Deliver the goods: getting it out there


This is an article by Adam Bernstein published on Printweek on the 26th March 2018

Fast turnaround printers have a problem – that is, how to reliably get the finished product to customers on time. And reliability is fundamental as the recent KFC debacle has shown. What appears to have been an ill-thought out move from one delivery firm to another left its restaurants shuttered, product wasted and a seriously tarnished reputation of a well-known brand.

No doubt KFC’s troubles are a result of head office cost cutting, but urgency necessarily commands a premium rate. The problem is that some companies decide not to charge this premium and undercut others with a view to gaining more market share. However, if capacity challenges arise, and companies cannot scale fast enough, the result can end up being a consistent failure to deliver. 

Getting the mix right

So, how should printers get products quickly to clients? Own fleet, third-party or both? Louie Rayner, the marketing manager for courier Absolutely, says that no two businesses have the same requirements. That said, he finds that most printers use a mixture of own fleet and third-party. “If you asked me to call the trend there is a definite a move to using third-party, which is unsurprising given the staff, fuel, tax, capital expenditure, and depreciation costs of owning a fleet and the fact that delivery is becoming increasingly involved with its associated ‘last mile’ challenges.” He, understandably, thinks “it makes more sense to outsource delivery and we see ourselves as very much an extension of our printing client’s business”.

Printers need confidence in their own resources or the capabilities of the courier companies they use to cope with demand.

This is why Ali Ridha Jaffar, sales director at Print Express, advises printers to consider a variety of options for getting products quickly to customers. His company uses its own fleet as well as third party companies. As he notes, “the key, when it comes to urgent logistics, is being able to scale rapidly and having multiple contingencies in place.”

Gareth Roberts, managing director of Bishops Printers, also uses a mix of his own vehicles and third parties. But when it comes to important items, Roberts takes great care and says: “Our own vehicles facilitate time-sensitive deliveries, but where arrangements are ‘complex’ I would rather trust the staff on our own payroll.” For local deliveries Roberts also finds bulk runs in his own vehicle more cost-effective.

But there are those that only use third parties, and trade printer Marqetspace is one. Fiona Reid, development director for the Grafenia-owned firm, says that as an online printer, “we deliver throughout the UK and Ireland, we have therefore always relied on third-party couriers to deliver our product on a next day delivery service.” She says that for this process to work the courier is fully integrated into Marqetspace’s systems and processes, adding “we recently moved to using UK Mail, as well as offering a one-hour delivery slot for the recipient, having systems to rearrange deliveries for a convenient time, they also have a range of late collection times and services”. 

Is there a case for using multiple courier companies? Rayner thinks so, not least because it gives more flexibility should an appointed courier company not be able to cope. “Companies that use a very specialised courier service with a smaller fleet should definitely have a Plan B – another trusted supplier for the moments when they don’t feel confident that the specialist provider will provide a fast response.”

But there are other considerations, says Reid. Marqetspace has a product range that spans 50 business cards, gazebos, 2x3m hoarding panels to 3 tonnes of brochures. Understandably, the firm has found it difficult to find any single courier that covers everything. 

Says Reid: “Couriers used to have a sweet spot, certain criteria of work that they preferred and were set up to manage and it would not be cost-effective if you fell outside of it… it seems that couriers are starting to attempt to cover all bases to get bigger contracts.” She’s found that UK Mail covers most of her requirements. However, there are always certain jobs that require a specialist courier.

The case for Plan B has been proven for Reid. “Having multiple couriers integrated into our systems was of benefit last year when TNT, who at the time was our main courier, were affected by a cyber attack… we were able to swap to an alternative and continue service with minimal disruption.”

The security of sensitive items can make or break a relationship and Rayner sees data protection law playing a role here. His recommendation is to have a checklist when assigning a courier for these tasks “with background checks on staff, ensuring vehicles have a lockable space, and they use technology combined with a service ethos.”

Jaffar agrees and says that it’s incumbent on printers to ensure that they thoroughly vet third-party companies while ensuring a degree of consistency when it comes to drivers. “Taking an arbitrary approach would be extremely irresponsible. My recommendation would be for printers to utilise their own fleet when it comes to sensitive or confidential information.”

Which mode?

