Reinventing your printing business to survive the pandemic

Ryan Ferris.

Here, Ryan Farris, President and COO at AlphaGraphics (one of the largest U.S.-based networks of locally-owned and operated business centres), reveals how to identify real opportunities amid the COVID-19 chaos. AlphaGraphics offers a complete range of print, visual communications and marketing products and solutions. For more information please visit

One thing that COVID-19 has shown us is that print is not dead. In fact, it’s still a vibrant and essential part of business life. During the height of the pandemic, businesses still needed essential print communications to safely operate and communicate the status of their business and how they were conducting it. In many areas, printing businesses have been designated essential services, meaning that many have been open and operating during stay-at-home orders. And, many essential businesses like healthcare providers, local governments, and grocery stores have depended on the services provided by printers in order to continue to operate and provide their own crucially important services. Through coordinated efforts, leadership and local ownership, AlphaGraphics was able to keep 93% of our locations open for business to varying degrees throughout the crisis.

That’s not to say this pandemic hasn’t impacted the printing industry in general, and local printing businesses in particular. COVID-19 has presented so many challenges, from mitigating illness to loss of income. The dramatic change in business climate and how to operate, combined with regulations and restrictions, has been overwhelming – especially for printers with limited support resources. However, while some are struggling, those with the resources, support and ability to quickly pivot and adapt, are actually finding new opportunities and revenue streams that may replace or even outpace prior-year sales. Navigating the new normal will present challenges for our industry. As people return to work and businesses open up, there will be new issues to overcome, and each of these challenges, properly addressed, will present new opportunities. Here’s a roadmap to help you convert those challenges into opportunities.

The COVID-19 virus has created our “new normal” – but we are continuing to adapt.

Safety first. In our business, our people are our greatest and most valuable asset. Whether you’re talking about employees or customers, the health and safety of the people around us should always be our first priority. Doing business without jeopardizing health is top-of-mind for everyone right now. There are two aspects to manage in this situation. First, do everything recommended by health and government authorities to prevent spread of the virus. This can include personal protective equipment for customers and employees, increased sanitization, limiting the number of people in your shop, and more. Don’t just have these policies, but clearly post, communicate and enforce them. This is vital. Even one suspected case of COVID-19 could severely impact your team, customers or even cause a shutdown of your entire operation. Second, you have to manage the emotional health of your employees as well as your customers’ confidence in you. If your employees are afraid to come to work and your customers are afraid to do business, you can’t operate. Go ‘over the top’ to show your commitment to the safety of your employees, and this will be translated to your customers.

Look for opportunities. Printing businesses are in the fortunate 20% designated as essential services in many jurisdictions. But while we are in that fortunate percentage, many of our business customers are not so fortunate. However, when challenges arise, so do opportunities. We at AlphaGraphics are seeing new and unexpected revenue streams that have come because of the current crisis. These include yard signs for celebrations like graduations and birthdays. Large businesses like hospitals and grocery stores are making unprecedented short-run, local orders for social distancing and sanitation-protocol signage. Property management companies and local businesses urgently need social distancing assets to prepare for re-opening.

Direct mail is another opportunity, one that many didn’t foresee. In many cases, business decision-makers aren’t in the office to check mail – but they’re checking their home mailboxes. For some, it’s a highlight of their day to get out of the house for a few minutes. This, coupled with an increase in email opt-outs, is helping drive direct mail as an opportunity for printers and their customers to engage business customers that are currently operating from home. These types of opportunities arising due to COVID-19 are providing those opportunistic and agile print businesses with new revenue streams that are guiding them through COVID-19 – and in some cases even providing better sales than last year. AlphaGraphics centres were able to quickly deploy yard signs, graduation and social distancing assets through a central online ordering platform, quickly addressing the market need. This type of pivot to support marketing and communications needs provides new opportunities for printers that can quickly react and adapt.

Plan ahead. This crisis took most of the world by surprise, so utilize this time to make a plan for the future. What can you do to forge through this crisis and make your business stronger from it in the future? Make sure your customers can do business with you remotely and that some of your operations can take place from home. Put that technology and infrastructure in place if you don’t have it already. Customers are quickly moving to online-capable print providers, as well as those with redundant or back-up operations. Even after this crisis, many expect that customers will continue leveraging the technology. So print providers with strong, online-enabled methods of conducting and managing their clients’ print and marketing needs, will continue to experience success.

The crisis also illustrates the value of being part of a network, notably a franchise network that provides support and resources to help franchisees lead and navigate challenges. A franchise network’s knowledge base, combined with the shared experiences of individual location owners, can help each local franchised business proceed without ‘reinventing the wheel.’ Sharing lessons learned can mean a clearer path for all. Having a network of colleagues can also provide back-up and needed redundancy. If your independent printing business struggling, now might be the time to consider joining a franchise network.

Finding the new normal. Eventually, we’ll enter a ‘new normal’ in business, but the effects of this crisis may linger for a long time. Some business and industry impacts may even be permanent! As an industry, it’s vital for printers to identify challenges and opportunities in this new environment. Position (or re-position) your business to serve customer needs and thrive as it does now. There is indeed a way forward – and more successful days to come, in my opinion.