Success in Printing P-O-P

California-based PSP is unfazed as shopping norms shift.

Historians have a knack for coining phrases that neatly define significant periods of time: the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, the Space Age. It’s amazing how one rather singular descriptor can tie together decades, or even centuries. Perhaps, in a hundred years, they’ll call the 2000s the Age of the Smartphone; it seems accurate. One handheld device infiltrates most of our daily existence; we work, play, pay bills, and store memories. Many 2-year-olds are adept enough with a smartphone to play games and call Grandma. It’s changed the way we interact with friends, with content, and with advertising. It’s certainly changed the way we shop.

It’s no secret that retailers are facing an uphill battle in an age where 87 percent of smartphone and tablet owners use their devices for online shopping, according to The Nielsen Company. What’s more, analysts at Cowen and Company say Amazon is poised to overtake Macy’s as the largest seller of clothing in the US. But what does that mean for print service providers? Is it doom and gloom, for you, too?

At Direct Edge Media, President Ryan Clark and CEO Ryan Brueckner are the first to acknowledge that retail has seen better days. But they don’t seem bothered by it. With 80,000 square feet of production space across three locations, two in Orange, California, and one in Denver, their business is anything but shrinking.

They started out as just “two kids,” says Brueckner; they met working at a one-hour photo lab right out of college and decided “if they could do it, we could do it,” says Clark. They began printing photo enlargements in 2001 in a 400-square-foot shop; today, their 100-person company is ready for an upgrade to an umpteenth new facility. Their secret? A fair amount of risk-taking and the drive to always say “yes.”

It Starts with Software
So, how did two kids making photo enlargements build a P-O-P empire?

“It was our few customers at the time who kept driving us into different industries and verticals,” says Clark. The duo would research a new vertical, buy the equipment, and end up with happy clients, who in turn referred more clients. “That’s pretty much the methodology we have in place today. We don’t market; I don’t even know if we have a fully functioning website.”

It’s a surprising statement coming from a company that’s invested heavily in its web-to-print interface and internal automation programs. (Then again, word of mouth has always been king in this business.) Beyond the ability to say “yes, I’ll try that,” Clark and Brueckner have built upon their knack for seeing what’s just around the corner and taking hold of it. Their proprietary software system has evolved through nine editions over the last eight years to where Direct Edge handles most of its enterprise accounts online, allowing the company to support a higher volume of work, says Clark, and to manufacture new capabilities on the fly. The company staffs two in-house programmers, enabling customers “to define and dictate exactly the workflow that they want,” says Brueckner. “If I’ve got a customer who needs to be able to dynamically change artwork online and our system doesn’t have that, we go ahead and build it as a module, and then we’re able to cross-sell it to our clients.” Brueckner estimates the system has given them a three- to five-year head start on their competitors.

And any leg-up in efficiency is critical in the new age of imaging technology where anyone can produce a saleable graphic. “We used to have two weeks; now we have three days,” says Clark. “We can all print well, but if you’re efficient, you can keep your price down, and you can meet the demand of the clients, you hold the keys.”

Sometimes this means making a sacrifice; Brueckner describes a recent situation where it made more sense to die-cut a job than to run it on one of the shop’s two Zünd G3 cutters, but “you don’t have time to get a die made. You have to do what’s fastest … you have to have the equipment on the floor.”

A Neatly Wrapped Package
The biggest secret in P-O-P is kitting. Ask any retail-centered shop to describe the life of a graphic from design to shipping and you’ll hear an orchestra of crickets or perhaps a polite chuckle. Companies who have mastered the art of shepherding prints from A to Z seem to be a head above the rest, and they’d like to keep it that way.

“Equipment has gotten so good that anyone can become a printer,” says Clark, “so now that differentiator is going to be tying the package.”

Brueckner adds that they’ve spent years examining every step of the kitting process and are still searching for ways to improve efficiency – in part because their kitting operation currently takes place offsite, and because the task is simply that monumental. For one unnamed fast-food retailer, Direct Edge processes 19-piece kits for 2000 locations across the country. Practically every item in the kit requires variable data – including banners, coupons, and customizable menu pieces – and the job has to move seamlessly from the online interface, through prepress, onto four or five different branches of production, and then funnel back to the kitting team. In addition, the fulfillment crew – which on any given day numbers as many as 15, amounting to between 500 and 1000 man hours per week – needs a steady flow of work, not a hurry-up-and-wait situation. This puts pressure on the finishing department, where Clark says they’d add two more cutting tables if they only had the space. Jobs often have to be cut in small, piecemeal batches in order to send full kits to the warehouse for tedious handwork like applying tape, adding bolts, and folding. Clark estimates the life of a job is divided equally between printing, finishing, and kitting – which seems to make the term “print service provider” fall short.

