is often a convenient excuse. I’m not suggesting that overall economic conditions nationwide or worldwide have no effect. But they are not necessarily the cause for every individual company or industry’s problems.
So where do we in the envelope converting and printing businesses go from here? I believe that barring any unforeseen catastrophe, 2015 will be a good year for us in general. The digital/information economy; the prime driver of lower mail and print volumes, is obviously here to stay and that is a good thing. The efficiencies and opportunities created by computer software, smart phones, etc. have been profoundly positive to say the least.
But after a generation where computer usage has become ubiquitous both in business and with individuals, I think the trends that affect envelopes and print are part of the fabric of the economy and not likely to change as radically in the next twenty years. Just to take one example: banks who provide printed statements. Based on my dealings with some bank data processing companies, I’ve seen little drop-off in volume on statement mailings over the past several years. I’m guessing that very few college students who open checking accounts are opting for a printed statement. However, there are still many folks in the fifty and over range who prefer getting the statement in the mail. And given current demographic trends and the steady increase in life expectancy, it’s reasonable to project that those statements will continue to be in the mail for many years to come.
Another salutary trend I’ve noticed for paper and print is the “prodigal mailers” – those who were temporarily enamored with e mail marketing but who soon realized that printed direct mail provides a better return on investment even with the higher upfront costs. Several mailers I deal with have told me that 2014 was their best year in a long time; anecdotal evidence for sure, but good news nonetheless.
More marketers seem to be realizing that e mail has its uses, but as the information economy matures and everyone’s inbox is crammed with messages, a printed piece can serve as change-of-pace thereby making it more likely to get a tiny chunk of whatever attention might be available from the potential customer.
As I’ve pointed out previously, first class mail volume actually increased a bit in the last year where numbers are available. That hadn’t happened in a while. Of course that fact has to be understood in the context of an overall 20% decline in the past 10 years or so.
The takeaway is that we’re in an industry that is adjusting to lower overall volumes than in the past but still serving a large customer base for products that will continue to be needed well into the future. Some of the short term pain and upheaval remains – plant closings, paper mills being shut down, companies doing more with less staff. But most of it has already happened which gives those of us who remain the opportunity to remain viable for many years to come. That’s a positive message for the end of 2014. Happy New Year!