Printer sector trends

Man in blue boiler suit operating large printer

(last updated July 2019)

What has been happening in the printing industry

Traditionally, demand for printing services has reflected the state of the economy as a whole - during times of recession there are fewer business customers and existing businesses cut back on their printing requirements. During periods of growth printing firms generally see an upturn in demand - but although the economy was buoyant in the mid 2000s, printing firms did not perform as well as they might have.

There are several reasons why the industry didn't benefit from the strong growth in the economy. For example, the advance of technology has resulted in significant changes in the way the printing industry operates. Traditional printing methods using letterpress and offset litho machines are giving way to digital printing systems which do not require craft printing skills and which can produce work much more quickly. These systems also allow short runs to be produced economically on-demand. These developments, together with the fact that more and more customers are able to produce printed items themselves, resulted in overcapacity, competition and a squeeze on prices. Also more and more people are using the internet to communicate with others - including sending letters, invoices and orders - and there has been a lot of pressure on suppliers to reduce packaging. This has meant much lower demand for printed items. On top of this, the industry was hit hard by the economic downturn during the late 2000s and early 2010s. Demand fell further while costs continued to rise.

Although 2013 saw the start of an upturn in the economy, which strengthened in 2014 and the first half of 2015, conditions remained tough for the printing industry. The economic recovery slowed in the second half of 2015 and into 2016. The uncertainty following the Brexit vote in June 2016 led to the economy continuing to perform poorly throughout 2016 and 2017. Little change is expected in 2018 and 2019.

The fall in the value of the pound following the Brexit vote helped exports but there is concern over the fact that 50% of print exports are to EU countries and there is no clarity on the position that will exist after Brexit. The industry predicts that a so-called 'soft' Brexit will see a fall in the value of the print industry of 10%, while reverting to World Trade Organisation tariffs will lead to a fall of 20%.

Although it helped exports, the weak pound has led to increased costs of paper, board and imported print. 80% of paper and board imports come from the EU. At the start of 2018 the mood in the industry was described as positive but subdued. As well as the problems arising from the Brexit uncertainties, the industry was also having to face the move away from printed matter to digital copy in many instances.

Research published in 2017 found that the revenue earned by the printing industry had stagnated over the previous five years due to the high level of competition. Another factor influencing the lack of growth was the move away from printed advertising material due to the increasing popularity of internet advertising. By 2017, the medium used most for advertising was the internet (41.2%), followed by printed matter (29.9%) and then television, cinema and radio (28.9%). The use of printed material as an advertising medium is forecast to continue to fall over the years to 2022-23.

E-books were forecast to pose a significant threat to the industry when they were first introduced. However, after an initial growth spurt in their popularity, e-books began to lose their attraction as consumers returned to printed books. The rapidly growing trend towards online trading has had a more serious effect on the industry as demand for printed matter from manufacturers, retailers and service providers has fallen. In the face of these challenges, printers need to have high levels of expertise and the most up-to-date equipment and technology. Other concerns for the industry include:

  • intense pressure on the prices that can be charged
  • increased paper prices due to the cost of imports rising after the fall in the value of the pound following the Brexit vote
  • difficulty in recruiting skilled employees
  • the problem of getting customers to pay on time

Give some thought to:

  • whether there will be enough customers to support your business - remember that many businesses are committed to reducing packaging and printing - which means less work for the printing industry
  • whether you will be able to produce printed items cheaply enough to price competitively and still make a profit
  • how you will keep customers loyal to your business

Keeping up to date with developments

Joining a trade association is an excellent way of staying up to date with developments in your industry.

The printing industry is represented by the British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF), which provides a comprehensive range of services and publications. Contact the BPIF at 2 Villiers Court, Meriden Business Park, Copse Drive, Coventry CV5 9RN or visit the website. Other organisations of interest to those operating in the sector include Smithers Pira, the global authority on the packaging, paper and print industries. MA Business & Leisure Ltd publishes Print Week journal. The British Association for Print and Communication (BAPC) website includes a regular downloadable newsletter. Print Monthly is an online journal for every type of printing and finishing firm.

Trade shows

You can get a lot of useful information by visiting a trade show or exhibition for the printing industry, such as The Print Show. The Exhibitions website includes details of trade shows that may be of interest to you.

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