Saturday, March 29, 2014

New Postal Hires Mean More 'Return To Sender' Mail

The U.S. Postal Service’s shift to a more flexible workforce is likely to mean more mail pieces will be marked “return to sender,” according to postal officials.

USPS estimates it delivers at least 2.2 billion mail pieces annually that lack complete address information, according to information presented at a session of the recent National Postal Forum.

With intimate knowledge of their routes, letter carriers are often able to deliver mail pieces despite such problems as missing apartment and suite numbers, minor spelling and addressing errors, and changes of address. USPS says such special handling costs it an estimated $160 million annually, according to a recent Post Ops Update (available only to members of the Association for Postal Commerce).

An imperfect process
What carriers learn about problem addresses is supposed to be captured in the Postal Service's address-management database, but it's an imperfect process.

Because of greater use of “transitional” employees instead of career carriers to deliver the mail, it’s becoming increasingly likely that a poorly addressed letter will end up in the hands of a carrier who doesn’t know how to deliver it, a postal official acknowledged. Such recent hires are paid less than career carriers, and their hours can be adjusted more to match the peaks and valleys of mail volume.

Letter carriers point to another reason that “carrier knowledge” often fails to overcome addressing problems: Even career carriers are increasingly delivering mail to unfamiliar addresses, such as when several carriers work overtime to cover a vacant route after their usual deliveries are done.

USPS returned, forwarded, or destroyed nearly 7 billion “UAA” (Undeliverable As Addressed) mail pieces last year at a cost of more than $1.2 billion, not including the cost to mailers. The volume of UAA mail has generally been declining for years, thanks to stricter regulations on business mailers and greater use of address-correction software.

More than three-fourths of that UAA mail results from changes of address. But another surprisingly common issue is that many people don’t know their correct mailing address, especially for office buildings and college campuses.

Related articles:


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Are Printed Magazines Growing or Shrinking? Yes

Magazine advertising gains market share in the U.S., but the actual number of magazine copies is declining faster than ever: What in this crazy multimedia world is going on?

Two statistics released this week underscore a counter-intuitive trend: U.S. publishers seem to be prospering despite printing fewer copies of actual magazines.

In fact, many “magazine media” companies are doing well precisely because they can get away with printing fewer copies without suffering the consequences that used to accompany reduced circulation. But first the data, and then the interpretation:
  • The volume of Periodicals class mail decreased a stunning 12-plus percent last month versus February 2013, according to preliminary numbers the U.S. Postal Service released Monday. Periodicals mail – which covers distribution of most U.S. magazines, as well as some newspapers – has been gradually declining at a 4%-5% pace the past few years but dropped 7.3% in January and then 12.7% in February. 
  • U.S. ad revenue for printed magazines rose an estimated 1.8% in 2013, Kantar Media reported Tuesday. Magazines actually gained a bit of market share from TV, radio, and newspapers. And many magazine publishers no doubt benefited from the 15.7% rise in Internet display advertising.  
  • With the high-profile web-to-print launches of such titles as Newsweek, AllRecipes, and The Pitchfork Review, print magazines have become so hip that the recent SxSW conference even devoted a session to their resurgence. Anecdotal information suggests that fewer established titles are abandoning print than in previous years and that more new magazines are surviving the critical first two years. 
  • So if magazines are booming but fewer copies are being mailed, other distribution methods must be growing, right? Nope. The newsstand system, which is the second largest distribution channel, had 7.5% fewer copies on sale last year, according to MagNet. And an eyeballing of preliminary Alliance for Audited Media data confirms that the number of printed copies declined for most magazine titles last year. 
A decade or two ago, magazine publishers were in fact magazine publishers and not much else. But when the web started grabbing consumers’ attention and marketers’ dollars, relying on a single product line with declining revenues and rising postage costs became an unsustainable business model for many publishers.

