Hiring Someone to Shop Competitors

Hiring a Professional To Conduct a Pricing Survey (Revised/updated 5-4-21)

Over the past 25 years, I have hired or retained a number of individuals to conduct surveys of my competitors.  I Wanted these individuals not only to survey my competitors about what they were charging for specific products, but I also wanted to grade my competitors in terms of professionalism, friendliness and overall demeanor.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a period during which I conducted more than 500 on-site consulting visits, I frequently found myself suggesting that some of my clients, especially those with apparent hang-ups about price, hire a professional to conduct a survey of their own competitors. Of course, with that came the necessity of explaining how I thought it should be conducted as well as how much it should cost.

Great Variations Within Individual Markets

Staff discussing key products to be surveyed.

As a publisher of dozens and dozens of pricing studies over the years, I have often told folks that the greatest variations in pricing in this industry occur not between one section of the country to the next or from one market to the next, but rather within individual markets. While prices for specific products might vary by 5-7% from one section of the country to the next, statistically it is not uncommon whatsoever to find prices for a specific products and quantities to vary by +/- 25-40% within even the smallest of markets.

As an example, in you take a relatively small town or city where there are 10 small format quick printing operations, and you price out a specific product such as 500 #10/24 white envelopes in black ink, you will likely find an average price of approximately $80-85. However, if you price that product out among 10 different printers in that town, you are likely to find prices ranging from $59 to $108.

You may find even lower prices and higher prices depending upon the day of the week you are shopping and who you happen to talk to at the time. Interestingly enough, the printer who may charge the highest prices for envelopes may also be the lowest for matching letterheads. If you are looking for logic and consistency in pricing in this industry you’re probably looking in the wrong place! (P.S. These types of variations in pricing occur in countries as well. There is no logical explanation for these types of variations and inconsistencies.)

Put simply, while I would never allow my competitor’s pricing practices to dictate my own, I also believe it is important to keep informed as to what is going on in your market area. It is also important to get a better feel about your competitors from the eye of a typical consumer or printing buyer.

Hiring a Professional Shopper

The first mistake many printers make when considering shopping their competitors is to do it on the cheap. Spend as little as money as possible and do it quickly. Well, as is often the case, you get what you pay for. If you’re going to hire someone to call and visit other printers and evaluate what they offer and what they charge you have to do it the right way!

That pretty much means going outside. You don’t want to assign this task to a CSR or graphics person or maybe someone in bindery. You probably don’t want to have your grandmother or mother-in-law tackle this either.

First, you need to set up a real world scenario for your shopper. You need to select a reasonable number of closely related products that you would like to have shopped. Ideally, these should be the types of products (and services) that you like to get yourself. Look at your existing list of key customers, and try to develop a fictionalized company that closely matches real world customers that you tend to deal with.

Establishing the Proper Scenario

Let’s imagine that you consider the healthcare field a lucrative source of business for your firm. Maybe you already print for a couple of walk-in clinics. So let’s imagine a scenario where a secretary is sent out by a team of doctors who are considering opening up a new walk-in clinic and they are going to quickly need six specific items….

  • 500, 1M and 2.5M 2-sided, 4C 4 x 9 Rack Cards on 100# Coated Cover
  • 500 ea. Of four different 4C business cards, 1-sided
  • 1M Letterheads and Matching Envelopes 2C
  • 1,000 and/or 2,000 patient information sheets (blk)
  • 100 pads of 50 each prescriptions forms, 4 x 5.5” on Security Guard paper

The above list is strictly off the top of my head. You will have to come up with your own. I would definitely limit the number of products to be surveyed. Too many, and your shopper as well as the printers they are calling up will get discouraged or become suspicious. If you make the list too long, with too many variables, you are going to encounter reluctance and delays. Obviously, there are many other products and variables that could be applied. You could ask about the additional cost of numbering, or if the letterheads where only one color instead of two.

Hiring a “Professional”

Remember, you are not the person that is going to be doing this shopping. Someone else is, and they have to actually believe and play the part of a secretary for this fictional firm. So, you need to check around with your employees, friends and family and let the word out that you are looking for someone to tackle and take on a special 3-4 day project. Let it be known in advance that you expect professionalism and a thorough job to be performed.

You also need to be willing and able to pay someone a decent fee of $14-18 per hour (or more), and you need to realize that this project could easily take 20-35 hours or more to complete. Once you have established the scenario under which you want this person to operate, they need to be provided with a written list of products (like above), a list of printers you want them to visit, as well as specific questions or observations you would like them to make with each visit. What does the place look like, how professional where the people who helped the shopper, how fast did they get back with prices, etc., etc.

So What Does Kathy Do?

Let’s say you have hired Kathy. Kathy needs to dress professionally and should probably carry a small briefcase to play the role. You might or might not even supply her with her own business cards, but in that case the name of the business might be Medical Office Experts, Inc. and of course the phone would have to be her own cell phone. Whoever you hire has to be enthusiastic. Kathy needs to be smart, but she shouldn’t have to know much about printing, nor do you want her using an unusual terms that might set off alarm bells at the firms she visits.

