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Better (and Cheaper) in the Short Run

Bob Scherer

When the skin care company SLC Skin Care, Inc., founded by entertainer and entrepreneur Suzanne Somers, needed just four prototype packages for its first cosmetic product launch, the company turned to digital printing. Suzanne Somers’ Spray On Makeup Professional Foundation is one of many digital success stories. The foundation was launched exclusively on the Home Shopping Network (HSN) in spring of 2005 and sold 20,000 units in the first four days.

Before digital printing, the high cost of conventionally printing packaging for cosmetic prototypes such as the ones for SLC Skin Care left cosmetic manufacturers with little choice. They had to either pay for the printing of thousands of new or test product packages or labels that might not actually hit the shelves or build modest mock-ups manually. Now, digital printing technology gives cosmetic companies the same shelf-like, full production-run quality they need in the quantity needed. In some cases, only one or two labels or packages are printed—and all within fast, customer-driven turn-around times.

Looking for efficiencies in printing during the conceptual stages of the packaging, Somers and company originally narrowed the selection to two for the pitch to HSN, where the final packaging was selected. While printing shrink sleeves in small quantities is a routine job for the digital printer, a few potential problems with design and packaging components were averted. The threat of banding and streaking of the solid purple color printed on the entire surface of the sleeve was eliminated through extra care by the pressman, and since the matching color cap was not available, the sleeve needed to be extended over the cap.

Digital Printing 101

The power to make a new product based on customers needs is now in the hands of marketers who leverage digital printing—as opposed to introducing products and then waiting to see if customers will purchase them. Marketers now can present retailers with prototypes of cosmetics that look and feel as though they were picked off the shelf. When the retail buyers provide requests for minor changes and feedback, the packaging can be altered and another short run printed.

Ideal for short runs, digital presses efficiently print quantities up to 80,000, and the full production-run quality labels and packaging are used for comps, samples and prototypes. Digital printing can cut conventional printing’s price tag by 50%—depending on the number of colors and quantity. Because plateless printing allows complete projects to go from computer to press and be shipped within hours, the plate cost of approximately $100 is an automatic savings. In the example of a four-color package, design changes might require two additional runs, with plate costs of traditional printing running at $1200.

Since there is no cost difference between digitally printing two- and four-color packaging, plateless printing also means not having to choose between a quality, complex design and adhering to a strict budget.

Another big advantage of digital is the ability to print different versions of the same label or packaging—when one buyer wants to include the word “new” and another requests a copy change, for example. Digital allows for multiple versions by prepping the run to efficiently batch the projects and print one quantity of this version and a different quantity of another one. It works because the printer batches the orders and prints one large run that is broken into 1,000 of version one, 500 of version two, and 1,500 of a third version, for example.

Printing at 800 to 2,400 dots per inch, the quality of digital printing will match or surpass what can be achieved through flexographic and rotogravure processes. In fact, digital often requires the “fuzzying up” of images to achieve the results typical of other processes, when the end desire is to have both processes look as similar as possible.

Niche Opportunities

Digital technology also makes it possible to take advantage of opportunities in specialized or niche markets that were once deemed too cost-prohibitive. Manufacturers and marketers of cosmetics, for example, now can approach smaller specialty retailers with the idea of marketing their own signature line of cosmetics. Similar concepts can be presented to a variety of retailers that require customized packaging.

For marketers, the essential beauty of using digital printing to produce sales samples, prototypes and comps—or to move into niche markets—is in getting products to market faster with less cost and risk.

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