Magazine companies survived by cutting – staff, titles, and circulation -- and by creating new lines of business with web sites, apps, e-newsletters, events, etc. Every week, it seems, we hear about another publisher (or, rather, “magazine media” company) that’s now getting most of its revenue from non-magazine ventures.

Meanwhile, search engines and real people have learned to avoid content farms and keyword stuffers and instead to seek out sources of reliable information. Both seem to be concluding that having a “real” – that is, print – publication correlates with well written, reliable, and objective information. (See How Google Is Becoming the Magazine Industry's New Best Friend for more on this topic.)

No mass
Print is still in the mix, but it serves a different purpose. Advertisers are no longer looking to printed magazines for mass; they have more efficient methods of getting eyeballs. Print ads are now about engagement, about targeting a particular psychographic and mindset, and about demonstrating credibility and stability.

So despite the death-of-print predictions of a couple of years ago, for the foreseeable future the path to publishing profitability seems to include print. But not too much of it. Bloated circulation numbers are less relevant to advertisers. And they’re less sustainable for publishers, especially after the big January hike in postage rates (which may have affected the Periodical numbers in February) proved once again that we have to become less reliant on the Postal Service.

Consider the example of Politico, which a few months ago was a (fairly obscure) web site but can now call itself a "magazine" because it gives away a few thousand printed copies per issue. Its web traffic is up 57% over last year, according to’s February unique-visitors statistics.

Or consider Newsweek, which recently was running away so fast from its past and from print that its Internet presence was buried under a mediocre web site. Its recent print-relaunch issue generated massive buzz that helped boost web traffic by 25% last month, all with a print run of only 70,000 copies. At that rate, Newsweek won't even print as many copies in the next 12 months as it did just a few years ago for a single issue.

But that doesn’t matter. For publishers, the important thing is having a presence in print, almost regardless of how many copies they actually print.

Related articles:



Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dead Tree Edition's Best and Worst of 2013 (It's About Damned Time!)

In honor of the first day of spring, and in solidarity with procrastinators everywhere, we hereby present the Best and Worst of Dead Tree Edition in 2013:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

USPS Needs a Plan B for Flat Mail, Coalition Says

Because the Flats Sequencing System is not performing as anticipated, a mailers coalition is urging the Postal Service to rethink how it handles catalogs, magazines, and other flat mail.

More than one-third of the mail intended for FSS is actually bypassing the machines, which are also experiencing a reject rate of up to 10%, the coalition noted in an “Industry Memo” last week to USPS officials (republished below in its entirety.) USPS and industry together should revisit some of the most basic assumptions about flat mail, the memo from four major industry groups said.

“There is fear that the Postal Service is developing a ‘one‐size‐fits‐all’ strategy for the processing and delivery of flats which may be taking the Postal Service and the industry in some wrong directions. We urge the Postal Service to take some time and revisit some of the questions and concerns we are raising about the various flats products you are handling, as well as other pressures upon your delivery system that can influence costs.”

“Before changing a rule or regulation that adds to mailers’ costs of preparation, the Postal Service should more closely evaluate the cost savings for the Postal Service throughout the country and its varied network. If the savings can only be captured in certain circumstances or will not apply to all processing and delivery across the country, then having different requirements and/or options would make more sense for the USPS and mailers.”

With FSS handling only 18% of flat mailpieces last year and no additional machines in the plans, the focus should clearly be on less automated processes, the coalition wrote. It urged a “deep dive” into costs and
processes to identify possible cost reductions for both USPS and mailers.

It also asked two questions often raised by front-line employees: 1) Is FSS more efficient for mail that would otherwise be in carrier-route bundles, given that FSS pieces are handled twice while carrier-route pieces are handled only once? 2) Is USPS processing mail on the FSS that doesn’t belong there, such as High Density and Saturation bundles, solely to make the system’s efficiency numbers look better?