Lorry, van, car, motorbike, cycle or even public transport – which is the most viable? For Roberts, it’s the circumstances of the job that will often dictate the answer. As he notes, the difference between winning a job and producing it efficiently “might be the capacity to be able to deliver it myself into London on a Friday as opposed to getting it ready for a courier on a Thursday afternoon.”

Rayner also believes that the decision depends entirely on what is being sent, where it needs to get to and when. “We apply a combination of route planning software, experience and common sense. We specialise in London deliveries but are also an international and overnight delivery specialist, so it really is about the optimal combination of trains, planes, automobiles, and bikes.”

Transport has to adapt to reflect circumstances, especially in London. Here Absolutely has seen an increase in businesses using its cargo bike service. “Cargo bikes can take larger items, such as archive boxes and are carbon friendly. But their rise in popularity is because they move faster than motor traffic in London, which now, famously, moves at horse and cart speed.” 

Rayner is not alone when worrying about urban congestion. Jaffar says that his orders generally go via bike into the city. “However,” he adds, “the power of the Tube is not to be underestimated. We’ve been able to deliver in record time, bypassing central London traffic thanks to TFL.”

The problem is that traffic is one of those odd aspects of life which cannot be easily determined, and a one-hour journey could easily turn into a six-hour trauma, especially when the weather is poor as the recent Siberian blast has demonstrated. 

But because the size of a package can vary hugely Absolutely also uses motorbikes, smart cars or vans for bigger deliveries or longer distances and also has freight capacity vehicles in its fleet.

Clearly, every printer will have a different outlook depending on location. This is why Roberts says he chooses the mode based on geographical factors relating to the distance to be travelled/tachometer and considerations/volumes for each area per day.

As any printer knows, margins are under pressure. So surely the cost of delivery is a consideration for fast-turnaround items? Roberts thinks not: “The cost of delivery within a job is much less important than whether we can actually produce it on time and such ‘normal’ pricing elements as the percentage of paper, etc.’”

He adds that the ability to deliver under pressure is just presumed for the price. “Overcapacity in the industry and faster-paced technology leads a client to believe they can always leave production to the last possible moment and there’ll always be a solution. This gives rise to a presumption that once you have quoted a job when the artwork is ready the client will announce the turnaround required and you just need to make it happen.”

Marqetspace’s Reid points to the impact of Amazon in setting the benchmark in regard to delivery. “Okay to waiting a bit longer? Pay less. Want it now? Pay a premium. When it comes to print, a fast turnaround is expected as standard, the expectation that delivery is included in the price has now also become the norm.” Marqetspace offers standard turnarounds of two or three working days, with a small premium to receive a morning delivery, and there’s a further cost for next-day print and a morning delivery. 

An alternative view comes from Rayner; he says that there is a premium when scrambling to provide a special service, but adds: “In the main, when the time is of the essence that rapid turnaround tends to be viewed as good value by our clients who appreciate what is involved. That said, the cost is always a consideration – we operate in a competitive market but in our view, there is a value that goes way beyond what you can charge when you think about the circumstances around a fast turn-around request.” 

Working with the courier

For printers a close working relationship with their couriers is essential. Roberts says confidence in your supplier is critical. “All you can do is set an expectation and try and make sure there is not much sub-contracting going on further down the line.”

Rayner reckons that communication is crucial to maintaining a relationship. “It’s like any other walk of life really; when you know and like the people you are working with the team and the collaboration always works better.” But like Roberts, he thinks good account management processes that formalise that feedback mechanism are also vital – “these don’t need to be rocket science but do need to be there with processes in places like client surveys and regular, face-to-face meetings.”

He also adds that honesty is always the best policy as no business partner can be expected to adapt their approach without clear feedback. While he is sensitive to feedback about poor service or presentation, he also lets clients know when products are poorly packaged or when the address or delivery details aren’t clear. 

One last tip to get the best out of any supplier is obvious – make them aware of the competition and that business should never be taken for granted.

At the end of the day, printers need to be practical and pragmatic. But Reid sums up the situation perfectly – a printer is only as strong as its weakest link. “Even though we choose to use a third party, they are the final link in our chain. Ultimately you can produce the best print in a timely way, but if a courier lets you down that can impact on your relationship with your client.”