From The E-Commerce Trenches
Before I begin my discussion about some new things I've learned in helping clients build e-commerce functionality into their websites, I need to make a tribute to a favorite client who recently passed away.
Steve Brody, who was president and CEO of Lancaster, PA-based Intelligencer Printing Company, was a remarkable person and industry leader. With Intell since 1978, he was appointed President in 1997, piloting the company to become a model to which others around the country would aspire. In fact, earlier this year Intell was recognized by NAPL with the William K. Marrinan Hall of Fame Award as the "the best-managed printing company in North America."
Under his stewardship Intelligencer enjoyed steady growth, and was among the first to accomplish an all-digital, CTP workflow. He was always willing to test and adopt new technologies - he had just signed an agreement with printCafÈ - he believed would benefit clients.
Equally important, everyone who worked with Steve loved him. Not only was he one of the smartest company principals I've known in my 15 years in the industry, he was a great friend and ally to all who knew him. He will be truly, truly missed!
Our local PIA affiliate, Printing Industries of Northern California, recently held another e-commerce roundtable, this one featuring printers who are using one of the online print procurement and management application service providers (ASPs). Panelists were using Impresse, Noosh, Collabria and Printchannel. PrintCafÈ wasn't represented.
While each service received good reports, the one note of dissatisfaction was integration, or lack thereof. It appears most of the services are performing well on' the front end, e.g., ordering and reordering. Connecting into a printer's existing systems remains an issue, though, with the common complaint being re-entry of data.
Certainly, printCafÈ¼s strategy to acquire and/or merge with Hagen, Covalent and Programmed Solutions gives it a headstart in solving the integration problem. Truth is, though, there are three significant hurdles to overcome: time, money, and printers' own internal systems non-connectivity.
Time and money are issues insofar as they will play big roles in determining which ASPs survive. NASDAQ's recent roller coaster rides are indicative of a market tiring of the dot-com "promise" and looking for "delivery."
The other, larger issue of systems integration will be critical to the realization of a true end-to-end solution, regardless if it's outsourced to an ASP or developed by printers themselves.
As print industry ASPs jockey for position, some printing companies are developing their own e-commerce solutions. My company has been working with a couple of companies who have chosen this route. One client launched his own e-commerce site a year ago. The other, a reprographics firm, has asked us to redesign his company's existing site to include e-commerce tools. Here are some of the issues we¼ve encountered.
Databases are at the core of e-commerce functionality. E-mail capture is perhaps the most rudimentary example. It enables you to receive visitors' email addresses via your site. What happens next to those addresses is where e-commerce enters the picture: They can be manually re-entered into a stand-alone customer/prospect database, or they can be automatically streamed into an intra-networked relational database.
The goal, of course, is to eliminate any re-keying on our part. In many ways it's similar to the premise of all-digital workflow, where the integrity of the original art file remains intact, from preflighting and proofing to press. As in production, the likelihood of errors corresponds to the number of times an address has to be re-entered.
Use of the term database may be confusing, since it doesn't mean what we normally associate with a database, i.e., a simple list of names and addresses of clients and prospects. The e-commerce version of a database is relational and extremely sophisticated. For instance, orders and customer databases work in conjunction with accounting databases to automatically organize all data submitted by visitors into cross-referenced fields, enabling you to sort, view and analyze customers according to buying patterns, payment histories, demographics, etc.
Easier said than done. To begin with, to have access to the breadth of this information, all your databases have to be tied to each other. Estimating and sales databases need to integrate with accounting databases. If you want to add job tracking to your online suite of services, your shop floor production system needs to connect with both. As sites gain sophistication - adding pricing grids, shopping carts, credit card transactions and order/reorder tools - the complexity, cost and internal administrative demands increase dramatically.
Each shop offers its own unique challenges. Some firms have computerized production systems, others do not. Some shops have attached accounting onto their shop-floor system, others have departments totally independent of a centralized computing system. I'm aware of companies where accounting is running on a Unix platform, administration is on PCs, and production works on Macintoshes, a situation that probably confronts many printers.
It's in this context we should be judging e-commerce providers. While the vision is tantalizing, its full realization as a plug-and-play solution is a long way off.
The Do-It-Yourself Solution
Not surprisingly, an increasing number of printers are choosing to develop their own e-commerce tools for their websites. Again, this is easier said than done. And it's not inexpensive.
As in outsourcing, you still have to thoroughly review all your existing IT and production systems to determine which can be linked and those you may have to replace with a Web-enabled system. Next, you need to evaluate your goals for the site. Will customers benefit from shopping cart and charge card convenience? Do they want instant access to archived files? If so, how will they use those files? Is inventory management a logical and desired extension of your services? Are you comfortable allowing them to see where jobs are in the production track?
Polling your customers, conducting a focus group or using other research tools can help answer these questions. Also, don¼t be afraid to ask the ASPs for help. Let them refer you to other printers who are using their solution, so you can discuss with them the logistics and conversion issues they faced along the way.
Regardless if you choose to go with one of the online services to provide the e-commerce tools or you decide to build your own solution, it's not a one-click process. Both routes necessitate a thorough understanding of your customers' needs - present and future, careful IT systems evaluation, and experienced providers. The more one learns about what's involved in establishing an e-commerce website, the more we begin to understand why all those dot-coms need all that venture capital.
Charlotte Mills Seligman is president of Traversant Marketing Communications. The firm specializes in planning and executing integrated marketing programs for printing and allied graphic arts companies, with nearly two decades of expertise in the industry. Previous columns and issues of the company's Ti Monthly e-newsletter are posted on http://www.traversant.com. Inquiries should be directed to (415) 357-2929 or charlotte @traversant.com
© 2000 Charlotte Mills Seligman