Over here is a man making button badges, another is sorting some printed mugs. Here is someone programming the cut sequence for a large format flatbed cutting table finishing a roll of inkjet printed fabric; and over here is a stack of toboggans ready for the upcoming holiday season.
All are housed inside the same four-level factory, just one of eight that FlyerAlarm operates in Germany. The online printer is the largest sales channel for wooden sledges in Germany, while also being the largest supplier of online ordered print in Europe. Each toboggan has an inkjet printed PVC seat, personalised if required for the owner. It also supplies millions of tree baubles at this time of year. Elsewhere are beer fridges waiting for branding to suit a customer or specific event.
All this and more is in the FlyerAlarm building overlooking Würzburg in Bavaria. It is one of the eight factories across the southern half of the country which the company uses to supply more products than any other single printer in Europe, topping 3 million different items at the last count. This plant is a large format factory with Durst, HP and Vutek printers for banners, boards, flags and sledge covers and now a Kornit fabric printer. Just along the road is the head office where all prepress operations are concentrated.
Not far away in Greussenheim is one of the offset plants. This specialises in products on coated papers at 135gsm and 250gsm printed on three Koenig & Bauer Rapida 145s. The average run is 5,000 sheets putting an emphasis on slick make ready and the workflow to deliver the jobs to press and beyond, amounting to 350,000 sheets printed each day.
The statistics behind the business are boggling. It employs 2,000, achieves a €330 million turnover a year through managing 22,500 jobs a day, supplied in the main to B2B customers. The majority of these are in Germany, an increasing number outside as it expands services to 15 countries in Europe, the UK included. This is a business that began less than 20 years ago, giving the print business a rate of growth that is usually associated with Silicon Valley tech companies.
And FlyerAlarm is very much a successful tech company, even if it has not yet achieved unicorn status for $1 million in sales. The technology is in the secret sauce, comprising the workflow algorithms that drive the business and optimise production and on time delivery to customers.
These manage the way that orders are accepted, filtered and directed to the correct press and for litho work the correct imposition to achieve the greatest production efficiencies. The longer the company has to fill an imposition for one of its Speedmaster 162 perfecting presses or the large format Rapidas, the less the customer pays. Currently there are three delivery options, the cheapest is for those that give the printer the most time to fulfil the order. Conversely a customer will pay most for express or overnight delivery.
This seems to be a crucial setting for UK customers, at least those that have come to do business with FlyerAlarm. “Essentially nobody knows us in the UK,” says Divyesh Chotai, head of international sales, “whereas in Germany we are the leader in online printing.” He is part of the team trying to change that. “The UK is a promising market. We are still small there.”
The business was started in 2002 by Thorsten Fischer, now joint CEO, and has grown to employ more than 2,000. There is a strict policy of replacing all machines after three years, Chotai explains. The company works mostly with Heidelberg or Koenig & Bauer on sheetfed, HP Indigo and Xerox in cut sheet digital, HP, Durst, EFI, and now Kornit, in large format inkjet printing.
The company first came to the UK in 2010, opening a shop just off the Tottenham Court Road in central London. That closed at the end of last year as Keith Hanson took over as country manager. He increased the marketing profile and started to set up a team of account managers and handlers in the UK before he stepped down for personal reasons. It has caused a rethink in Germany. “We have to find the right strategy for the UK.
“We are still active in the UK market. The plan is to find someone to run the UK business. We are looking to create a local team,” says Chotai. The position is part of a strategic approach, not something that the company is going to be rushed into. Until then UK customers will be supported by a team in Berlin. It is easier to recruit native English speakers in the German capital than elsewhere in the country, he points out, though he has himself moved from London to Wurzburg.
A key part of the strategy is working with resellers, or partners as FlyerAlarm prefers. A partner programme will offer discounts of up to 10% for those partners that can generate sales and volume to be produced in Germany.
