Nine Macrotrends Affecting Printing Businesses in 2024

In a keynote presentation at the 2023 Printing United Expo, Lisa Cross, Principal Analyst at NAPCO Research, discussed 9 printing-industry macrotrends culled from recent NAPCO surveys of commercial print businesses, sign and display graphic companies, and print buyers and influencers.

Some of the trends Cross highlighted included:

  • the convergence of print-industry segments;
  • artificial intelligence applications in business and production workflows;
  • the role of print in omni-channel or multi-channel marketing;
  • actions to address labor shortages,
  • the business case for sustainability,
  • the importance of offering online ordering,
  • the demographics and expectations of print buyers,
  • the levels of adoption of automation, and
  • growth opportunities through mergers and acquisitions.
Print-business macro trends 2024

Below is a quick summary of key points. To see more specifics, click to download the presentation slides from the keynote address: Converting Printing Industry Uncertainty into Opportunities for Success.

The lines between print-market segments have been redrawn.
“We call this convergence,” said Cross. “There was a time when print-providers did very select things. They stayed in their lane and produced specific types of products such as marketing materials, display graphics, packaging, or promotional products.”

That has changed. In 2023, 56% of commercial printers surveyed told us they were moving into an adjacent market and 69% of sign and display graphic providers told us they were moving into adjacent markets.”

The versatility of digital printing and online ordering technologies has lowered some the barriers that once made it more difficult for commercial printing companies to branch out into adjacent fields such as signs and displays, promotional products, labels, packaging, or apparel decorating.

Today, a print-service provider can sell just about any type of printed product a customer might want, even if some of the printed items are outsourced to another company.

Two major forces underpin the drive to penetrate adjacent markets. First, the demand for printed materials has declined due to the adoption of digital signage and online media in fields such as retailing, out-of-home advertising, and publishing.

Secondly, stiffer price competition for short runs of popular types of printed products has encouraged print-services providers to expand their product range to win a larger share of the customer’s total spend on printing.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is making its mark in both print production and business workflows.
In production workflows, AI-driven software is identifying and correcting errors in incoming files, intelligently routing and scheduling jobs, using smart layouts to reduce material waste, managing color across different types of printing systems and materials, enhancing the quality of printed images, and performing quality control checks.

In the business-management side, AI-driven software is being used for targeted marketing and analytics, educational content development, and the reduction of manual labor in creating estimates and tracking jobs.

Print businesses are competing for staff in a difficult labor market.
Two-thirds of the commercial printers and sign and display graphics providers report that hiring production staff is either critically or moderately challenging.

Some techniques used to recruit employees include outreach to high school career advisors and community colleges and formal apprenticeship programs.

Print-service providers retain workers by offering mentoring programs, cross-training, employee recognition programs, and spot incentives based on performance.

“Have a growth path of new employees,” suggests Cross. “Once you get employees in the door, you need to make work fun, and incentivize them.”

Print and digital media are better together.
NAPCO surveys revealed that a majority of buyers of customer communications plan to continue to use print for some or all of their multi-channel campaigns:

  • 42% said they planned to use a mix of print and digital communications;
  • 20% said they planned to use print only; and
  • 38% said they planned to use digital only.

The buyers who incorporate print in a multi-channel or omni-channel campaign use an average of 4 different media types.

Respondents who used print communications like it because print is tangible, captures attention, adds credibility, and is a great way to show products. Print has delivered results for them in the past and has a proven return-on-investment (ROI).

People who don’t use print claim that it is too expensive, too slow to get the message out, difficult to update, and isn’t directly interactive. Some respondents said they have never used print or used it before and didn’t get the desired results.

Today’s print buyer is older, more experienced, and under pressure.
NAPCO studies of commercial print-industry trends found that modern print buyers are under pressure to choose media channels that perform.

Most print buyers have job responsibilities that go beyond print buying. Respondents who said they were responsible for specifying or purchasing print also handled assignments related to marketing strategy, budget preparation, vendor selection, workplace technology investments, and product, process, or product development.

Print business owners should be aware that the individual who buys print may prefer hiring a service provider who can do more than produce and deliver printed products. Some buyers may be seeking print-service providers who can help find solutions and ideas related to their other job-related responsibilities.

Educating potential buyers about various print options is essential – particularly the Millennials and Gen Z influencers who grew up with digital technology.

A 2023 NAPCO study of “Who Buys Wide-Format Display Graphics?” found that print buyers and influencers had about 14 years of experience. About 52% of print users were Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964), 34% were Generation X (born between 1965 and 1980). and 14% were Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996). Only 1% were part of Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012).

“A lot of print buyers are older, and there’s not a lot of young blood out there buying print,” noted Cross. So, it’s important to teach younger designers how designing for print differs from designing for online media.

Design schools today rarely teach classes in print design and few agencies have print-production managers on staff. Agencies rely on print-production experts at commercial printing companies to fill the void.

Sustainability is more than a catch phrase.
In a 2023 NAPCO Research Study of Commercial Print Industry Trends, 80% of print buyers and influencers agreed that “Sustainability is a key factor in our organization’s buying decision.”

In the 2023 NAPCO Research Study on “Who Buys Sign and Display Graphics?” 62% of respondents said sustainable production processes are important considerations when selecting a sign and display graphics provider.

E-commerce/online job submission is not optional for print-service providers.
Print-service providers can use online ordering/web-to-print (W2P) services to strengthen customer relationships, automate production, grow revenue, and expand services.

For example, a well-managed online ordering system contributes to the overall customer experience – including job quotes, submitting files, and tracking job status and deliveries.

More and more customers expect to be able to place orders online. In a recent NAPCO survey, nearly three-quarters of commercial print buyers say that online job submission capabilities are very important when selecting a print provider.

Many customers believe online order enables them to better control print spending and brand management.

And nearly two-thirds of communication buyers and influencers say the ability to place print orders at any time is highly valuable

Cross noted that a simple online store might not be enough, “Consider setting up a customized portal through which your customer can order all of the various print products they need, whether you print them in-house or outsource some of them”

Automation is vital to profitability.
“Our data keeps showing us that there are labor shortages, high demand for shorter runs and faster turnaround,” said Cross. “It has led to lots of pressure on profits.“

All leading organizations focus on profitability and automation.” 67% of print providers report taking action to automate workflows.

Within the printing industry, there is much more room for automation to be implemented:

  • 27% of survey respondents said they were fully automated;
  • 18% had mostly manual or all manual operations.;
  • 30% had some automation, but manual processes in many departments; and
  • 25% were mostly automated, but not in all departments.

Mergers and acquisitions are avenues for expansion and growth.
Many print-service providers that are looking to move into new segments consider opportunities for mergers or acquisitions.

In a 2023 NAPCO survey, 62% of print providers said they were looking to acquire another organization and 45% said they were looking for merger partners.

Lisa Cross presented these 9 macrotrends during a PRINTING United Expo keynote session that also featured Andrew Paparozzi, chief economist of the PRINTING United Alliance.

In their keynote session, they highlighted some of the tools that members of the PRINTING United Alliance can access to develop strategies for business success, even during period of economic uncertainty.

About NAPCO Research

NAPCO Research is a division of NAPCO Media, the organization that publishes printing-related information on platforms such as Printing Impressions, Wide-Format Impressions, Packaging Impressions, and In-Plant Impressions. NAPCO Media and NAPCO Research are owned by the PRINTING United Alliance.

To download slides from the keynote presentations at the 2023 PRINTING Untied Expo visit: