Should Your Printing Business Sell Online?

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This article is neither to encourage or dampen your spirits.

It is just to make you aware of some things I have found interesting in our own journey when developing our brand Graphic Warehouse – which offer Large Format Trade Print services.

The theme here is to encourage you to think about the benefits of selling online.  The benefits to your business and the benefits to your repeat buying, loyal customer-base you already have or want to develop.

So you are likely reading this because you are a print service provider and considering selling online, but should you? And if yes, How should you?  This might seem like a strange question from someone who has been desperately changing their business model from a solutions provider – Selling, Design, Manufacturing and Installing Signs and Large Format Printed Display Products – to one that is driven by internet driven sales in the print industry that is under increasing pressure from large organisations offering commercial print to end users.

However, this is sometimes where we can capitalise.

It is becoming competitive online and margins are being eroded and some products are simply lost leaders to allow you to sell other products (Roll Up Banner Stands are a good example).  We do not actively promote some products but are competitive and we can afford to “accommodate” these products that offer less margin than others.

Please below

Where We Got It Wrong

My best example of acquiring thousands of customers was when we sold over 300K photo canvases to over 200K customers through daily deal sites, like Groupon.  Do you know how many long-term customers we have from that project from 2012 to 2014?  Zero.

Why?  Because these types of customers buy on price only and are not loyal.  We learned so much from this – the basics are that the cost to acquire a customer must see a return on investment and the driving factor cannot be price.

If others can be successful online, why can’t you?

The answer is, you can.  There you go, its simple. 

We launched, a large format trade print service, in 2017 and now have 100’s of customers across the UK.  In the usual way, we created a business plan, went through the 7P’s of marketing, got some expert help to scope out our ideas and hey presto, we launched with some pilots and ironed out the bugs.  We then launched at a trade show and we were trading online.

Obviously, I have missed out some fundamental milestones in this journey and something very significant.

Why Did We Want To Sell Online?

We already had the experience and the software.  We were experts at building websites, we had the print and finishing equipment in place but most importantly, we had the correct people in place – we had already built the software – and had already sold about £1m of transactions online, some of those ventures were deemed as failures*.

How Do You Start To Sell Online?

There are many commercially available CRM and ERP systems out there to help support your business.  I’m not going to bore you but you can be set up with a cloud based system that will improve you sales process and your business will run more smoothly.

There are also software solutions coming, plugins, white label websites are on the increase.  You could have your website up and running ready to take orders*

To put this perspective, Graphic Warehouse has over 125,000 combinations with 100’s of stock types and millions of applications.

Should you be selling online?

The first thing you need to ask is why you want to sell online.  Before you start thinking about this, make sure the answer is not, “everyone else is doing it”.   Common statements I hear regularly are “it’s less hassle”, “less administration”, “easier sales” and “grow my customer base”. 

When you start to think about selling online I am pretty certain you will begin with the website.  You might then think about products, then marketing and then how you are going to get all this done.

But each time I hear this, I think many do not really understand the model of selling online.  One person recently advised me that his existing customers would buy online from him.   This then led me the following question.

Why do your customers currently buy from you?

I have been banging the drum since March 2021 to our own customers, “stay in touch with your customer base, even if they have nothing to buy from you”, we were in a global pandemic after all and demand was low. 

 I created non branded videos, posted our own ideas and tried to offer products that our own customers could sell to their customers.  The key thing for me was to be able to support our customers, I didn’t want to lose them after years of building the customer base.  Which leads me to the question above, “Why do your customers currently buy from you?” 

So what is a customer? 

Our definition of a customer is one which has purchased more than 3 times.  This is because we are not looking for one-off purchases, which is why we must offer more than “best price”.  As Stuart Mason mentions in his Podcast, “How to Wreck Your Business”, we have to score 6/5 stars on TrustPilot.  Stuart explains more about what 6/5 stars means and why customers expect this.

Here is a link to Stuart Mason’s “How To Wreck Your Business” Podcast (He’s writtena book too!)

It’s also quite frustrating that we can’t use Trust Pilot… we have to remain anonymous, our customers don’t want to shout about outsourcing or using a 3rd party.

Who is your customer and why are they loyal?

Only you will know this and if you don’t know, ask them.  If you think you already know, ask them (you are probably wrong).  Once you have this information you will have a better understanding of why your business has become successful and who your customer base is and why they buy from you.  I am going to come back to this later.

Tell me again, Why do you want to sell online?

Does your existing customer want you to sell online?  If you already have a loyal customer base why would you change what you are doing?  Why would you seek to compete in a marketplace that is highly competitive, and others are ahead of the game?  Why would you expose your pricing on an open platform for your customers to compare your prices?  The question I am really asking is…

Should you be Selling Online?

If your loyal and raving fan customers buy regularly with the correct margin, and there is synergy, they are probably not buying online already.  They don’t want to, they want the human interaction between you and them.

This is why we are not an online business; we are a service provider that builds relationships through an expert customer service team.  We want to speak to our customers.  The online tools we use are just that, they are tools to make our customers experience better, but we are not a faceless website.

We want our customer to speak to us and we want to make them feel safe.  Their relationship with their customer is entrusted to use by providing a service that their customer expects from them.  It’s a big responsibility, I don’t want to be responsible for my customer losing their own customer.

It is not about Selling “Online”

You do not have to sell online but you might benefit from using tools to improve your processes to increase your capacity and allow you to focus on other areas of your business.  Here is an example from Graphic Warehouse customers that happens hourly:

A customer has the ability to create a quote in 20 seconds online but still emails the enquiry and would rather wait for the response. 

This email sends an instant response with a ticket number (the customer no knows they we have their enquiry).  Customer service team then work their way through the tickets and log into Graphic Warehouse as the client.  They then create the quote in 20 seconds and emails the client with a link to their shopping cart (yes, the quote is presented to them in their shopping cart). 

Why would the customer not just do it themselves?  The answer is simple, they don’t want to.

And this is why you need to ask yourself, should you be selling online or should you just be using digital technology to improve your systems to make your business offer the best experience for your customer.

It's all about from your business.

In my next blog I will discuss...

Let me share with you how I had a penny dropping moment at a seminar about marketing… but misinterpreted the punchline of the seminar.

I will also explain the * above. 

2 Responses

  1. Hi Richard,

    Absolutely love this article (as I have your previous)

    Really very informative and I adore where you are coming from,
    so want to get to meet with you when this blooming Covid nonsense is over.
    (I feel we think alike)

    Its also done a job – as I will start using you more than I have done!

    Very well done, a great job.

    So need to grow our business, just need to go the correct way about it.

    Hope your inbox is full to the brim with similar comments.

    Have a good weekend.

    Kind regards


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