The memo was signed by the heads of the Association for Postal Commerce (PostCom), IDEAlliance, the Association of Marketing Service Providers, and the National Association of Presort Mailers. Here is the text of the letter:

RE: Ongoing flat‐shaped mail observations

PostCom, IDEAlliance, AMSP, and NAPM continue to hear concerns coming from all of our members which are the businesses that do the most to create and add mail to the USPS distribution stream. As we represent the most diverse group of business mailers and related mail suppliers and stakeholders, there is fear that the Postal Service is developing a “one‐size‐fits‐all” strategy for the processing and delivery of flats which may be taking the Postal Service and the industry in some wrong directions. We urge the Postal Service to take some time and revisit some of the questions and concerns we are raising about the various flats products you are handling, as well as other pressures upon your delivery system that can influence costs.

Recently, the Postal Service provided members of the flats strategy group an opportunity to visit a Destination Delivery Unit (DDU) in Fairfax, Virginia on two different occasions. These visits have sparked healthy discussion within the industry, leaving many of us with questions.

The evolution of mail has been underway for quite some time and the Postal Service has been moving forward with a base set of assumptions that raises questions within the industry. By revisiting these assumptions together, the industry believes that we can create a solid footing for moving forward in a manner that is productive and cost‐effective to both the Postal Service and the industry.

The major themes this group of associations has concluded from the tours and subsequent discussions are:

Standard Operating Procedures

Although our observations are from two visits of the same DDU, our members have been to countless other DDUs. There seems to be different procedures followed in how mail is handled at the carrier’s case. Is there a standard operating procedure that all units must follow or is it up to the postmaster’s discretion? If there is a Standard Operating Procedure, how does HQ ensure that these procedures are followed?

Industry understands that there are different work rules for the different carriers based on the union contracts. Has the Postal Service ever looked at best practices across the delivery units for rural and city carriers? If so, how closely are carriers required to follow them?

Delivery Point Sequencing

The Postal Service said that 93% of letters are Delivery Point Sequenced. All work to this point on the delivery point sequencing of flats is based off the USPS’ experience on letters. According to the Annual Compliance Report, total FSS flats coverage for FY13 was 18% and AFSM 100 was 70%. From the two visits to the DDU through the USPS flats strategy group, we learned that only 60% of candidate flats from FSS are DPS’d, which means there is a 35‐40% “leakage” of flats from the FSS. Leakage, as defined by USPS delivery operations, is any flat that needs to be cased.

Leakage Questions

What causes leakage? There appears to be a number of reasons that candidate flats either do not make it onto machines, or they drop off. The industry is interested in learning why so it can work with the USPS to ensure all pieces are handled in the most cost efficient way.

For example, where the USPS accepts FSS mail at a non‐FSS site, it must transport this mail from one facility to another. The emphasis on meeting service standards could lead to bypassing automation, and ultimately result in manual processing. Much work has already been done through MTAC in developing the Mail Optimization Matrix (MOP). Should there be more of a focus by mailers and the USPS on the process and handlings identified, specifically between FSS and non‐FSS zones?

• Does the USPS track the cost of maintaining service standards?

• How much of this leakage is now incurring these extra handlings and cost in a FSS area that would not be experienced in a non‐FSS Zone?

During the two DDU visits, industry saw that some of the flats received two handlings. The first was by a clerk(s) who took flat‐shaped mail and small parcels from hampers and put them in carrier tubs. Then the carrier was taking those tubs and casing the mail. This raises the following questions:

• Why do some flats go straight to the carrier for one handling while others get two handlings (one by a clerk who sorts to carrier tub and then by carrier for casing)?

• Is there really a value for LOT (Line of Travel) Sequence as required for carrier route?

• Why do manual handlings occur? Where do manual handlings occur?

