Why Is There a Paper Shortage and What Can I Do About It?

We welcome a special guest: Stelter’s Sales and Production Operations Manager, Tyler Johnson, to share his advice for meeting your marketing goals in the middle of a paper-supply shortage.

Direct mail fundraisers know that paper price is a major component of the total price of their marketing. Have you been hit with sticker shot lately?

Consider this: Paper prices have gone up a little more than 25% since January 2021.

There are many factors in play:

  1. Paper mills reduced their workforce during the turmoil of 2020.
  2. Many mills transitioned into making boxes (for example, for Amazon) versus making paper for direct mail pieces.
  3. Paper types and paper grades were discontinued.
  4. Transportation took a hit in 2020: Airlines encouraged their pilots to take early retirement and the trucking industry tightened their workforce and schedules.

According to Erik Norman, the SVP Sales and Marketing for Bolger Printing, a digital print, wide-format printing, technology, and marketing service provider, we’re in a unique space. “This dire global paper shortage coming off the pandemic effect is unique and unequaled,” Erik says. “People who’ve been purchasing paper for 30+ years haven’t seen it before.”

So, if we’re still in unprecedented times, what can we do about it?

To Start, When Will It End?

“That’s the 64-million-dollar question,” says Erik. “The general consensus is probably into quarter three of next year. This is not a short-term issue.”

The following tips help you take control, today.

Tip #1: Start discussions early. Really early.

When you bring your design, data and production partners to the table early, you have options. You can lean on partnerships (see Tip #2) and connections. By pulling one lever—maybe timing, materials or quantities—you can stay on track with your most important goals. 

Tip #2: Be flexible about paper grade/paper type. (Or timing.)

Your printer partners are likely working through a lot of alternatives: Be willing to consider them when bottlenecks appear. More common paper sheets are more likely to be stocked, plus they are successful for other customers—could they work for you? It doesn’t mean sacrificing quality or performance, it may just mean a different brand or size.

Here’s why this is happening: Your printing resources are likely buying paper in bulk and in many cases, they are getting their supply based on historic orders. If you have a new need, it’s more difficult to fulfill. You may still be able to get the sheets you want if you can shift when you need them. For example, Erik says that materials that used to take a couple of weeks to stock could now take 10-14 weeks.

Tip #3: Lean into multichannel.  

The best-performing fundraising efforts meet donors where they are—whether through social media, email, Google searches, billboards or even text messages. Marketing is getting the right message to the right people at the right time. Ensure that digital marketing is part of your mix, especially if you have to delay your direct mail timing.

There are deliverability challenges in every channel, but a well-rounded approach helps defend against pricing, regulations and algorithms. A diverse portfolio is the best portfolio.

Keep Cost in Check

Remember that stat about paper pricing increasing 25% this year? Print technology providers like Bolger are looking to drive efficiencies to control costs. Tradeoffs are part of that—again, material being a key one, but you could also flex how many print checks you get during the quality control process—and so is planning. Elongated lead times will be the norm for the next year.

Here’s the key takeaway to meet your printing goals and timelines: It’s simply not the season to wait until the last minute.

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