As the line between digital photocopiers and network printers becomes less and less distinct, the very different worlds of the printer reseller and the copier dealer are coalescing to form new sales channels and opportunities.
Certainly the vendors have realised these opportunities - merges between the likes of Fujitsu and Xerox, Kyocera and embattled copier company Mita, and imaging giant Minolta with printer company QMS belie the discreet nature of printing and photocopying markets. Printers, fax machines and photocopiers are no longer separate boxes that sit in the corner of the room. Increasingly, businesses are realising the advantages of consolidating their hardware into a single, networked application. And with the multifunction market on the verge of booming, the race is on to establish sales channels which work in both printer and copier markets.
"It is no longer a matter of offering a replacement technology for a product," said Hitachi Koki Imaging Solutions' (HiKIS) national channel development manager John Bennet. "It really has to be integrated into the document strategy of the company."
That, according to Bennett, is where the channel can play a key role in the multifunction marketplace.
"No longer is it just a peripheral output device, which is primarily what printers were considered previously - they were never really thought about as long as they worked but as far as the business operation, they were irrelevant to the output.
"It is a matter of understanding what the product does as opposed to looking at it as a single device. Resellers have to start looking at the solution they are [installing] because of the technology that is enabled in these products. It has a huge impact on what a business can achieve."
Opinions differ as to the maturity of the multifuncional device (MFD) market. The challenge lies in defining the marketplace - not only in terms of high- and low-end products, but in terms of functionality. Stopping short of actually making coffee for the office, the utilities within the device are becoming increasingly diverse.
According to US analyst Lyra Research, MFDs have already outgrown monochrome printers, shipping close to 20 million units worldwide this year. Anecdotal evidence suggests the local market is equally as healthy.
"Multifunctionalism has been a real boon for our business," said Justin O'Donoghue, sales manager at Newcastle-based reseller Lloyd Scott Enterprises.
In fact, the MFD market has proven to be a goldmine. But the company's success lies in the deliberate move away from its traditional business of supplying office equipment.
"From the point of view of equipment marketing, our key focus has changed a lot from the days of copiers, printers and faxes because those styles of equipment tended to have very little interaction with the network," O'Donoghue explained. "Most people who bought printers did so based on speed and price. It is similar with facsimiles, and certainly that has been the tradition with photocopiers.
"Multifunctionality has opened the market up so there is a major requirement for those selling it to have a clear understanding of workflows within the organisations they approach and to have quality IT support because they are connecting to the network."
The key, he says, is to understand the client's workflow and provide ongoing IT support.
"If you go into selling multifunction at the low level perhaps the support is not as critical, although there will be some support required. But once you move up the scale, resellers require quality IT support within their organisations for their customers.
"This means that instead of selling a piece of equipment, you are selling a document solution and [thereby], despite the industry cliché, adding value to the customer's organisation. That is what multifunctionality has brought to our company - we have moved away from being an equipment supplier to being closely involved with our customers and delivering real benefits, in terms of cost reduction and improved workflow. Therefore, we had to considerably ramp up our service skills and bring additional IT support staff into the company."
But resellers will not find it easy to grab a bite of the high-end MFD pie. When a stand-alone photocopier blows up, the reaction may well be one of annoyance. However, when problems occur with a machine that plays a vital role in business operations, fast on-site maintenance and high-level IT support become paramount. And, like the technology, the roles of the printer and copier channels are converging.
"There are two types [of dealers]," explained general manager for indirect sales at Fuji Xerox, Forest McGregor. "Certainly copier dealers are by default becoming involved in the digitised structure because of network connectivity and, from that perspective, those dealers are becoming like IT resellers. By the same token, the IT resellers are coming across opportunities where customers are asking questions about multifunction options in their printing range."
Greg White, black and white product manager at Ricoh, said vendors could no longer separate their distribution channels for their products. He said the real opportunities for resellers lay in integrating software to expand and consolidate their client's productivity.
"Providing software solutions is definitely the biggest part of the market. Solutions such as variable data printing and archiving software or providing total scanning and electronic solutions will become a key area."
To do this, resellers must fully understand the workflow of their clients. Canon's Business Imaging Systems group national marketing manager, David Gradwell, estimates that outside of colour printing, multifunctional devices remain the fastest growing market segment for the company. But selling the devices requires a consultative approach, he said.
"Clearly, it is a lower volume business," Gradwell said. "From a sales perspective, the message for the customer is improved productivity and reduced costs. It is fairly easy to show that if you put in typical low-cost products such as a 10 pages-per-minute (ppm) machine, the cost per page is typically three to four times that of a 60 ppm machine.
"It is more of a consultative or solution sell."
HiKIS's Bennett agrees the cost of printing provides a key selling point in the convergence of printing technologies.
"The true running cost of printers is the largest single undocumented expense in the corporate world," he said. "On a cost per copy basis, a photocopier may cost one to two cents per copy. The true cost per copy on a desktop laser printer can be anywhere from five to 15 cents per page."
By providing solutions based on document workflow and, in a sense, client partnering, resellers are building customer relationships that will last for the next three to five years, he said.
In a market where the high-end range can be anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000, resellers also need to consider different styles of financing in their selling approach. It is a concept which the copier business is already quite comfortable with, but which is providing a steep learning curve for the IT industry.
"Typically, these devices are quite a bit more expensive than buying a laser printer and customers don't buy them as an outright capital purchase," Fuji Xerox's McGregor said.
McGregor points out that the attraction of a MFD is not that it contains four separate devices in one package. It is the integration of its functions which provides the real benefit.
"We describe it as on-ramps to document workflow," he said. "By that we are talking things like scanning functions - to databases or e-mail - that can be integrated seamlessly for the customer. It is [in these type of functions] that the technology really comes into its own."
It is a sentiment echoed by reseller Lloyd Scott. "Our customers are getting a huge benefit because once one of these devices is on the network, they can quickly move to store their documents electronically," O'Donoghue said. "If you have a high quality digital device, you can scan documents in and store them electronically instead of putting them in filing cabinets. They are easier to retrieve and they don't get lost. The big value add is scanning."