You need to expect that Kathy will make at least one and possibly two visits to each of the ten firms. She should also probably have reason to call them once or twice as well…. Maybe if for no other reason than to check as to why she hasn’t heard back from the company. She truly has to be willing to play the role and believe in it if this is to be successful.

Personally, I would tell Kathy that I don’t really expect to hear from her until she is finished with the project. You should expect, at the very least, a pricing spreadsheet of some sort breaking out all the prices she has collected by individual printer as well as a written report with 1-3 paragraphs summarizing her visit to each firm. Her ovcrall analysis of the firm, the staff, general appearance, etc.

The one added touch, but rarely done because of the circumstances, is to have that same shopper shop your own firm. That means hiring your shopper and discussing the project either outside of normal office hours or hiring the person off-site.

Stressing Professionalism

I cannot emphasize enough that this project, if it is to be done at all, be conducted professionally, and not just thrown together by having someone make secret, quiet calls from some office in the back of your firm.

I can assure you that once you get the final report, and that’s exactly what you want to receive and expect, is a formal report with pricing, analysis and possibly even graphs. If you can get something like that and it takes 25-35+ hours to complete it is well worth the $350-$550 you might end up spending on this project. Quite naturally, I would expect that you would also be able to sit down with your shopper and get some one-on-one observations to fill in some of the possible blanks.

I will assure you, if this survey is conducted properly, you will be absolutely amazed at the differences in pricing, quality and general overviews that you will receive from your shopper, and that in turn should be of great benefit to your firm. All the more so, if your shopper is able to shop your own firm and be as brutally honest about your own employees and operation as you expect her to be about the competitors she shops.

John Stewart, Executive Director, NPRC
Email me with your questions at: mailto:membership@printingresearch.org

“Excess Earnings” Are Key to High Valuations!


5-page valuation report

NPRC is offering, for a limited time, a special report detailing real world valuations for 48 printing firms. The report features four special valuation charts. Each chart features key factors used to arrive at a typical company valuation.  The charts examine factors such as  –  annual sales, excess earnings, excess earnings as a percent of sales, net assets and assigned earnings multipliers.

The valuation charts then summarize the estimated value arrived at for each of the 48 firms in question, as well as the ratio of value to annual sales.

Top & Bottom Firms by Value

When it comes to establishing the value of a printing company, there’s one fact that stands out above all the rest – “The value of a company has little to do with annual sales.” The charts depict that while one firm with sales of $717,000 can be worth almost $676,000 (or 94% of it sales), a similar size firm with almost identical sales of $745,000 can be worth less than $81,000 (less than 11% of sales.) The same comparisons can be made regardless of annual sales volume.

How do you explain these great variations? Most variations in company valuations can be explained by a company’s ability or inability to generate “excess earnings.” What are “excess earnings?” Complete the form below to download your FREE copy of this special report.

    Print Shop For Sale (6th Printing)

    Print Shop for Sale, one of NPRC’s all-time, most popular bookstore publications, is now back in stock. Quantities are limited, however, and available only as a hard copy. Sorry, no PDFs. 

    Don’t put your business up for sale or offer to buy a competitor until you purchased a copy of Print Shop for Sale.

    Now in its 6th printing, this 310-page book by industry leaders John Stewart and Larry Hunt is packed with practical information on how to arrive at a “fair market” price for the business.

    Chapter 12 of special interest –  This chapter is special… it contains 12, 4-page analyses detailing exactly how the “Excess Earnings” approach is used to value real-world companies. These sample valuations are well worth the entire price of the book.

    Print Shop for Sale includes 14 key chapters dealing with some of the following:

    • Historical and current valuation methods
    • Common valuation myths
    • Importance of “Excess Earnings”
    • What happens when there are no “Excess Earnings?”
    • What about a business with a negative “net worth?”
    • Great tips for increasing the value of your business
    • Cautions for prospective buyers

    RETAIL PRICE: $94.50 (includes shipping & handling)
    NPRC MEMBER PRICE: $74.00 (includes shipping & handling)

    An additional postage charge of $18 applies to Canadian orders.


    2021 Wage & Benefits Study Just Released!

    The 2021 NPRC Printing Industry Wage & Benefits Study has just been released (effective Nov. 2, 2020), according to NPRC Executive Director John Stewart.

    The new 150+ page study reports average and median wages, along with key benefits, for 24 key positions in the printing industry.  This brand new report also covers sales and compensation practices for outside sales representatives.

    Specific positions covered include general managers, production managers, Sr. and Jr. customer service representatives, Digital and Offset press operators, graphic designers as well as bindery operators and mailing specialists, just to name a few. This year’s survey also included employees assigned to producing signs and large format.


    Wages & salaries are broken down based upon population density, geographic location, sales and profitability.  Discover what firms your size in similar markets are paying for specific positions such as press operators, bindery assistants and delivery technicians. Click here or the artwork to the left to download and view the Table of Contents for the 2021 Wage & Benefits Study.

