You’ve most likely seen or heard the unprecedented numbers around the job market. More than 9.2 million job openings (as of June 1). Droves of people voluntarily leaving their jobs — a number that rose by 164,000 to 942,000 in June (2021). Both stats come from a recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
Organizations everywhere — in nearly every vertical — have been affected in some shape or form by the current labor shortage. The direct mail industry is no exception. But unlike other industries, much of the fallout is occurring behind the scenes. Specifically the lettershop side of the business, due to more labor intensive processes and a larger roster of unskilled laborers.
So what’s it all mean for your direct mail program? Short answer: It depends. Longer answer: Now is a good time to connect with your direct mail provider to gain some insight into the matter. And when you do, keep these five questions front and center during your conversation.
What to Ask Your Direct Mail Provider During This Labor Shortage
1. How are you reducing your reliance on positions with the highest turnover?
“Automation” should be the term that stands out most in this answer. For functions that don’t require manual dexterity, the need to collaborate, or everyday people skills, automation is the smart next step forward.
By automating processes, providers are able to eliminate laborious tasks (e.g., sorting, insertion, traying, stacking, pickup preparation, etc.) usually done by less-skilled workers; these are often the positions with the highest turnover.
Keep in mind: The transition to automation isn’t something that takes place overnight or with the flip of a switch. It should be a well-established commitment — and ongoing investment — made by your direct mail provider.
2. What steps are you taking to fill (and retain) key roles?
The reality is automation may not be the (feasible) answer for every facet of your direct mail production chain. For many providers, lower-skilled workers are essential in hitting your mailbox targets. However, there is heavy competition across most industries to not only hire lower-skilled workers, but also keep them around.
Without a worker surplus (and the luxury of choosing between multiple candidates), organizations will need to break out of their hiring status quo. Consider fast-food giant McDonald’s, who, in addition to higher wages, has added tuition and emergency child care benefits to attract new applicants, according to The Wall Street Journal.
To keep pace with the demanding job market, you may hear mailers introducing monetary incentives in their referral program, bumping up their hourly rates, and even transitioning to a manager approved “take the time you need, when you need it” vacation policy.
3. Do I need to be concerned about delays caused by material shortages?
Be aware that paper order lead times are not what they once were. Not long ago, large volumes of very specific paper stock could be ordered and then received in roughly a three to four week turnaround. Today, lead times of 10 to 12 weeks are not uncommon.
We’ve witnessed a number of major paper mills either shut down mills completely or reduce machinery to make less paper. The raw materials required for glues and adhesives are also experiencing similar shortages.
When you’re faced with the possibility of taking three months (or beyond) just to shore up materials, planning and ordering further in advance will become critical.
It’s worth noting: the labor shortage is also affecting the trucking industry. If you haven’t already, now is a good time to get acquainted with the logistics side of your direct mail program. Asking your mailer for more visibility into how well your mail is tracking to traditional in-home windows provides some predictability when it comes to your mail delivery.
4. What adjustments should we consider making right now?
We’re all dealing with an environment that is far less flexible, which begs the question, “What can we be doing (on the client side) to stay ahead of this?” In addition to avoiding last minute quantity increases or decreases, here are a few more recommendations to keep in mind:
- Order sooner. Don’t wait to nail down the absolute final quantities you need. To help avoid further delays, share rough estimates so that the stock can be ordered as soon as possible. Also, manage to the last date of change (LDC), which helps your provider order the paper you need as quickly as they can.
- Explore new formats. RRD, for example, has an extensive catalog of formats that are less reliant on labor and more reliant on technology. Working with self-mailers and other market-ready formats, marketers can leverage the benefits of a provider’s in-line capabilities — meaning the printing, personalization, and finishing all handled in a single pass on a single asset.
- Be open to new (temporary) ideas around your control. We have one client whose mail is particularly heavy early in the week (i.e., Monday, Tuesday). To help reduce production bottlenecks, we discussed with them the idea of spreading out that mail further into the week. It’s helped improve efficiency and we haven’t experienced any drawbacks.
What is your direct mail provider saying during this labor shortage?
In the end, if there’s one point worth stressing over all the rest, it’s this: During times of uncertainty, open and transparent communication with your direct mail provider should be the expectation and not the exception.
Your awareness of the headwinds affecting this industry will provide you with a better understanding of their effect on cycle time frames and other variables you may not have given much consideration to in the past.
If and when problems do arise, ask to be told about them immediately so that you can be part of the solution to minimize any negative impact.
Labor (or material) shortage or not, staying involved and in-sync with production of your direct mail may take some due diligence. By tracking down answers to the few questions called out above, you’ll have initiated an invaluable conversation that should provide clearer expectations, improved processes, and hopefully some peace of mind.
Dan Perrone is the Vice President of RRD Direct Marketing Solutions.