Everyone Publishing Trends encountered at this year’s National Stationery Show (Sunday, May 20-Wednesday, May 23, 2012) agreed on one thing: “smaller and quieter.” Without being asked, several exhibitors admitted that, beyond a smaller number of attendees overall, it felt like “the buyers have disappeared.” Said one purveyor of animal-shaped desk accessories: “Sure, plenty of people stop by. But they’re all wholesalers ‘scoping things out for next year,’ or designers ‘looking for inspiration.’” As for those buyers placing orders on behalf of bookstores, exhibitors didn’t report changes or trends in any direction. No matter the upheaval elsewhere in book business, the special merch end of things seems to have found a status quo in the past twelve months.
Nevertheless, many hot-topics at the 2012 Stationery Show carried strong echoes of current issues in the book industry. While there is obviously no direct parallel to ebooks, emphasis on new digital printing technologies and proprietary interfaces abounded, as did that all-too-familiar anxiety which generally expresses itself as “and then there’s Pinterest…”
The most popular trend in digital this year revolved (unsurprisingly) around printing, and the opportunities afforded by its swiftly rising quality and plummeting costs. “For us, it’s only going to get better,” said Kevin Spindler, Director of the UK-based company Signature Gifts, Inc. His company has been in the personalization market since 2003, but only expanded to the US in 2010; this year was their first Stationery Show. This expansion has been aided by improvements in the speed and cost at which they’re able to deliver quality products—even though those products are printed in the UK. “But pretty soon,” said Spindler, “we anticipate using remote digital print-fulfillment locations rather than shipping from the UK. Even if you order one of our books in Bismarck, ND, once we complete the design on our end, I picture sending the files to our digital print location in Bismarck, and having them produce and ship locally the next day.”
Improvements in print technology seem to coming at just the right time: among all their personalized products, the most popular one, both at the Fair and in general, has been their line of personalized children’s picture and activity books. “These full-color products are where we can take the fullest advantage of the newest digital print development,” explains Spindler. Signature Gifts has also benefited from refinements to the instant preview software that lets online retailers give customers an accurate idea of what their finished book will look like.
These digital services are part of what Spindler thinks makes online retail advantageous—a conclusion that may sound like a declaration of the earth’s roundness, but which he constantly finds himself arguing for at events like the Stationery Show. Yes, it’s tiring to get stand-offish vibes when someone realizes you’re an online-only business, but more importantly, he says, “If bricks-and-mortars are honing their focus onto a product and experience you can’t get online, why wouldn’t an online retailer be doing more to offer—above and beyond convenience—an experience and a product you can’t get in a bricks-and-mortar?”
The Pampered Pixel is another business new to the Stationery Show this year and—with a model vaguely reminiscent of the Espresso Book Machine—is exploring what digital can do in a non-digital retail environment by tailoring services long-available online to storefronts around the country. Chief Creative Director Roxanne Davis acknowledges that the product itself is one widely available through online retailers—it’s a clothbound photo-book, printed on high-quality paper with thermal or library binding that is sold by The Pampered Pixel through bricks-and-mortar retailers. A customer walks into the store with a memory card or drive full of jpgs, and the retailer, after a brief consultation, uses a proprietary file upload device to send Pampered Pixel’s design team files and the customer’s preferred specs. Customers avoid the wait and effort required to upload photos and figure out an website’s layout interface, (“80% abandonment rate of online photo-book projects!” was a statistic enthusiastically quoted more than once at The Pampered Pixel booth) but more importantly, they gain access to a team of designers who create elaborate layouts, touch-ups, “narrative structures,” and design schemes. The result looks like a high-quality coffee table book, (paper-over-boards, 170 lb glossy paper, various binding options) and is shipped directly to the customer.
A steady flow of retailers stopped by The Pampered Pixel booth and seemed excited by the concept. Whether the approach will be strong enough to continue its growth is up for debate, but a more general message emerges from the Pampered Pixel’s business model. Customers are willing to take the money that digital printing saves them on high-end manufacturing and spend it elsewhere—in this case, on high-quality layout and design services. And spend they do, with books beginning at $199 and running upwards of $998.
The stationery industry faces digital challenges that are uniquely its own. Though there are exceptions, stationers—as manufacturers of greeting cards, journals, etc—are primarily in the business of physical “containers” in a world obsessed with virtual content. Despite this challenge, though, this year’s Stationery Show revealed a wealth of ways in which entrepreneurs are positioning digital as the perfect complement to paper, rather than its greatest threat.