Retailers rely heavily on printed material for their success in challenging times. But unless the print is highly customized, it will probably go to waste.

The death of print has been heralded for decades. Prophets of woe daily proclaim, on websites and especially Twitter, that consumers – especially Millennials and Generation Z – have entirely abandoned ink on paper in favor of the glittering screen.

Not so fast, self-proclaimed pundits!

Leaving aside the obvious fallacy when it comes to packaging, printing in general is certainly not doomed. Total print volume and value is increasing worldwide. Serious, peer-reviewed studies have shown that the haptic (touch) properties of print make a measurable difference in communicating a lasting, memorable message. When several major retailers abandoned print catalogs in the 1990s in favor of online alternatives, store sales plummeted. Even printed signage has endured as a cost-beneficial alternative to expensive digital displays.

What happened? The advent of digital communication technology did not replace print; it transformed it. Old forms, such as newspapers, declined or transitioned to mobile content delivery. Giant consumer catalogs like Sears & Roebuck have disappeared, except for the annual Ikea catalog, which remains immensely popular. However, these have been replaced not just by online e-commerce sites but also by hordes of customized print catalogs, mailers, and inserts.

From Mass Production to Mass Customization

There’s an important word in the last sentence: “customized.” Thanks to the advent of Variable Data Printing (VDP), Web-to-Print (WtP), and of course digital presses themselves, it is theoretically possible to create a customized version of any printed piece. The color quality of digital inkjet and even toner-based production presses now rivals conventional offset or gravure printing, and the use of well-managed data can literally make every page unique – at the moment it is printed.

For retailers, the most obvious potential of this technology revolution is that a catalog, circular, or mailer can be customized or versioned to the needs of an individual store! Each printed page can reflect that store’s actual inventory, prioritized by its value or known customer preferences – or both. Rather than being a general advertisement, the printed piece can be precisely targeted. And, unlike their mobile app counterparts, versioned collateral has no post-publication technical requirements. (A printed circular can be used without a Wi-Fi connection.)

Lowe's Case Study Call to Action

Proceed with Caution!

Beginning in the late 1990s, print marketing pros were agog over these breakthroughs in VDP, WtP, and digital printing in general. Literally hundreds of hardware and software developers proclaimed the revolution, making extravagant promises and touting the benefits of “one-to-one marketing.” Not surprisingly, many of these companies perished or were quietly acquired in the 2000-2001 economic downturn.

The problem: customized print is harder to do than it is to imagine. Moreover, it is really hard to do well.

Think about direct mail, for example. How many “personalized” mailers never make it past the recycle bin. The retailer may have a list and an algorithm that includes your demographic details, and even your shopping preferences, but without careful planning the printed results can be creepy, ineffective, or both.
Customized or versioned printing is a science. For retailers to benefit at the store level, they must take seriously the realities of the data and how it is used.

Data Science Wins

Fortunately, there are ways to wrangle large data sets to produce versioned, store-specific collateral. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Realistically assess your existing data. Modern retailers typically store their product information in one or more databases. A Product Information Management (PIM) is the most common, sometimes accompanied by separate systems for inventory, pricing, sales history, accounting, and ordering from multiple suppliers. Very often, a separate Digital Asset Management (DAM) or Marketing Asset Management (MAM) database is used to store images, descriptions, and other information. When assessing all these data sources, the first thing to remember is not to panic. Yes, there’s a ton of product-related data, but very often there are unique identifiers or fields that will enable a data professional to relate the SKUs properly.
  1. Plan the destination. Printed collateral of all kinds is nearly always produced in Adobe InDesign. So, spend sufficient time developing a template-based approach to each circular or catalog. InDesign makes good use of paragraph-level and character-level styles, master pages, color palettes, and other tools designed to maintain brand consistency over multiple documents.
  2. Find a reliable publishing technology partner. Store-level versioning requires a deft combination of database management, design, collaborative workflow, and print expertise. Some large printing companies claim to have all of these qualities and more. However, these tend to have an agenda – namely a long-term printing contract. Choose a technology partner that is agnostic when it comes to who prints the versioned materials.

Don’t limit yourself to print output. Versioned, customized print can only accomplish so much for any retail store. To be truly personalized, the output from your VDP production system must also feed the store’s mobile app, as we noted in our previous article.