FSS Rejects

FSS Rejects is mail inducted into the machine but is not delivery point sequenced. The industry believes the nationwide percent to be as high as 10 percent. The number one root cause of “Rejects” is what the USPS calls “Out of Sort”, which means ZIP codes are being inducted onto the machine that the FSS machine has either processed already or does not process at all. The “Rejects” then find their way to the same collection area, but with no indicator of why. Therefore, the operator has no idea why a piece rejected and his/her only option is to re‐induct the mail into the FSS or flow the mail to the ASFM 100 which has a high chance of being in a different building. These “Rejects” end up not meeting established service standards adding cost into the system.

Value of Carrier Route

With about 70% of the industry‐produced flats volume being Carrier Route (CR), has the USPS begun to reconsider its original intentions for the FSS. Since only 25‐30% of all flats are processed on FSS, the main focus for the mailing industry and Mail Service Providers specifically, will be the non‐FSS flat volume. That has been reinforced since the Postal Service announced that there are no plans at this time for Phase II FSS. At the same time, mailers and PostalOne! are working to comply with the required FSS mail prep that was implemented in January. While the transition is ongoing as a result of late details from the USPS which resulted in software development delays, we are concerned that the Postal Service may not have considered the unintended consequences related to the required prep. Could service standards be at risk because FSS mail can no longer bypass automation? Is there an alternative way to move that mail if capacity and/or machine problems are experienced?

The growth of carrier route through comail has taken cost out of mail processing in non‐FSS or AFSM covered areas because it bypasses processing. In some cases, that mail is cross‐docked and also bypasses bundle sorting. This fact can be seen in mail processing costs for Carrier Route mail as laid out by Ginny Mayes in the May 2013 meeting that several industry members attended.

While the Postal Service focuses on reducing delivery costs, there has been an increase in processing costs on FSS. Questions had been raised by mailers initially as to whether the reduction in delivery costs could offset the processing of mail, not once but twice, that was never on automated equipment before FSS…. Carrier Route. Is there a better understanding by the Postal Service on the net outcome of the total system‐wide cost of FSS flats? And if so, what is the projection and plan moving forward?

You had previously stated that FSS scheme prices would be no more than Carrier Route prices when the transition away from Carrier Route was implemented. It appears as though costs are not in line with that promise of pricing. Is that the main reason why it took so long for USPS to make the mail prep mandatory and move to FSS pricing which still includes Carrier Route? How much has the reduction in flat mail volume over the last 7 years hurt efficiencies and cost on FSS? And because of that volume loss, is the USPS building volume for FSS to gain efficiencies by adding volume that probably would never go across the machine, such as Saturation and High Density?

Are cost avoidances shrinking? The USPS, along with the industry needs to break out FSS covered areas and non‐FSS covered areas? There are different processes and efficiencies that exist and need to be examined and considered when developing prep and pricing strategy for the future. As mentioned earlier, MTAC through one of its task teams created MOPs that need to be examined and the associated costs to these processes need to be considered to see where net value and opportunities exist across facility operations, transportation, and at the delivery unit.


Since FSS processing begins at noon, there are issues that exist around the 8am CET (for FSS if bundle prep is needed) and 4pm CET (for non‐FSS if bundle prep is needed) for dailies, weeklies, and bi‐weeklies. For most monthlies, CETs are not as critical to their delivery plans.

• Is part of FSS leakage due to missed bundles sorts prior to FSS piece processing?

• Are there manual handlings coming from overcapacity on APPS/SPBSs?

• Will these CETs remain now that Phase II of Network Optimization is postponed?

Saturation Mail

PostCom saw during the DDU visit that facilities were getting more than one EDDM piece on any given day. The Postmaster makes the decision if pieces get deferred until the next day, or the pieces are merged for city carriers because of 3‐bundle requirement (DPS letters, DPS flats, cased mail). Merging was defined as sorting with cased mail as the carrier pulls it from its case in walk‐sequence order, or the carrier thumbs through FSS trays and adds the other EDDM pieces.

• Is this Standard Operating Procedure?

• Is this just for EDDM? Or is the USPS doing this to other Saturation Mail?