    Complimentary Copies Distributed – If you’re one of the 200+ firms that participated in this popular industry recent survey you should expect to receive your FREE, complimentary copy of the study between Nov. 4-6th. If you did not receive your copy please drop us an email at: membership@printingresearch.org.

    2021 Wage & Benefits Study PDF
    Non-Member Price… $179.00
    NPRC Member Price… $89.50

    2021 Wage & Benefits Study (Hard Copy)
    Non-Member Price… $195.00
    NPRC Member Price… $98.00

    To order your copy, visit the NPRC Bookstore.



    Save 18% on Signs & Wide Format Pricing Study

    18% Discount on Popular Signs Study

    The 2018-2019 Signs & Wide Format Pricing Study is one of NPRC’s most popular pricing studies, and you can now save 18% – BUT you must place your order by Friday, Nov. 27, 2020.  Use Coupon NPRCSIGNS18 to save 18%.

    This study has already proven to be a real eye-opener for many firms! Read testimonials below.

    Visit our bookstore at  https://printingresearch.org/products-page/ to read details about this popular study. Remember too, that 98% of  all orders are processed and mailed same day as received. Covering dozens of products & services – This new, 110+ page study details real-world pricing practices for dozens of the most common products and services in the signs and wide format industry. Click here or the artwork below to view and download two sample pricing pages.

    Click below to view
    Table of contents 

    RETAIL PRICE (PDF)… $169.00
    AND PAY ONLY… $138.58!


    “After reviewing the latest Sign & Wide Format study I realized I’d been leaving money ‘sitting on the table’ on some products. Literally within minutes of receiving the study, I was able to confidently revise a quote for a customer, knowing the price would still be fair yet competitive. The resulting revenue increase nearly covered the cost of the study—and that’s just one project! Thank you for all of your hard work.”

    James Jepsen, General Manager
    Local Copies Etc. Santa Maria CA

    “The work that John and his team do is so great for our industry and I would hope more companies invest the time in taking part in the survey every year. We all rise up together and this work is a great step for all of us! Our company is only 4 years old so this information is invaluable.”

    Zeno Signs & Chesterton Printing Co.
    Chesterton, IN

    “Hi John. Got the study, printed it, and now using it. Every time we get a survey from you we spend a good deal of time reviewing our pricing. I know we should do this more often but your surveys are the ‘kick in the butt’ that we need to make sure we are getting the best return on our work. I have been doing these surveys for more than 20 years. While I own other businesses, there is nothing in those industries to compare with the surveys you produce. Thanks.”

    Jon Robson
    Auburn Document Centre, Auburn, NY

    This information-packed study offers average and median pricing for dozens of products and services offered in the sign industry, including the following:

    • Laminating Services
    • Substrate Pricing Retail and Discounted)
    • 3′ x 6′ and 4′ x 8′ Banners
    • Vertical Banners & Stands
    • Feather Flags
    • 4MM Coroplast Yard Signs (1-S & 2-S)
    • ACM Panel Pricing (18″ x 24″ and 24′ x 36′)
    • Magnetic Signs
    • Decals – square and contour cut
    • Vehicle Decals
    • Flat Surface Vehicle Wraps
    • Window Perfs
    • Basic Pricing Charges for Vinyl Signs

    The study is available in both PDF and Hard-Copy formats.


    Save 18% on Popular NPRC Mailing Study

    Use Coupon to Save 18%
    On Association’s Newest Study
    One of NPRC’s most popular pricing studies!

    Now, for the first time, you can save 16% on NPRC’s recently released pricing study – The 2020-2021 Mailing Services Pricing Study. First published in February 2020 and offered at a retail price of $175 (PDF Only), you can now purchase this study for only $147, but you must act quickly since this limited-time offer expires Nov. 28, 2020. Use the following coupon code to save 18%: NPRCMAILING18

    NPRC’s newest study has been praised by printers from across the country. The 2020-2021 Mailing Services Pricing Study is 110+ pages in length, and covers dozens of mailing services and products, including average and median pricing for products and services such as:

    • Full-Service IMb Charges
    • De-duping Fees
    • NCOA Processing
    • Markup Rates for Brokered Lists
    • Laser letter Merging Fees
    • Inkjet Addressing Fees
    • Insertion Charges #10, 6×9″ & 9×12″
    • Metering Charges
    • Hand & Machine Application of stamps
    • Self-Mailer Processing Fees
      Plus many, many other services & products

    To order your copy or to read more about this study, visit the NPRC Bookstore.

    “As always, NPRC has produced a top-notch publication. “Going rates” for mailing services are hard to track from company to company and town to town, so it’s very helpful to have a baseline to compare with. While the numbers alone are worth the cost of the book, the commentary and analyses that come along with these studies are a huge bonus, especially true because they are unbiased and accurate.”

