In a strange twist, internet commerce is helping to create new business for some catalog printers, including a Maine company that is one of the industry’s largest.

More than 35 years after losing Freeport-based L.L. Bean as its only customer, The Dingley Press in Lisbon now prints nearly 350 million catalogs a year for about 160 clients, including many online retailers that use printed words and images to drive consumers to their digital storefronts.

Business has been so good that Dingley, which employs about 350 workers, is in the process of a $17 million expansion to add a new press, robotics and other equipment.

“We’re at a point in our capacity utilization where we need new press capacity,” said Eric Lane, the company’s president.

Pressmen, left to right, Norm Begin, Kevin Sult and Armand Deschene work on a Goss printing press at The Dingley Press in Lisbon. The company has a new press under construction and expects it to be up and running by December. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

While overall demand for printed catalogs has declined over the past 15 years, there are still new customers entering the market, Lane said. Many of them are online-only retailers that send catalogs in the mail to attract new customers and foster relationships with existing ones.

“In order to reach prospects, to bring them to your website, you need a tool for that,” he said.

Dingley, a privately held company that does not disclose its annual revenue, is investing $13 million to install a new 48-page printing press inside its 268,000-square-foot facility in Lisbon. The company already operates four additional presses.

The new press is under construction and is expected to be up and running by December, Lane said.

Dingley is spending another $1 million on four large robotic arms that will lift and move heavy stacks of catalogs onto wooden pallets.

The final piece of new investment is $3 million to install an additional “co-mail line” inside the facility.

The cost of postage can be a significant barrier to companies that want their catalogs mailed directly to consumers. Therefore, catalog printers have developed strategies for bringing down postage costs to the bare minimum.

CATALOG CHANGES

At Dingley, catalogs from all 160 clients are combined and sorted by destination on the co-mail lines before being bundled together on pallets for delivery, each to a specific post office. The company then delivers each pallet to the destination post office, which significantly reduces the cost of postage.

Martez Proctor works on a saddle stitcher at The Dingley Press in Lisbon on Wednesday. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“Nobody has to touch it at the post office until it gets to the mail carrier,” Lane said.

When all of the new equipment is installed, Dingley’s annual capacity will increase to about 400 million catalogs per year, he said. The expansion will require additional staffing of 15 to 20 workers initially, with more added as business ramps up on the new press.

Dingley is currently the fifth-largest catalog printer in the United States, up from 15th in 2004, Lane said.

“The catalog printing industry has consolidated quite a bit since 2004,” he said.

Paul Miller, vice president and deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Catalog Mailers Association, said Dingley is one of about a half-dozen major players in the U.S. catalog printing industry.

“They are a good, loyal member (of the trade organization), and an important player in the catalog field,” he said.

The catalog industry continues to contract as more retailers seek avenues outside of print to reach new and existing customers, Miller said, but the industry still produces 8,000 to 10,000 different titles each year, and new clients continue to enter the market.

One example is Wayfair LLC, a Boston-based online retailer that sells furniture, housewares and other items, he said. Although the company conducts sales exclusively online, it has embraced printed catalogs as a means of attracting customers’ attention.

“They have gotten into catalogs quite heavily,” Miller said.

TWO COMEBACKS

The catalog industry underwent a significant shock in early 2007 when the U.S. Postal Service suddenly raised postage rates for catalogs by 20 percent. It nearly killed the medium entirely, he said.

The Dingley Press in Lisbon prints nearly 350 million catalogs a year for about 160 clients, including many online retailers. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

But the industry has survived via strategies such as co-mailing, and by lobbying to ensure that such a dramatic rate hike doesn’t recur in the future.

“Fighting to keep catalog postage affordable – that’s what we’re all about,” Miller said of his organization.

The Dingley Press suffered its own shock in 1981 when its sole client, L.L. Bean, severed its relationship with the company, Lane said. L.L. Bean decided to migrate to a different printing process that Dingley could not accommodate with its equipment at the time.

Founded in 1928 in Lewiston, Dingley had been producing all of L.L. Bean’s catalogs since 1942. With no clients and an owner looking to shut down the operation, current company owner Chris Pierce offered to buy Dingley and then set about rebuilding the business from the ground up.

By 2004, Pierce had built Dingley into a $100 million enterprise, and he decided to sell the company to The Sheridan Group, a large commercial printing operation based in Maryland.

But in 2013, following the loss of another major client, Sheridan decided to sell the company, and Pierce realized he wanted it back.

“He does like the challenge,” Lane said of Pierce.

Lane noted that today, Dingley contributes significantly to Maine’s economy and its paper industry. In addition to its $13 million in annual payroll, the company buys about $10 million of paper each year from Maine paper mills, and it pays an additional $6 million to other Maine-based vendors.

Dave Burnham works on a SIM co-mailer at The Dingley Press. Catalogs from all of the company’s 160 clients are combined and sorted by destination on the co-mail lines before being bundled for delivery. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“We get our paper from Maine paper mills as much as possible,” Lane said. “We are the closest shipping point for a lot of the mills in Maine.”

The role of the catalog in a retail operation has evolved significantly in recent years, Miller said. As a result, the industry has suffered a bit of an identity crisis.

“The catalog used to be much more of a self-standing mechanism than it is today,” he said, whereas now it “serves as a springboard to get the customer to buy from that company.”

Still, there are things a catalog can do that an online advertisement cannot, Lane and Miller said. A catalog is delivered directly into the hands of its recipient, bringing information about new products along with more subtle cues about the seller’s style and brand.

“The catalog still carries the identity of the company, of the retailer,” Miller said.

Correction: This story was updated at 1:42 p.m. on April 29 to correct the number of catalogs Dingley currently prints per year, and the number it expects to print once its new equipment is installed.

J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at:

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