Printers capable of good-quality output are amazingly affordable these days. So why do small businesses still outsource some of their hard-copy requirements to print shops?
There are three main reasons: volume, quality, and finishing options.
While printers capable of around 40 pages per minute are now available for a few hundred dollars (such as the Brother HL-L5100DN announced last week), it's quite common for smaller businesses to use devices aimed at the SOHO market that only manage single figures on real-life documents. So printing 500 copies of a flyer could take an hour or two - it's not so much the elapsed time that's the issue, more the fact that the printer is tied up until the job is done. And you'll need to replenish the paper and probably replace the ink or toner along the way.
In addition, the total cost per page is likely to be higher than a print shop would charge.
As for quality, Phillip Theodore of Apple Print in suburban Melbourne pointed to the big difference in the quality achieved by the large and expensive equipment used by such businesses. Sometimes the impression of quality doesn't just come from the actual imaging but by the wider range of papers and card that can be handled.
For example, you can use your laser or inkjet printer with sheets of pre-cut business cards, but if you take the job to a print shop it will use thicker stock and optionally laminate one or both sides, and then the result looks more professional, he said.
In case you're wondering, the lamination process we're talking about here isn't the one used for your gym membership card. Rather, it involves applying a matt or gloss film to one or both sides of the card to give a more attractive and durable finish. This can be especially beneficial for 'hands on' businesses such as gardeners and other tradies, as any dirty fingerprints just wipe off.
While A3 printers are available at prices within a small business's budget, if you rarely need large-format output it might be better to save money and space by sticking to an A4 model and outsourcing A3 jobs when they arise.
Print shops are also capable of producing tabs (eg, to divide the sections for a loose-leaf or bound catalogue), presentation folders and other media that most SOHO and small business printers would at best struggle with.
Other types of job that Apple Print's clients tend to outsource include postcards, greeting cards, letterheads and envelopes, even though "the days of formal letters are pretty much gone," said Theodore.
The finishing options such as binding and folding offered by print shops result in a more professional look than you'll get from the equipment you're likely to have in the office.
For example, Apple Print uses a creasing machine before folding brochures. Folding a laser printed page is likely to result in the toner cracking along the fold, and that's not a good look for the central spread of a four-page brochure. Using a creaser prevents that happening, Theodore explained.
Comb binders can be purchased for as little as $150, but at that price you shouldn't expect to punch more than 10 sheets at a time. Consequently, binding is a tedious and time-consuming task. And let's face it, comb binding is OK for some purposes but it doesn't scream 'quality'.
Options available at print shops include wire binding, thermal glue, saddle stapling, and perfect binding which gives that exactly square finish like a paperback book.
Taken together, these capabilities mean print shops can deliver a level of quality for brochures and other items that you can't achieve with home or small business equipment, Theodore said.