The big draw is an ever expanding range of products almost entirely produced in house. This amounted to 3 million options at the last count and 20 new products, different materials and formats are added each month. “We are like a one stop for resellers and B2B partners,” Chotai adds. “We want to be a partner, not just a reseller. We want to create a strategic long term partnership, sharing, helping and cooperating with a partner.”
The UK will take looking after, especially on speed of turnaround, currently a key differentiating factor for UK based online print companies. Fast turnaround is possible from Germany: an order placed by 9am will be delivered the next day. Not every product will be available, the focus being on the simpler print and cut or print and fold products.
The company is currently working on ways to extend the deadline to place an order by the early afternoon and still receive next day delivery. It has significant leverage with delivery company UPS as one of its largest customers in Europe.
FlyerAlarm will also be looking at its production network to assess which sites can hit the delivery targets required. This includes a recently opened physical store in Paris, “something like the Apple Store” in style says Chotai. Although it is focused on design and inspiring the use of print, it also includes some digital printing facilities so that a customer can come in and walks away with 1,000 brochures having sats down for a crème and croissant.
A number of these Print to Go stores, intended to help clients work out designs and to understand the scope of what can be printed, are in place in Germany and FlyerAlarm plans one for the UK. He continues: “The UK is a quite unique market. There’s lots of opportunity there, but there is also lots of competition. We have a key advantage in that we are a very strong, stable player financially. In future we will have a store in London.” FlyerAlarm is capable of playing the long game.
The fixation on in-house production (just about the only product currently outsourced is personalisation on edible confectionery) means that the company has full control of its quality. Just 5% of the products need to be brought in. As well as standard offset and digital products, there is a Scodix in the portfolio and FlyerAlarm can print a full out four-colour envelope. And with the recently installed Kornit it can print textiles.
Increasingly the online print company is addressing a need for non standardised printing, offering a bespoke service for printed jobs that fall outside the online ordering process. “In online printing everybody prefers to stick to the standard products. But we have a department that can create the bespoke products,” Chotai explains
Some of these, printing on skateboards or sledges for example, will become part of the standard portfolio or perhaps part of what sub brands can offer. Because alongside the main FlyerAlarm brand, FlyerAlarm Sports can deliver printed team strips, boots, footballs and promotional items for a team. It sponsors the Würzburg Kickers, has a link with Bayern Munich and with the German national team.
In the UK it has been a pitch side advertiser for several premier league games this season. It will also create event based packages, a conference pack would provide all the associated collateral from banners, stationery, folders, promotion pens, even labels for bottled water that brand an event and taking away the need to for the organiser to source these separately.
Like a recent venture into printed packaging, the early days of such extensions will be confined to Germany to bed in the technology and to understand customer expectations. However, the outlook is increasingly international and what has happened in Germany will roll out. “Germany is three to five years ahead of the UK and other markets,” says Chotai.
The international expansion began in earnest last summer, with a deliberate shift in strategy. Already the company has learned a lot. “We have learned so much,” he says.There has been a need to localise not only language, but some of the expressions that are used are different in separate markets. The FlyerAlarm user interface will be judged differently, too complex and daunting for some, ideal for others.
FlyerAlarm cannot change this without impact on its brand, but can play with the mix of products that are promoted in the different markets: buyers in some will be more confident of what they are buying than in others. For somewhere like the UK the first step is to win the trust of its customers. Local service will help as will someone in the country that is responsible and identifiable as such.
The UK is too large and too important a market for FlyerAlarm to walk away from. However, the local competition is increasing and the English Channel is quite a barrier. On the other hand FlyerAlarm has scale and more products than any rival. It is more than a one stop shop. It is an emporium of print.
FlyerAlarm operates from eight sites in Germany, each dedicated to a particular product type. Head office has been in Wurzburg since founding in 2002. The company has grown to €330 million in sales and offers 3 million products through the website.
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FlyerAlarm has invested in VLF Heidelberg's and K&B sheetfed presses and HP and EFI in its large format inkjet plants. The more jobs it can impose on each sheet, the greater the margin for the business. The company has a record of replacing machines every three years to ensure that it is always operating with the latest technology.
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