June 2006
Trend or fad, which is it?
Due to the nature of my job, I get asked a lot of questions. How busy is the industry? Where is the industry going? Who are going to be the winners? I was recently asked, how do you tell the difference between a trend and a fad? It’s not as easy a question as one might think.

Trends are easy to spot if you wait long enough. That is really the point: trends happen over a long period of time. They usually start small and then pick up momentum. Despite all the hype at the time, computer to plate started slowly back in the mid-’90s with a few 40" shops and has finally picked up steam with the 29" shops more than 10 years later. Still, almost half the industry, by number of shops, hasn’t gone CTP yet. The early adopters of a trend are usually on the bleeding edge, where costs tend to exceed advantages. With trends, prices or costs come down over time as more people adopt them and economies of scale kick in. Also, more suppliers enter the field.

The trick with trends is that they usually never completely eliminate the original process. Letterpress was almost the only way to print for about 350 years. It is no longer the mainstay of the printing industry but it’s still around and does a number of things better than offset (i.e. die cutting, embossing and foil stamping).

You can tell a trend is starting to reach maturity when the number of suppliers starts declining. We have fewer offset press suppliers today than 10 years ago and a lot fewer CTP manufacturers than even five years ago. The cost of CTP has come down dramatically during that time. When you consider the options and features you get on offset presses today, they are proportionately cheaper than 10 years ago. They are still one of the biggest investments most printers make. Digital copiers are a fraction of what they cost even five years ago.

Fads are a different story. Fads really don’t exist in this industry in the way most people think of them. A fad is something that makes a big splash then disappears. In printing, most technologies don’t disappear, but they don’t become mainstream either. They become specialty or niche markets. We’ve had a lot of them over the years: selective binding, stochastic screening, waterless printing, Metal FX and a lot of inline finishing. The cost also usually doesn’t come down much partly because volumes don’t grow.

Which is better to adopt, a trend or a fad/specialty market? For the big guys trends are probably a better bet because specialty or niche markets usually cannot support big volumes. For mid-size and smaller players, in a lot of cases the specialty or niche market areas are worth looking at. The trick or problem is being able to sell niche markets. It’s not about getting the equipment but being able to find the right customers.

It’s still important to know whether something is a trend or a fad/specialty. In a trend, the market will grow and the product or service is easier to sell. In a fad you have to go out and find the market and it may not be as big as you think. Is it big enough to make any money at? If you buy into a specialty technology and it turns out to be a trend, then you’re going to see declining prices and more competition. If you get what you think will be a trend and it turns out to be a fad/specialty then you’re going to find fewer customers in the long term. So the question is not is it a trend or a fad? But, is it a trend or specialty/niche technology?
Alexander Donald is the publisher of Graphic Monthly Canada.
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