Weigh Your Paper Options
While catalogs are worth more than the paper they’re printed on, there remains a continuous drive among catalogers, especially in this day of rising postal rates, to decrease paper costs.
Indeed, reducing the basis weight is an easy way to shave hundreds of thousands of dollars off a catalog’s bottom line, says Jean O. Giesmann, vice president of creative services at Plow & Hearth.
But as with any change in the look and feel of your catalog, changing paper is not something to be undertaken lightly. Following are some of the factors and their possible consequences to consider.
Two independent variables can shift rapidly to make you consider a basis weight reduction or a change in paper quality: postal costs and paper prices.
As the U.S. Postal Service sinks into an ever-deepening financial morass, rate hikes according to weight may occur again. With each increase and the accompanying blow to your profits, you may be tempted to reduce your book’s weight. Of course, one way to accomplish this is by lowering the paper’s basis weight.
The other uncontrolled variable that affects catalogs, and all print products for that matter, is the cost of paper. While paper costs aren’t rising as rapidly as they did in the 1990s, a sudden fluctuation can spell death for a catalog operating on narrow margins.
Another reason to have a low basis weight involves your catalog’s marketing strategy. Tim McAdow, product marketing manager for catalogs at Banta, a printer, believes catalogs that highlight their low prices can hurt themselves if they appear to be too flush with capital.
“If you’re selling discounted merchandise, you don’t want to have a catalog that has a large perceived value. After all, there are no marble entrances when you walk into a Kmart. You don’t want people to say, ‘Hmm, am I paying too much?’”
A catalog that seems expensive to produce may leave customers wondering from where the money came.
Circulation increases for special issues also can lead to reductions in basis weight in order to level distribution costs. “For the last two years, we’ve gone down in basis weight during our holiday season because we put out a larger book,” says Giesmann.
You also can save money on paper when your advertising budget drops during hard economic times. A quick and easy solution to budget woes can make an overnight hero of the production manager who thinks of it, but there are many factors to consider before proposing it at your next budget meeting, says Giesmann.
A Catalog’s Life Cycle or Industry Evolution?
Steady reductions in paper basis weight simply are part of some catalogs’ normal life cycles. Says Rick Schneider, product manager at International Paper, “Catalogs start out on higher-grade and basis weight paper to get noticed. As they increase circulation, they’re forced to reduce basis weight.”
As catalogs become established, their emphasis often shifts, says Schneider. Selling the brand becomes less important, and more significance is attached to moving merchandise, he says.
When customers pick up the latest edition of your catalog, one from which they buy regularly, they may not notice the lighter paper stock on which it’s printed—they’re probably just looking for the newest products and offers.
Giesmann believes the shift to lower-weight paper is a result of industry evolution rather than a catalog’s life cycle. Product budgets for catalogs used to be “60-percent manufacturing and 40-percent paper. Now it’s more like 40-percent manufacturing and 60-percent paper,” says Giesmann.
Indeed, with paper responsible for an increasingly large chunk of the bottom line, any savings that can be made in that sector become important, she believes.
Janie Downey, president of PublishExperts, a provider of efficiency advice for catalogers, points to yet another instance of industry evolution that may be responsible for drops in catalog paper weight: Bulk deals on paper become more attractive as larger numbers of catalogers drop to a certain weight. She thinks that once enough of your fellow catalogers settle on a certain lower weight, you’re almost forced to follow suit. “People have to go with the pack as far as pricing,” she says.
Why Limit Reductions?
So why aren’t all catalogs running on the lightest and cheapest paper possible?
First, for the same reason discount catalogs don’t want to be perceived as having high production costs, catalogs with high quality as part of their brand images can’t afford to appear cheap.
“Catalogs that are trying to promote a luxury brand are the most reluctant to reduce basis weight. If the high-end catalog feels the same as the one that’s selling batteries, then it’s not going to stick out,” says Schneider.
In addition, for smaller catalogs, lowering basis weight doesn’t save money at the post office. Until the catalog weighs more than 3.3 ounces, catalogers pay a flat postage rate, so many of them choose to go with heavier paper for higher quality.
Schneider indicates that these same smaller catalogs have to meet certain standards of paper stiffness in order to navigate the postal machinery. Catalogs that are too flimsy will not meet Standard A mail requirements.
Another thing to consider is how the product will look when it reaches its final destination: the customer. A catalog printed on light, low-quality paper may be beaten up by the time it gets on a potential buyer’s coffee table, says Downey.
The Effect on Creativity
McAdow says, “A lot of catalogers aren’t taking basis weight change all the way to the creative department. Going from 40# to 38# probably isn’t super significant. However, opacity can become a big factor, especially if you’re dropping 10 or 15 pounds in basis weight. Two heavy images backed up to one another can engender subtle hue changes and optical issues that affect the look of your catalog. Even small drops in basis weight in the 5- to 10-pound range result in some dot gain and density changes.”
Giesmann places the lower limit for the Plow & Hearth catalog’s basis weight at 30#. “Any less than that and you begin to have too much show-through,” she says.
Many industry experts believe that creative directors should be more wary of placing images with high ink coverage on backing pages when show-through becomes an issue. Downey tells the story of a catalog that featured a bright white cloud on its cover, only to have the headline from the backing page show through it.
Giesmann recommends working closely with separators and printers to maintain a good level of ink saturation without the images getting muddy. She described what Plow & Hearth did to keep quality stable when the catalog went to a lower basis weight for the holiday season:
“We were harder on our separators in terms of color accuracy for shadows and highlights. We actually ended up putting more ink down so that the difference was less noticeable.”
What About Response?
How your response rate is affected by a reduction in paper weight may be a function of your brand.
If quality is the most important aspect of your brand, a perceived lack of quality could lead to a drop in rates. But there’s only one way to know for sure, says Downey: You have to test.
She notes that properly testing any paper change is absolutely vital. “A single test is just not effective. Opinions change slowly, customers can forgive [a lighter catalog] once, but several lighter catalogs can hurt response rates.”
A test her company did with one big-name cataloger revealed a drop in response rates that, while slight, was significant enough to more than wipe out the savings resulting from the paper change.
Downey says that many catalogers are changing weights without testing at all. They later end up swinging to the opposite direction, because they see that response rates have been gradually slipping to the point where the lighter paper was costing them too many sales.
During the course of her career, Giesmann says, Plow & Hearth has done three tests of lighter paper and concluded it made little difference in response. Indeed, she says, “The cost savings more than out-weighed what we lost in response.”
However, she continues, “You can stretch your brand only so far. We don’t want to be printing on low-quality paper when a big part of our brand [image] is quality.”
Should You Change Your Catalog’s Paper?
Industry experts offer some rules for changing the weight of paper you use for your catalog:
• Consider what your brand demands of your presentation.
• Pay attention to the paper that other catalogs are using, and look for bulk rates.
• Calculate how much you’ll save with the lighter-weight paper.
• Measure any change in your response rates with the new paper over an extended period of time.
• Weigh the estimated savings against any detected change in response rates.