    James Jepsen, Gen. Manager
    Local Copies Etc.
    Santa Maria, CA


    “I have been in the printing business almost 30 years. A big part of my success is because of John Stewart’s industry studies. The latest study, the 2020-21 Mailing Services Pricing Study has helped me determine that I was undercharging on some of my mailing services. We all are busy running our companies and often times simply forget how long it’s been since we last raised our prices to reflect the increased costs of operation. This study is the perfect tool to remind you to analyze your prices to ensure you stay profitable.”

    Armand Girard
    Curry Printing & Marketing
    Auburn, ME


    “NPRC has hit the mark again! We are very appreciative of the association’s tireless efforts to get these studies right and on time. We’ve been in the print and mail business for 15 years and have always relied on client feedback and market knowledge to help us set prices. It’s nice to see these corroborated by other businesses similar to ours on a regional and even national basis. Thanks again NPRC.”

    Bob Heid
    We Are Kymera
    Orlando, FL


    “The mailing survey is one of the best surveys to come out from NPRC in a long time. All of the association’s surveys are of immense help. This one hit a sweet spot for our company. It validated our pricing positions and gave us some items to add, services we should be breaking up into different price categories and not be “all-inclusive in pricing”. We have grown our commercial printing firm to be in the top ten in the San Francisco north bay. Surveys like the Mailing Services Pricing Study keep us growing.”

    David Adams
    QPS Printing
    Petaluma, CA 94952

    To order your copy or to read more about this study, visit the NPRC Bookstore.

    Characteristics of Leaders & Laggards

    Learning to Distinguish Between The
    Leaders & Laggards in the Printing Industry

    By John Stewart, Executive Director
    National Printing Research Council (NPRC)

    I’ve been actively involved in this industry since the early 1980’s working with association such as NAQP, NAPL, NPOA and NPRC. I’ve published or co-published virtually every statistical study produced in our industry, ranging from wage and benefits and pricing studies to studies dealing with compensation practices for outside sales reps to what I consider the most valuable of them all – the biennial financial benchmarking studies.

    My expertise as an observer of our industry’s history also stems from the fact that I have conducted more than 400 on-site consulting visits both in the U.S., Canada, Australia, Ireland and even Brazil. Most of these consulting visits were conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

    Ironically and to a large extent, I can still recall the physical attributes of almost every shop I ever consulted with as well as the major recommendations I made following the visit. As the popular Farmers Insurance commercial suggests, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” I truly have seen it all, but the one more humorous visits I can recall was a consulting visit to a printing firm in Brazil where I encountered press operators using gasoline as a press wash while smoking cigarettes.

    Characteristics of Winners vs. Losers

    With the foregoing out of the way, and hopefully having established some credibility with you the reader, I would like to share with you what I consider to be some specific characteristics that distinguish highly efficient and profitable firms from firms found at the other end of the spectrum.

    Success or failure in this industry can rarely be blamed on cut-throat competitors, brokers, the local economy or even on employees.

    I will note that, more often then not, the primary cause of failure in this industry falls entirely on the shoulders of the owners. Success or failure in this industry can rarely be blamed on cut-throat competitors, brokers, the local economy or even on employees. The blame belongs precisely where it should – The owner.

    Monitoring Productivity via SPE

    As many of the studies that I have published, it is shocking to see a histogram depicting sales per employee in our industry, and observing the fact that sales per employee (SPE) can range dramatically from a low of $80,000 to more than $200,000 at the high end.

    Tell me your annual sales and the total number of employees (including yourself, partners and spouses) and I can closely predict where you will fall in terms of real profitability. SPE in turn will also provide a good indication of the ultimate value of your firm if  it was put up for sale tomorrow.

    According to the just-released 2019-2020 Financial Benchmarking Study, (visit the NPRC Bookstore for further information about this study)the average SPE of our 177 qualified participants was $139,595. The median SPE was almost identical. Firm’s falling into the bottom quartile reported SPEs in the $119,000 range while those in the top quartile reported an average SPE of approximately $144,000.

    It never ceases to amaze me how poorly some printers perform these days!

    Owners of troubled printing firms constantly make excuses for poor performance. The solution for boosting and improving SPE is two-fold – Terminating excess or unproductive employees and boosting the firm’s overall productivity and efficiency.

    Unfortunately, all I hear most of the time from owners of troubled firms is excuses, excuses and excuses. Owners are simply afraid to make changes and constantly rationalize as to why certain suggestions can’t be implemented at their firms. Offer specific suggestions for major improvements in their SPE and owners balk and claim, “It simply can’t be done at my company.”

    The truly sad thing is most of these owners will never, never change, and will ultimately end up closing their doors because they will never find a qualified buyer for their firm willing to pay them anything close to what they think their business is worth. In the best case scenario, many, many printers will end up closing their doors, selling off their equipment, and selling the customer list for mere pennies on the dollar.

    Poor Financial Reporting

    Profit leaders in our industry are far more likely to receive monthly financial statements, including a P&L and a balance sheet. Even more important than the statements themselves is how they are formatted.

