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Printing Case Study: An Unusual Package

I worked with a print brokering client recently to design, produce, and mail an unusual marketing booklet. It was a booklet comprising seven key-shaped cards on 80# cover stock, a front and back cover on 100# cover stock, and three small VIP cards (the kind you get at the grocery store or pharmacy). All keys and VIP cards fit on a metal ring (a 3-ring binder ring) to create, in effect, a set of keys. Each key and each VIP card displayed marketing information for my client's organization.

This was one of the more demanding jobs I had produced for this particular client, so I'd like to discuss a few of the challenges, which you might find helpful in your own print buying work.

Printing Considerations

I bid the job out to three vendors, but I quickly got the sense (based on the level of knowledge of the sales reps I was talking to) that only one of the three had done jobs like this before. Specifically, the job involved multiple media (paper for the printing plus metal for the ring), as well as die cutting (the shape of the keys and the rounded corners for the VIP cards). It also involved buying envelopes that would protect the promotional piece in transit, printing labels with both static data (the logo and address for the organization) and variable data (the subscriber addresses). Furthermore, the job involved mailshop work (inserting the keyrings into the envelopes, affixing the labels, and mailing the job).

The most knowledgeable vendor turned out to be the most expensive. Therefore, I asked my client for a budget, and I cobbled together a potential workflow involving multiple vendors. I suggested having the high-end printer print and assemble the key booklets. I encouraged my client to buy the envelopes directly from the office supplies vendor and then have their in-house mailshop insert the key-ring booklets into the envelopes. I contracted with a separate, small vendor to print and address (variable-data printing) the envelope labels (at a lower price than the high-end printer, who would be producing the key booklet, would have charged).

In short, to meet the budget, I encouraged my client to let me coordinate the activities of multiple suppliers, with each vendor selected based on the complexity of the job, the quality needed, and the price. Simpler jobs could be done by less skilled vendors or individuals (i.e., bringing mailshop work in-house), and more critical print production could be done at a premium price by a high-end vendor. The pricing fit my client's budget, and I received approval to proceed.

What You Can Learn

In your own print buying work, keep an open mind. While it may be more complicated to coordinate the activities of multiple vendors, it may save you money. This way you can choose a “boutique” shop for the high-profile printing work and have a smaller vendor complete the less challenging aspects of the job, such as label production.

Think About Durability

If you produce an expensive, beautiful direct mail piece and the job is destroyed in the mail, everyone loses. When I thought about packaging a set of die cut cards on a 3-ring binder ring and sending this through the mail, I was worried.

My first thought was that the metal ring would punch through the envelope. Therefore, I asked the envelope maker for three samples: a poly envelope, a Tyvek envelope, and a cardboard envelope. The first option fit the budget, the printer (who was knowledgeable in direct mail work like this) thought the poly envelope would be adequate, and the envelope vendor also thought the poly envelope would be durable enough.

That said, I wanted to be sure, so I asked the designer to make a few mock-ups of the key-ring booklet and send them through the mail in the sample poly envelopes. After all, the sage advice I had received would be proven right or wrong through this test mailing. The key-ring brochures actually made it to their destinations just fine, since the poly envelopes were tough and resisted “punch-through” or “bursting” by the metal rings and since the key ring brochure was very light. Fortunately, the die cut edges of the keys were undamaged as well.

Keep the Post Office in the Loop

Based on past experiences, I wondered about postal regulations. Two issues concerned me:

1. The contents of the stuffed envelope would be of uneven thickness.

2. There was a metal enclosure in the envelope.

I asked the designer to meet with the business analyst at the US Post Office. She took an hour of the postal representative's time and discussed mailing requirements and options. Because of the uneven thickness, the packages would not be automatable or machineable. The job would need to mail non-machinable non-profit (that is, the packages couldn't reap the cost benefit of automatic postal processing).

This was useful information in terms of the cost of the mailing (i.e., budgeting issues), the payment method (i.e., whether to purchase a permit and set aside funds in a postage prepayment account), and the addressing method (whether to CASS Certify the addresses, put them in ZIP code order, and add barcodes).

In short, meeting with the postal representative determined everything from mailing design acceptability to postage costs, from method of payment to mail list preparation.

What You Can Learn

Visit the Post Office early and often whenever there is any question about the mailability of your promotional piece. Take the time to get USPS approval. It's much better to make changes at this point than to receive a postage surcharge when you don't expect it, have the job rejected outright by the Post Office, or find out late in the game that you need to reprint the job to make it acceptable to the Post Office.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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