• How is this cost allocated?

• If the USPS tallies based on top piece, is the cost of merging being added to flats/carrier route?

Industry Concerns of Mandatory FSS Prep

The 250 lb minimum requirement for FSS prep is causing issues within the industry. It was an optional prep requirement prior to January 2014, and because it added cost for mailers, it contributed to the low participation rate. Now that the USPS has made it mandatory, mailers are forced to absorb the cost. This has implications that the USPS has failed to recognize. From our members, we have heard about the increase in costs resulting from the increase in the number of pallets, as well as handling and transporting those pallets. Some of our members have seen an increase of over 40 percent in the number of pallets being created. We have to believe that the USPS will also incur more cost than expected related to additional pallets in MTE inventory, handlings and transportation. For those reasons, we ask the Postal Service to reconsider this requirement.

The Postal Service needs to evaluate how it structured the DFSS pricing. Right now mailers have the option to take mail to the DFSS or to the local plant where the Postal Service would transport to the DFSS. We would hope that the USPS will closely monitor the transportation cost of this mail volume in FY14 to determine if greater savings can be achieved by increasing DFSS discount, thereby incenting mailers to go to the DFSS and bypass USPS transportation. At the current discount, the incentive does not exist for mailers to make the trip to the DFSS that is separate from what is currently a DSCF entry.

Postal Facts That Generate Industry Questions

• In the FY13 ACR, USPS said that FSS mail processing costs were increased and carrier costs were decreased; while AFSM 100 volumes increased and costs went down. Carrier costs were not mentioned at all by the Postal Service.

• Did the costs go up or down, and how does this compare to what the USPS did or did not expect?

• Can the USPS offset the double handling of Carrier Route flats on the FSS machines with the current one handling at the delivery unit?

• The Postal Service in the Joint Industry USPS – Flats Meeting presentation showed the following Mail Processing Costs (Labor and Indirect) by Cost Pool for FY12.

• Why the difference for the various classes? Are these end to end costs, and are we comparing apples to apples with the same final state of the output product? Or are these just the mail processing costs that actually take place at these individual facilities? For example, manual processing/casing of flats is done at delivery units. So is column 3 simply co‐located Delivery Unit cases that reside in a plant?

Plant, NDC/FSS Plant, AFSM100 Plant/Manual Piece Std Flats Mail 2.30 8.10 0.89 Std Carrier Route Mail 1.83 0.42 0.09 Periodicals 2.36 2.87 1.21

• In this same presentation, the USPS showed the two largest costs by function to be processing and delivery. Here are the figures from that presentation. What’s in these costs? One can imagine no CR flat (i.e. – 5dg zip to the carrier ). The MOP mail flow costs will help us understand this better since it is very difficult when costs are all lumped together. 

Suggestions for Improvement

• Evaluate the system‐wide merit of 5D pallets based on entry, considering the impact of cost and service.

• Evaluate the need for 250 lb minimum pallets. Again, this will only make sense to the industry if given the proper incentive because of the cost associated with additional lighter weight pallets.

• Evaluate DFSS rates, factoring in the impact of dropship locations and the cost incurred when entered at non‐ FSS facilities.

• Evaluate the merit of exploring the software and workflow modifications for FSS as well as DBCS (letters) for industry to be incented to provide presorted product that is the equivalent of DPS Pass 1 output. For FSS this would essentially double the capacity that could be DPS processed on flats. The USPS would essentially do the final merge and sequencing operation. This would take advantage of the industry's ability, when incentivized, to consolidate and create density that could help the Postal Service reduce cost and gain efficiencies.

Industry Recommendations

• The USPS not only needs to update its flats costs that were presented to the industry in May 2013, but needs to do a deep dive into those costs related to the same period last year. It also needs to look at the MOP flows that were developed by MTAC and assign costs to those flows. This will provide a necessary view of total combined costs across facility operations, transportation, and the delivery unit. The ultimate goal is to better identify key leverage points for net cost reductions.