    No profit & loss statement should come across your desk without a column of “expense ratios” appearing directly to the right. If total cost of goods (COG) is $440,000 I want to immediately know what percent of gross sales does that figure represent? Is it in the 31-32% range (that’s bad) or is it 29% or lower (that’s good).

    Comparing the performance of leaders against laggards in our industry.

    Far more critical is taking a look at total payroll expenses (excluding what is paid to a single working owner). The most financially troubled firms in this industry report payroll ratios of 34-38% and higher, while the best performers in our industry report keeping payroll ratios in the 25-29% range.

    Check-out the percent of owner’s compensation being withdrawn in the industry.

    If your bookkeeper or CPA is providing you with financial statements that lack comparative ratios adjoining your column of expenses you need to fire them immediately. There is no excuse for failing to provide “ratios” next to “expenses.” It shouldn’t be a question of “well you never asked.” That was and is their responsibility to provide you with the proper tools, whether or not you asked for it. And, these “ratios” are indeed the most important tools you can use to help you analyze your business.

    Of course, the worst sin of all is to see owners of troubled firms receiving properly formatted financial statements month after month and yet seeing them take no action. What the hell are they waiting for. As you can surmise, I have little sympathy for owners who sit on their ass every day checking their Facebook accounts and reading their Twitter feeds.

    Owner’s used to ask me what guarantees I would offer and I used to respond. I will refund the entire consulting fee if I can’t turn your company around, but you have to give me total authority to implement all of my recommendations. And that authority would include terminating your son or daugher-in-law and raising prices across the board. Guess what, too many timid owners out, almost all of whom where afraid to give me that authority.

    It’s All About Pricing – NOT!

    Profit laggards (those making less than 6% owner’s compensation) are far more likely to be willing to match or lower prices than those offered by profitable firms – firms reporting owner’s compensation of 25% or more.

    Sometimes a printer will tell me that, “I don’t try to be the lowest priced printer. Instead, I try to be sort of in the middle.” And yet, when challenged, many of these printers simply know very little about local or regional pricing. Troubled printers are far more likely to be swayed by customers telling them that their prices are a bit high, too often responding to the customer by saying, “Let me look over the quote we provided and see if we can’t shave it a bit.”

    In my experience talking with some of the best and most profitable firms in this industry, they tend to have an attitude that their first price is also their best price, and they make no apologies or excuses for the fact that their quote is may indeed be higher than other quotes obtained by a customer. They know the value of their product and will not quibble.

    Imagine visiting a high-end restaurant and when the waiter comes to your table, you point out the price of the eight ounce filet mignon on the menu and asking him if he could do a bit better on the price. Even worse, imagine telling him that all three of your guests are going to be ordering filets and surely they can lower the price a bit!

    For additional information on pricing in our industry, we invite you to visit the NPRC blog where you can find two articles of interest:

    Major Pricing Variations A Myth (Page 1 of Blog)
    Shopping Your Competitors (Page 2 of Blog)

    For those who always seem to get hung up on price and believe it to be the most important criteria when it comes to selecting one printer over the next, I suggest that the next time you are at the grocery store and explain, if you can, how Philadelphia Cream Cheese is consistently priced 30-40% higher than the store brand sitting directly next to it? Better packaging, marketing, shelf placement, great recipes? Whatever your excuse or answer, it can be applied to printing products as well.


    A survey print buyers conducted years ago found “Price” ranked #5 in terms of importance.

    P.S. A study of print buyers conducted a number of years ago by RIT sought to determine the importance of various factors in making a decision to use or select one printer over another. They prepared a scale that ranked eight various factors in the selection process. Guess where “price” fell? Pricing was ranked #5. What factors were more important? Dependability was #1, and was followed by Print Quality, Turnaround Time, and Ease of Doing Business – all ranking above “Price.”

    Failing to Practice the 80-20 Rule

     Learning to spend time wisely (The 80-20 Rule) is another characteristic that seems to distinguish the best run printing firms from the also-rans. Owner’s of top tier firms seem far more disciplined that owners of troubled firms.

    One perfect example of the 80-20 rule suggests (at least roughly) that 80% of your employee problems are caused by 20% of your employees. A very small number of employees cause most of the problems… they call in sick, make most of the mistakes, and seem to be the root cause of much of the turmoil in a company. In you have 10 employees there’s a very good chance that two of them cause most of the problems in your company. Terminating these employees can make a major improvement in most companies.

    Another example? Approximately 20% of your overhead items account for 80% of your expenses. If you’re motivated to cut expenses and improve profitability, don’t spend time worrying about the reducing the cost of office supplies, trash removal, travel and marketing. Concentrate instead on some of the “biggies” like auto operating expenses, building rent (Yes, that too can be renegotiated), lease expenses, repairs & maintenance, and even utilities. Successful companies find a way to reduce these types of expenses, while troubled firms once again just rationalize and make excuses.

    Too Much Time On Social Media (A personal a rant <g>)

    There is no doubt in my mind, that there is at least an inverse relationship between profitability and the time spent by many owners on social media. While I cannot point to hard statistics to back up this claim, Just observing printers from close up and afar I see so much time being wasted in this industry on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram, just to name a few. I would also include various printing related listservs to this list as well.