Brueckner attributes a large part of Direct Edge’s success in fulfillment to its homegrown software platform. “Mistakes in the kitting and fulfillment process can destroy a business,” he says. “By automating the workflow, we reduce the risk of kitting errors and increase the speed at which we can deliver orders to our nationwide customers.” The system generates and organizes print files, grouping them by city and state so they can be shipped out in waves; clients don’t care if the destination is 5 or 500 miles away. Every kit has to arrive on the same day.

He adds that the biggest thing in P-O-P nowadays is the variable nature of each piece. “We don’t print 500 of one thing anymore; it’s 500 versions with one of each.” A job for one national action sports retailer brought in 986 pieces of creative – half of them in PDF form, the other half in Adobe Illustrator. The artwork needed to be printed on nine different kinds of material and shipped to 38 locations. Talk about a logistical riddle. Another of Direct Edge’s regular clients, a California-based, warehouse-style grocer, orders 250 kits per week with anywhere from three to 24 elements. The turnaround time is three or four days. When this is your typical workload, it pays to have the software on your side.

Efficiency and Imagination
More so even than streamlined software, a business’ success really lies in the strength of its people. One hundred employees may sound like a small number, but efficiencies in corporate structure can be just as critical as efficiencies in production. Brueckner knows how to run every device and does most of the training himself. The shop also stresses cross-training: The sheetfed cutter operators know how to run the Zünd, the Zünd operators are familiar with the large-format printers, and so on.

“This is also important because then you get the weigh-in from five different operators on how to add efficiency,” says Brueckner, who will spend a day here and there running a machine himself, taking note of certain inefficiencies, which he passes on to the production manager.

Each department – sheetfed offset and cut-sheet digital, large-format printing, and large-format cutting – has its own production manager and dedicated prepress team. Once a month, or sometimes even on a per-job basis, the staff will gather to consider how recent work could have been processed more efficiently.

The talents of Direct Edge’s staff extend beyond basic imaging, as well. The shop also employs four structural designers who work on art for the more innovative projects, and the team has been essential for a number of lucrative ones that have come through in recent months.

A Nintendo-themed job for shoe retailer Vans “required something special to reflect the classic video game feel,” says Clark. The structural team engineered custom motors with parts cut from acrylic and Dibond, using the shop’s Zünd flatbeds, to move custom-made Mario figures throughout the display. (Click to see a video.) The graphics were imaged on an Inca Onset Q40 UV (Falconboard, B Flute corrugated cardboard, and styrene) and a Fujifilm Uvistar Pro8 UV (Ultraflex blockout banner media).

The window display alone, which Direct Edge supplied for more than 350 locations, rung in at 10 times the average cost, and Clark says it’s absolutely worth the investment. “They’re going completely against the grain,” he says. “Most mall [stores] have a mannequin and a background banner, and then next door you’ve got the Nintendo window with Mario jumping up and down. … They’re continuing to put some money towards these kinds of projects because their traffic is up in comparison to the national average.” Vans also once commissioned a “Star Wars”-themed display featuring custom-made lightsabers – and they aren’t the only ones exploring the reaches of this type of investment. Direct Edge has done projects such as a foamcore hamburger that was printed, routed, and filled with neon lights. They’ve even sourced barbecues and coolers for a Billabong Fourth of July campaign.

It all boils down to saying “yes” when others are saying “no.” Clark says the shop prides itself on its contemporary, go-for-it mindset; they see competitors who are unwilling to change and innovate, and interpret that as a window of opportunity.

Pressing On
Of course, not every risk pays off. In 2008, Direct Edge created a digital signage branch with a network of more than 300 units nationwide. “But when the world fell off a cliff, that industry was the first one to go. … We lost big,” says Brueckner, adding that many of their clients eliminated digital signage departments altogether. He predicts the market may see an upturn in a few years when equipment becomes more affordable.

The moral of the story, however, is that they didn’t take their eyes off the future. They kept taking risks, kept innovating, and are constantly doing so today. Clark says being willing to experiment has won them friends among their suppliers; they’ve done beta testing for Xerox and are currently awaiting a new Fujifilm press. He also points to the bottleneck in the finishing department and says “we’ll definitely be the ones experimenting” with innovations such as robots that can be programmed to load and unload parts from one, or even multiple, finishing tables.

What else is on the horizon for retail? “I don’t know how turnaround time is going to get smaller, but it will,” says Clark. “If you can shave one day from getting artwork to [having the job] in a box, you really do hold all the keys.”

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