• There needs to be a FSS leakage task team developed that includes members of the USPS and industry.

• There needs to be a non‐FSS strategy team developed to discuss ideas on efficiencies for areas not covered by FSS. At the end of FY13, FSS coverage was 18%. This could be a bigger area of opportunity as it appears that ~70% of flats are processed through the ASFM100.

• There needs to be a deep dive into the value of carrier route and co‐mail and the implications if it goes away.

• USPS pricing, operations, and delivery need to be involved at all times during these discussions.

We’re concerned that the USPS is taking a one‐size‐fits‐all approach to everything. There is a perception that anything appearing to cut costs is good business for the Postal Service. Because of the diverse nature of flats, whether Saturation, Periodicals or Standard Mail, we urge the Postal Service to look more closely at some of these assumptions. Before changing a rule or regulation that adds to mailers’ costs of preparation, the Postal Service should more closely evaluate the cost savings for the Postal Service throughout the country and its varied network. If the savings can only be captured in certain circumstances or will not apply to all processing and delivery across the country, then having different requirements and/or options would make more sense for the USPS and mailers.

We hope that our observations, questions, concerns and suggestions will further add to the discussions around a Flats Strategy. Our involvement in the discussion of costs associated with flats and the development of a flats strategy is a confirmation of our commitment to cost reduction, processing efficiencies and service improvements. We look forwardto your response, and the opportunity to level set so that we can focus on the key issues related to flats processing, transportation and delivery.

Thank you. 

Related articles: 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Renaissance for Print, Or Is Flat Just the New "Up"?

Pardon me while I gloat over this headline: Ebook Sales Slow, Strategies Shift.

When I reported two years ago about a new study under the headline Are E-Book Sales Reaching a Plateau?, I caught a lot of flak as some kind of flat-earther or doomed-for-extinction Printosaurus. And I was just reporting on the study, not opinionating.

More gloating: Dig this quotation, "nearly 70% of consumers feel it is unlikely that they will abandon print books by 2016, as they have an emotional and visceral/sensory attachment to print books."

The Second Coming of Print?
But let's not gloat too much, print fans. We were told for so long about the imminent, inevitable withering of print media that we tend to mistake any signs of life -- or digital hiccups -- as The Second Coming of Print Media.

After all, printed publications aren't exactly going gangbusters, nor is the commercial printing industry. More physical bookstores are closing than opening, retail distribution of magazines is collapsing, and don't even get me started on delivery of subscription magazines by the U.S. Postal Service. Print has been going down so long that "flat" looks like "up."

The real takeaways from any discussions about print media versus digital media is that the world is a complicated place and humans are an unpredictable, self-contradicting species. Prognosticate at your own risk.

E-book sales exploded a few years ago because devices like the Kindle provided an easy, convenient, and often inexpensive way to get and read books.

The e-book revolution also led to a self-publishing revolution. No longer did freedom of the press require ownership of or access to an actual printing press. Some novels became best sellers without a drop of ink hitting paper.

Despite the reported 3% decrease in U.S. e-book sales last year, they may still be growing because the official industry numbers may overlook some self-published works. But, contrary to many predictions, e-books are not about to take over the book business or turn printed books into rare, expensive luxuries.

Why do people want books, anyway?
The predictors overlooked a simple fact: Books are for more than reading. People buy them for a lot of things that e-books don't do well, at least not yet: looking at pictures, noting important passages, studying charts and tables, impressing people, sharing, collecting, decorating their homes.

Increasingly in the book business, there aren't print buyers and e-book buyers -- but rather people who buy print when they want print and e-books when they want e-books. Inconsistent? Yep, that's our species.

Printed magazines have taken a somewhat parallel path. E-magazines got even more hype than e-books but have been far slower to live up to their promise. Held back more by dysfunctional marketplaces than by lack of consumer acceptance, tablet magazines aren't even at the top of the threat list for printed magazines.