    I believe a significant percentage of our political and social discord in this country can be directly traced to what is published and shared on these sites. I think many owners and their families would be far better served by reducing participation in these various social network sites.

    It is embarrassing these days to go out to a medium or high-end restaurant these days and to observe two adults and two children all with their heads down sending out text messages and reading the latest posts on Facebook. Not only is it rude and impolite, it is a terrible waste of intellectual talents.  Enough ranting!

    I used to own a cell-phone jammer (Yeah, yeah, I know they are illegal – who cares) and I could destroy an evening for a family like that, but unfortunately it only worked G3 Networks. When they went to G5 the jammers got more expensive and harder to purchase. When it worked, it was so much fun watching folks suddenly losing reception and then holding up their cell phone higher in the air somehow thinking this would boost reception.

    Enough for now. Have a great week.




    PPP Payments Outpace Stimulus Checks 2:1

    Covid-19 “Take #2”

    5-15-20 – The National Printing Research Council (NPRC) continues to serve the printing, mailing and sign industries with a series of statistical surveys designed to keep owners informed regarding major industry trends. Of course nothing has had a greater impact on our combined industries than the current Covid-19 Pandemic! (To download a 11-page PDF copy of this report click here.)

    In fact, no single event in the past 100 years has had more impact on our industry than the current pandemic. As a result, NPRC launched its first Covid-19 Survey in mid-March and published the results on its website on March 26th. (Click here to read and download the previous report.)

    It didn’t take long for it to become apparent that NPRC would need a second and most likely a third survey if we were to meet the needs of our industry. So on May 5th NPRC launched its 2nd survey called Covid-19 “Take #2.” 

    The survey ran for seven days, closing on May 12th and attracted 253 participating firms, closely matching the 279 responses we received on our 1st survey about a month ago.

    Stimulus Checks vs. PPP Disbursements

    As a general rule, printers appear to have had far greater success in receiving PPP loans than they have in receiving their $1,200 stimulus checks by almost exactly a 2:1 rate. According to our data, and based upon 253 responses received between May 7-12, only 39% of survey respondents told us they had received their $1,200 checks, while 61% told us they were still waiting. Somewhat ironic considering no applications or forms were required for the latter while an application process was established for PPP disbursements.

    As for PPP applications and disbursements, approximately 92% of printers told us they had applied for the Federal Government’s Payroll Protection Plan (PPP), and that 78% of those that had applied have already received the PPP funds.

    Interesting too is that approximately 38% of the industry has applied for and received either an advance payment or full disbursement on their EIDL SBA Disaster Loan. (See Chart #18) Once again, contrast that with the fact that 61% of participants are still waiting for their stimulus checks. Granted, there are far more of the latter to be disbursed, but the disbursement process is much simpler and subject to far less variables than what can be a complex loan application.

    Covid-19 & General Industries Trends

    One of our first series of questions sought out participants and asked them to estimate or project the percent decline in total employees for three specific periods of time. We asked them about the number of employees currently employed as well as the number of employees they projected for two periods in the future. Below are the results uncovered as of May 12th:

    Chart #1 – % Declines in Employment

    As you can see (See Chart #1), it appears that many printers seem to be implying that the worst is possibly now behind us. The first two bars (average & median) reflect the decline in sales over a four-month (Jan-April),  however, most of the decline in staffing appears to have occurred in March and April, the last two months of that time-frame.

    It is likely, but not assured, that in the next few months  we will look back on 2020 and view the March-April time-frame as the worst two-months of 2020. Of course, we still have no idea what May or June 2020 will bring, but the consensus seems to be “it can’t be any worse than what we have already seen.”

    We also asked participants to predict the impact that Covid-19 will have on their employee staffing as it relates to both the first six months of 2020 as well as on total employment for all 12 months in 2020.

    Chart #2 – Employees

    Chart #2 above reflects answers to our survey question asking participants to tell us their current and projected staffing levels as we approach the end of the 1st six months of 2020 as well how we will finish out the year. Overall, it appears that owners are predicting that by year-end 2020 total staffing will have declined by approximately 13-17% from what it was in January 2020.

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    Business As Usual?

    Chart #3 provides the answers to the question, “Based upon state or county regulations or laws currently in effect, what is your current business status as of May 8, 2020?” According to our data, it appears that approximately 70% of the industry is back to “normal” in terms of being open for business. However, being open for business is not the same as a return to business as usual. Many participants told us that customers are simply staying home and are certainly not venturing outside to place orders.

    Chart #3 – Current “open” or “closed” Status

    With significant declines in raw business volume, something has to give, and we asked survey participants to tell us how they were handling their payroll and staffing demands in light of much lower sales. As you can see (Chart #4) approximately 46% told us they are currently paying employees full-pay.

