"We offer only one choice of coated substrate and one choice of uncoated," he explains. "In today’s market, everything is based on price and we steer our clients towards the most cost-effective method of producing something that still does the job at the best quality possible – that means set papers. We are essentially taking the hassle of choosing away from the client, and our clients do tend to want that choice taken out of their hands."
In some ways, you can see why the approach appeals. For many, the paper supply chain is not a sleek river flowing through manageable channels of choice, but a torrent of chaos and confusion, where too many products make the market difficult to navigate, with hidden undercurrents of discontinuity and mirages of difference. However, disorientating though it may be, a wide choice of paper is, some say, essential to print’s very being, central to its success as a communications medium, and so rather than a need to restrict choice, the key going forward is more to manage that choice better.
The problem with that is print’s diversity. Everyone wants something different from the paper merchants, and for every Anthony Thirlby, there is a Richard Owers, director at UK commercial printer Pureprint.
"For the vast majority of our work, having a choice of papers at our disposal is incredibly important," he explains. "We use a wide range in both digital and litho. In creative print, the choice of substrate is a key factor."
For Owers, the current level of choice is important for the way his business works. And while the merchants accept the choice is wide, paper manufacturer Arjowiggins corporate affairs manager Shannan Hodgson says that with the mix of technologies and processes these days, having a breadth of choice is essential.
"It’s important to offer variety in papers to allow companies the widest possible range to choose from," she explains. "With so many different shades, thicknesses and types, end-users are – with the help of a printer – able to pick exactly the right paper for their specific print job."
For the merchants, the solution to any confusion the printers or end-clients may have with the choice of paper is not restriction, but improving the information channels. Hodgson says Arjowiggins uses extensive marketing to ensure printers are properly informed, while PaperCo head of marketing Charles Eaton adds that his company has worked hard at simplifying the buying process.
The latter is much needed, argue printers, as the current supply chain doesn’t help itself in terms of clarity with the way certain products are branded – and this is contributing to there being too many products on the market. Often, you could have three different papers, branded and priced differently, that you know have come from the same mill and were produced in exactly the same way: they are essentially the same product.
Antalis McNaughton marketing director James Jarvis, though, counters that, while this issue was once a problem, the market has become more consolidated over the past five years and so it happens less frequently. Robert Horne customer marketing manager Paul Cassidy adds that, firstly, this quirk of supply is not as widespread as people may think, and secondly that where it does occur, some printers actually see it as a benefit. Could postal deregulation bring about a two-tier service?