The three B's
Only a few years ago, many of us in the business feared that soon our products would be relegated only to the three B's: Bach, Beetho . . ., no, wait, I mean Beach, Bedroom, and Bathroom.

We misread the rise of the Internet as a rejection of print. We thought newspapers were dying because people disliked print, when what they really disliked was paying for news that was 12 hours old.

We feared that computers in schools would create a generation who saw print media as an outdated relic. Instead, we've got kids who associate computers with work and print with escape. Just wait until they join us working stiffs and have to labor all day over spreadsheets, email, and Death by PowerPoint.

Rather than disappearing, the magazine industry is morphing into the "magazine media" industry. Still known for their magazines, many publishers now get their real money from other magazine-branded media like the web, events, and e-commerce.

It's a far cry from the old days, when print ruled the roost and by itself supported hefty publishing organizations and profit margins as well. But after a decade or so of cutbacks, print magazines seem to be reaching a new equilibrium. They will never return to the glory days. But as Newsweek, Politico, Allrecipes, and others have discovered, having a printed magazine is a huge advantage in a multimedia world.

Related articles:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

10 Reasons Coated Paper Is Ripe for Collusion

The proposed merger of NewPage and Verso Paper may be on the ropes, but it has brought much attention to the oddities of the U.S. market for coated paper.

Intrigued by the unusual proposal (which Verso was forced to reconsider last week), the bankruptcy experts at The Capitol Forum recently published comments from a federal prosecutor explaining why the U.S. coated-paper industry is prone to cooperation among competitors.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s likely presumption that the merger would encourage “coordinated interaction” of competing companies could be a stumbling block for the merger, according to The Capitol Forum (subscription only).

The article made me realize something I had never thought about: Though coated-paper companies have the means and the motive to cooperate on pricing, the same is not true for publication printers, even though they have a similar customer base. The anonymous prosecutor’s comments, The Capitol Forum’s analysis, and my own experience inspired this list of 10 reasons the U.S. market for coated paper is prone to collusion, both legal and illegal:

  1. Price transparency: The prosecutor, who participated in the 2006 prosecution of Stora Enso and UPM on price-fixing charges, noted that “coated paper pricing is very transparent—a firm will announce a price increase to take effect at a future date, and wait for other competitors to follow,” The Capitol Forum said. [Editor’s note: Paper companies rarely announce price decreases, which tend to occur in a less orderly fashion.] 

  2. The tradition of quarterly price changes: Except for spot purchases, most deals for coated papers involve quarterly adjustments based on market conditions. That, coupled with those publicly announced price increases, means competitors can implement a price increase simultaneously without ever communicating directly with each other. 

  3. Concentrated market: No company has a large enough market share to push prices up unilaterally. But, for most grades, it only takes about three major players acting more or less in unison for a price move to stick. The Department of Justice probably views a NewPage-Verso merger as making such pricing coordination even easier for the mills, according to The Capitol Forum. By contrast, the printing industry is more fragmented, despite massive consolidation.

  4. Mutually assured destruction: With stable supply and declining demand, paper companies are tempted to keep the machines running by pricing aggressively to grab market share. But they know that if competitors follow suit, they all lose. Paraphrasing the prosecutor, The Capitol Forum explained that “because declining demand can result in lower prices, firms in distressed industries may have the incentive to collude to stop further price declines. By contrast, when demand is steadily increasing, there may be less incentive to collude because coordination may not be necessary to make price increases stick.” 

  5. Near commodity: Those price-increase announcements are meaningful because a statement about a “$60-per-ton increase for coated groundwood” is immediately understood by buyers and competitors. (Whether the price increase is fully implemented is another story.) Commercial printers make no such public announcements because there is no single price for printing; printing contracts often have multiple-page price lists. 

  6. Not quite a commodity: Coated paper, however, is not such a commodity that it can be traded in the pits like soybeans or pork bellies. Varying roll sizes, basis weights, finishes, and transportation arrangements make each order a custom-manufacturing job. (There was one company that tried to create a futures exchange for pulp and coated paper. It was called Enron.)

  7. Built-in market intelligence: Mills sell much of their output through paper brokers that also represent competitors. Those brokers can provide insight into competitive pricing and act as an indirect communications channel if a mill wants to signal competitors that it will hold the line on pricing. Many major customers also buy from more than one mill, so mills can glean information about what their competitors are up to by observing customers’ order volumes and how they negotiate on pricing. By contrast, most of those customers buy printing directly from the printers and use only one publication printer. 

  8. Stable demand: In the short run, demand for graphic paper is inelastic – that is, not affected by prices. It takes months for a major catalog or magazine to carry out a plan of reducing pages or copies, so paper companies assume a 5% change in prices will mean a 5% change in revenue. (Demand for paper is more elastic in the long run, but paper executives – like postal executives and politicians – don’t think about the long-term effects of pricing.) 

  9. The uncoated freesheet example: The North American market for uncoated freesheet paper (copier paper, for example) is a near duopoly. Despite having low production costs, the two big players would rather shut down machines than chase market share. This “market discipline” strategy has been profitable for the mills, as both Wall Street and the coated-paper manufacturers know full well. 

  10. Safety valves: Idling a machine during slack times is a money loser: Employees still have to be paid, and the bondholders still want their monthly payments. But mills have ways of keeping the machines running without flooding their markets, such as by making more paper for export markets or turning off the coaters to produce uncoated products. Printers don’t have such options.
Related articles:

Monday, March 3, 2014

6 Challenges Facing the Commercial Printing Industry

The two largest American printing companies recently presented similar lists of the major challenges they face -- and similar strategies for growing in the face of declining demand.

“The highly competitive market conditions and unused industry capacity will continue to put price pressure on both transactional work and contract renewals across all segments,” R.R. Donnelley stated in its 2013 annual report. Translation: Underused presses + shrinking demand = lower print prices.

It was basically same blues, different tune from Number 2 printer Quad/Graphics in the annual report it also released last week: “The industry has excess manufacturing capacity created by declines in industry volumes during the past recession which, in turn, has created continued downward pricing pressures.”

Both annual reports are more straightforward about the companies’ challenges than the accompanying, and more widely reported, press releases that announced their annual results. (Note to business journalists: If you’re just republishing press releases, you’re not really practicing journalism, are you?)

Besides overcapacity and declining prices, the two printing giants spelled out four other key challenges:  
  • Postal rates: Both printers believe the recent 6% increase in most postal rates will put a significant dent in the amount of mailing their customers do. Thus, expect less demand for printing,  even more overcapacity, and weaker prices.
  • Digital substitution: “Digital delivery of documents and data” are cutting into demand for print in certain categories, especially directories, financial documents, and books. That's leading to more overcapacity and lower prices.
  • Erosion of print-based marketing: “Marketers and publishers [are] allocating their marketing and advertising spend across the expanding selection of digital delivery options,” Quad said. That means shrinking magazines and fewer catalogs being mailed, resulting in less printing demand, more . . . you get the picture.
  • Customers’ use of print management firms, which, as Quad noted,“look to streamline processes and reduce the overall print spend of the Company’s clients.” 
Both companies are responding to the challenges via aggressive consolidation, with RRD buying Consolidated Graphics and Quad getting Vertis last year. And both are expanding beyond their U.S. base.

The two are acquiring not only competing printers but also non-print media providers, such as a translation service (by Donnelley) and a maker of point-of-purchase displays (by Quad).

RRD says the motive for such moves is “to provide a larger share of its customers’ communications needs.” In other words, customers may be printing less, but they still need to communicate, so the idea is to become a broad-based communication enabler, rather than solely a printer.

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