    Chart #4 – Employee Payroll Status

    Payroll Status for Specific Firms –  Question #4 of our survey asked, “If you are temporarily closed, or operating under limited hours of operation, how are you handling payroll?” As you can see, 46% of those responding firms said they were continuing to pay employees at “full” pay. The remainder (remember these are firms that are still closed or operating under limited hours) turned to paying employees only for hours actually worked.

    Employed vs. Furloughed? Question #5 asked respondents what percent of their total work forces is currently working at their physical plant as opposed to furloughed? Question #6 asked how many employees have been furloughed as a result of Covid-19. We clarified that question by noting that “furloughed” meant “temporarily sent home for a period of time without pay.” 

    Chart #5-6 Employed or Furloughed?

    Chart #5-6 illustrates that employers have, on average, retained approximately 73% of their work force. The bad news, of course, is that approximately 26% of the workforce in our industry has indeed been laid-off or furloughed and we suspect that most of them will never be rehired.

    Healthcare Converage

    Healthcare premiums and furloughed employees – What are owners doing in regards to continuing healthcare premiums for laid-off/furloughed employees was a popular question among owners who pay such for employees. For approximately 33% of participants, this question was not an issue since that coverage is not offered.

    As you can see, at least as of May 8th, approximately 24% of employers continue to pay premiums for all employees. Unfortunately, approximately 11% of employers ceased (as of May 8 or before) paying healthcare premiums for inactive or furloughed employees.

    Chart #7 – Handling Healthcare Premiums

    Major Sales Declines Predicted

    Our Covid-19 Take #2 survey offered up 5 distinct time frames (See graph #8-12 below) and asked participants to indicate the percentage that sales were either up or down. Suffice it to say, not a single participant indicated any UP or positive sales for the time periods reported or projected.

    The graph below (Questions #8-#12) illustrates the tendency and belief at least among many survey participants that the “worst is behind us” in terms of impact on future sales. The further we go out in the future the lower the predicted cumulative negative impact on sales.

    Nonetheless, printers are still predicting a 29% decline in sales for the 12 months ending Dec. 31, 2020. Note the devastating impact Covid-19 had on April sales, with printers predicting a decline of -49% on April 2020 sales compared to April 2019. The negative trend clearly carries over into the 2nd quarter of 2020 with a predicted decline of -45%.

    Had we asked about predictions for 2021 we are convinced that we would continue to have seen negative numbers, but we will leave that for a future survey. For right now, suffice it to say we are indeed looking at a dismal picture in terms of both sales and profits for not only the rest of 2020 but into 2021.

    Questions #8-12 – Sales Projections

    Stimulus Checks & Other Loan Options

    #14 – A Stimulus Check?

    Our Covid-19 Take #2 survey asked five specific questions dealing with various stimulus legislation such as stimulus checks, PPP applications and EIDL/SBA Disaster Loans. Our first question was the simplest and yet the results were the most shocking.

    Question #14 asked whether survey participants  had (Yes or No answer required) received their individual stimulus check or deposit of $1,200 per person (with qualifications and restriction). The question was flawed in a sense that the question assumed those that answered would be qualified to receive one.

    Nonetheless, we believe that most printers and most participants would indeed be qualified to receive a stimulus check of some $$$ amount. With that said, 61% of respondents as of May 8, 2020 told us they had not received a check.

    As a result, we were surprised when we began checking out the survey data. What was supposed to be the most transparent, the quickest and the simplest of the many federal bailout programs now appears to have run into some major delays if not roadblocks. When we asked folks if they had received (as of May 8th) their stimulus checks we were surprised to hear that 61% of our respondents told us “No.”

    (SPECIAL NOTE: As noted previously, we realized this question and our comments that followed was flawed, in that not every owner/spouse would be qualified to receive a stimulus check. Our question should have been more specific, to allow for the fact that not everyone was qualified to receive such.)

    PPL Funds and Applications –  The good news came when we asked about PPP funds. According to our survey data, almost 92% of the printing industry applied for PPP Funds, and even more surprising is that approximately 78% told us they had in fact received payments under the government’s Payroll Protection Plan. (See graph – Questions #15-17)

    PPP Funds Forgiven? When asked about “forgiveness” of loans, participants told us they expected that 73.4% of the loan amount would be forgiven. The median was 95% of the loan amount.

    #15-17 PPP Applications & Loans

    EIDL – SBA Disaster Loans – Since this has turned out to be another popular Covid-19 era loan program, we thought we would ask participants if they have applied for a loan and whether or not they have actually received an advance and/or the full loan amount. Their answers appear below. Note that the cumulative total of the responses below (70.3%) represents to the total percent of survey participants who indicated they applied for an EIDL loan.

    #18 EIDL Loan Disbursements

    Cash Reserves – How Much & How Little – We asked participants to take into account steps and expenditures they have already taken, to tell us how many additional weeks or months did they feel they could survive under the current Covid-19 economy. (See Graph #19)

    We must confide that the 33% of printers who told us they had enough cash reserves to last them at least six months was a refreshing bit of news considering all of the negative stats we had received. Even more encouraging was the fact that another 13% of respondents told us they could last at least one year.

