One more step toward paper becoming obsolete #fb

Sears Christmas, 1962 (Cover Image)

Shopping for the holidays will never be the same. Image by Telstar Logistics via Flickr

I read today that Sears is going to publish this holiday’s Wish Book as an iPad app and frankly, it made me smile from one side of my mouth and frown with the other. The Wish Book has been a cultural icon since before I was a kid, and while its entry into the electronic landscape isn’t by itself the death of paper catalogs, it is a strong omen that my colleagues and I would be fools to ignore. The loss of something so nostalgia-laden make me sad. On the other hand, my ego from knowing I have predicted correctly yet again makes it hard to hold in the smile.

I work in graphic design. I started in print design, then moved to Web design when order forms were still sent by unsecured email and twists of fate have brought me back to print. I’ve been saying for years that the effective death of paper will come in our lifetimes and we should be preparing for it, but it has mostly fallen on deaf ears — somewhat understandable considering people’s resistance to change and the fact that I work for a catalog company.

But whatever your preconceived feelings are — no, you’re not the only one who “just likes the feel of paper” — the math is simple and it goes like this:

  • Currently, it costs about $1 – $2 to print and ship a catalog. That means, you’re already taking a risk of losing money on every one and have to make a certain sales quota just to break even. Every penny you add to this cost comes right off your bottom line.
  • Mailing costs are about to skyrocket more than anything we’ve seen in a long time. To rectify their deep financial problems, either the post office is going to at least double prices, or they are going to shut down altogether, leaving you at the mercy of FedEx and the like for anything physical you want to send somewhere.
  • Printing costs are going to skyrocket soon as well. Printing prices are based on big printers’ abilities to run at peak efficiency, which means rolling 24 hours per day. Let’s say just 10% of the catalog business moves online in the next 5 years.
    1. That means smaller printers closing down because they can no longer run efficiently enough to stay viable.
    2. This leads to bigger printers raising prices because of reduced competition and incorrect assumptions about the value of their product and demand.
    3. That makes more of the smaller catalog businesses move online, raise prices, take a hit on gross margin or shut down altogether.
    4. This means less printing.
    5. Return to step 1 until the industry is reduced to only printing specialty items at a high cost.
  • Paper prices are going up at a rate comparable to your cable bill and show no sign of slowing.
I like paper too, but I like to be realistic and I like to be ahead of the curve when the roadmap is fairly clear, and there is no mistake on this one. And let’s also understand that this spiral starts with catalog companies, but it will engulf all things printed. Magazines are pulling back production, direct mailers are doing the same, eBook sales increase by 20% or more every year: unless you’re willing to pay $30 for a paperback that you can get for $4 on an eReader, books are going to fade away too. It’s basic math.
All this is really just to say — Wish Book: I never did get the rock tumbler I circled every year, but I always looked forward to circling it. Hopefully your app allows kids to do that so parents can go back through when they’re sleeping and know what to buy.

2 comments so far

  1. […] paper printing costs. Catalogs and advertisements that were traditionally printed and mailed are beginning to appear in electronic formats. Some retailers now offer weekly circulars via e-mail or on their websites, giving easy paperless […]

  2. […] the dullness of a 50-hour work week, 50 weeks a year, for the next 35 years at a paper company that could potentially become obsolete within the next 15 […]

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