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Jim Bray

Decades into the digital age, the paperless office still eludes humanity

By Jim Bray
May 17, 2018

Do you still print stuff out? If so, you're undoubtedly like most of us who, at least periodically, still need to print out a hard copy of some digital document – whether for archiving, legality, to put into a cookbook, or whatever.

Yet we've been promised for years that all of us using computers would mean that all those beautiful trees could be saved, presumably so we can hug them and live in them in the green paradise envisioned by some.

What happened?

Reality happened. And because of that, at least in part, our forest workers can still feed their families, logging truck drivers can send their kids to school, newspapers can still pump out their fake crap (though they do seem to be putting themselves out of business slowly anyway…).

Not only is the paperless office not here yet, it doesn't look as if it's coming any closer either. According to a survey by Fedex, which I discovered thanks to a press release from an organization that calls itself Two Sides (, consumers and small business owners still prefer print, a result Two Sides says mirrors a consumer survey they and Toluna mounted last year.  

"In April 2018, FedEx Office released the results of a survey of consumers and small business owners about their preferences and purchasing habits regarding professional printing services," Two Sides said in their release. "The survey, conducted by polling firm PSB, shows that consumers and small business owners prefer to use printed materials over digital."

"Well, duh," I imagine hearing many of you say. This is why you can still buy print books in the age of Kindles and you still see newspaper boxes on street corners (at least for now!).

And it isn't just that people still prefer print for consuming news and adventure novels. "Ninety percent of consumers and small business owners agreed that they 'like to have the option to have printed materials' and preferred reading materials, most notably official documents and contracts, on paper versus on a screen," Two Sides said.

Not only that, but the same percentage of folks also think there'll always be a need for printed materials, while just shy of half the survey respondents said a world without paper would "make them feel stressed or annoyed." Yep, snowflakes are everywhere!

In my own life and work, I've almost dumped all my printing - these rants are distributed digitally and I rarely print out a draft -  but I will print out stuff like receipts for which Big Brother will want a copy, and I keep a cheap multi-function printer around for just such emergencies (and for scanning hard copies). About the only other printing I do now is when I create greeting cards for my dear wife, which means a new poem and design each year for Valentine's Day, her birthday, and our wedding anniversary.

For something special like that, however, I need better performance than I get from the cheap multifunction laser printer I have yet to offer as a boat anchor on Kijiji. No, I want better paper and better ink, so I save my card as an Acrobat file and sally forth with my USB drive to the nearest Staples, where they'll print me out a nice copy for less than I'd pay for a generic greeting card written by some hack (well, some other hack…). It works well – and it not only helps my wife know how much I love her still (though I rarely see her that way!) and helps keep our forest workers employed, it also helps keep our petroleum sector workers employed as I drive up and back at breakneck speed, using as much dinosaur juice as I can!

Is that noise I hear heads exploding?

Anyway, back to the survey. Two Sides notes that (as with my greeting card policy) professional printing is very popular and that, rather than the number of printouts going down over time, 70 per cent of respondents reported that they had the same number of items printed this year as they did last year. Not only that, but nearly half the millennials (18-34 years) who responded admitted to having something printed professionally at least one a month.

Gaia weeps!

Businesses might want to pay some attention to this study, since the trend (at least around here) is for businesses to sign you up for digital statements (etc.) rather than going to the expense of printing and mailing. My bank is like this and my TV provider would be if someone intelligent would redesign their website to let me sign up for it. On the other hand, with the prices they charge I'm just as happy forcing hem to spend a couple of bucks printing and mailing my statement…

Then there are all the companies who want you to sign up for their email newsletters. I have nothing against these, but in my case it usually works out that signing up for these e-letters unleashes a tsunami of emails that can absolutely drive you crazy and, because of that, my subscriptions are generally short-lived.

Bottom line? How paperless is your financial institution (or whomever) when all they're really doing is just offloading their printing (for which they undoubtedly have a bulk rate) to you (who undoubtedly doesn't)?   

See, businesses, while it might save you a bundle to go all-digital (and I'll believe you'll pass those cost savings on when my bills start going down), you're annoying many of the people who are creating your profits. What kind of a business plan is that?

Beyond that, "the FedEx Office survey also reported an inclination of consumers towards printed materials for advertising and 85 per cent said they were more likely to shop at a small business that had custom printed materials such as business cards, signs, flyers or banners," Two Sides says, "and 80 per cent of small business owners felt that professional printing services helped their business stand out from the competition."

Two Sides' survey backs this up as well, finding that most consumers (71 per cent) don't pay attention to online advertising while more than half (54 per cent) pay more attention to messages and ads on printed leaflets and mail than messages and ads delivered by email." I suspect this will please the postal worker lobby, too!

It also helps explain why my dear wife waits breathlessly every week for the flyers to be delivered.

Finally, 55 per cent of the survey respondents said they'd be more likely to "take an action" after seeing an ad in a printed newspaper or magazine than if they saw the same ad online. And they can take that ad into the retailer with them, rather than poking a smart phone or tablet into the face of the checkout clerk.

Two Sides, by the way, appears to have a dog in this hunt. According to its website, "Two Sides is a global initiative by companies from the Graphic Communications Industry including forestry, pulp, paper, inks and chemicals, pre-press, press, finishing, publishing, printing, envelopes and postal operators." I don't include this to marginalize them (I happen to agree with them), just to put this stuff in perspective.

It seems obvious that, regardless of how businesses want to reach "the people", the people they're trying to reach want to be reached by something solid, something they can hold in their hand, something they can read in their easy chair even if they don't have a tablet or smart device, and something they can take to a business with them (i.e. coupons) without having to waste their own paper and toner.

You want to reach these people? Pay attention to them.

Copyright 2018 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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