    Unfortunately, another 31% of printers told us they only have enough cash reserves to last them two months or less. Considering the fact that most owners predict that the negative business climate and the severe decline in demand will extend well into late summer (if not the Fall or Winter), it appears that a significant portion of the printing industry is in deep trouble.

    #19 – Cash Reserves

    Predicting modest recovery by Spring 2021?

    Overall Business Confidence Level – Question #20 of our Covid-19 “Take #2” Survey posed the following question: “Taking into account everything that has transpired in the past three months, how would you rate your confidence level that your business will be somewhat back to ‘normal’ by April 2021.”

    We provided a slider that moved through a scale from left to right. On the far left, we displayed a -100 and identified it as (Very Doubtful). In the middle we displayed a 0 and labeled it “about 50/50”. On the far right we displayed +100 and labeled it “Extremely Confident.”

    The final score was +16! In hindsight, we should have simplified the scale and its interpretation. Nonetheless, we interpret the +16 to be a slightly (very slight) positive indication or feeling that their business will possible be approaching normal by Spring of 2021.

    Controlling Labor Costs

    Preferences for Controlling Labor CostsQuestion #21 was a complex question asking readers to provide a “weighted” answer to five possible steps that might be taken to reduce or control labor costs. We provided five options they could take, and then basically asked them to tell us how likely or unlikely they were to pursue each option. The options ranged between “We will not consider” to “Will like implement.”

    As a result, we were able to produce the following graph. As you can tell, printers are very reluctant to institute a “Reduction in Pay.” At the other end of the spectrum, printers are far more likely to pursue a “Reduction in hours for individual employees” followed closely by a general “Reduction in hours across the board.”

    #21 – Controlling Labor Costs

    Handling Accounts Payable?

    Dealing with Accounts Payable – Recognizing the critical importance of improving and maintaining cash flow, we asked participants what if any steps they have taken to delay or slow down payments to vendors.

    One option that we initially had not even considered in our first draft but was added later was the option stating that the owner has not delayed or slowed payments to vendors at all. Surprisingly, as it turned out, this option dominated all of the other responses. Almost 60% of respondents told us they have not delayed or slowed payments to their vendors.

    #22 Dealing With Accounts Payable

    Prospects for the future of your business – We could have just as easily put this question at the beginning or the end, but we basically wanted printers to tell us how Covid-19 has impacted their business. As expected, approximately 70% told us Covid-19 is having a “significantly negative impact” on their business, while another 10.5% tell us it has been “catastrophic.” (Graph #23)

    #23 – Prospects for the Future?

    The Role of Politics

    Support for Governors, Congress & the President – Since politics plays such a major role in everything these days, the last five questions of our survey attempted to gauge the support and ratings offered by participants for their governors, state legislatures, the U.S. Congress and President Trump. Participants were provided a scale ranging from 0 (Totally Opposed) to 50 (Neutral) to 100 (Fully Support). 

    Accurate Reporting on this data was imperative and we thus calculated both average and median figures. Our take? Too close to call out any big “winners” or “losers” in this contest!

    Questions #24-27

    Red States vs. Blue States – As a foundation for question #23, we asked participants to define the political nature of their own state. Where they in “Red,” “Blue,” or “Purple” state. The answers appear below. Our “gut” expected the “Red” state percentage to be slightly higher than the 32% shown, but all of that will only really matter when November rolls around.

    #28 – Red State vs. Blue State

    Our Sincere Thanks – We want to sincerely thank those of you who took the time to participate in our most recent industry survey. Rest assured it will not be our last, but we will be honest with you that we need your continuing support, not only as a survey participant but also as a financial supporter.

    We would also like to thank the following two individuals for their help and advice in creating this industry survey:  (1) John Henry, owner of Speedway Press, Oswego, NY and founding board member of NPOA, and (2) Armand Girard, owner of Curry Printing & Marketing, Auburn, ME and also a founding board member of NPOA.

    You can support NPRC and its research efforts by participating in various surveys we conduct and/or purchasing studies when they published. Click here to visit our Bookstore. If you feel really generous, but have already purchased one or more of our studies, you can always make a small donation to NPRC via PayPal at membership@printingresearch.org.

    Remember to drop us a line and give us your suggestions for future surveys, especially those dealing with the current and future impact of Covid-19! We love to hear from you.

    John Stewart, Executive Director, NPRC

    Copyright 2020, National Printing Research Council (NPRC), Melbourne, FL  www.printingresearch.org




    Printer Praises Mark-Up Practices Report

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    Free Covid-19 Survey Report

    Covid-19 Survey Report Available for Download…

    Almost 280 printers, mailers and owners of sign companies turned out and answered recent survey on Covid-19.

    As the 8-page report notes at the beginning, “Shock, amazement and surprises (both good and bad) are just a few of the reactions we experienced this week as we began examining the data gathered from our Covid-19 Printing Industry Survey.”

    To read or download the entire PDF report, click here or the artwork above.