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Andy MacDougall

2020 Hindsight: Evaluating the Challenges of the Past Year

When the going gets tough, the screen printers come through.

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2020 VISION TAKES on an entirely new meaning after this crazy Corona year. I think it will be universally marked as a generational event that humanity lived through and will be talked about in the history books of the future. So, save a few mementos for your grandkids. “American Pickers” might show up in 2093. At this point, the pandemic has been just as deadly as a world war. Not Spanish Flu level. Yet. It still isn’t over. (See song selection below.)

It’s certainly a time with social and cultural upheaval worldwide, enough to shake things up for years to come. If 2020 had a theme song it would be “You Ain’t Seen Nothin Yet.” Because every day brought another round of WTF. BTO also wrote “Takin’ Care of Business.” So crank it up and let’s go. This column is a look back, even though after this year, I think we’ve seen enough.
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The Beginning

The year started innocently. I ventured to the Impressions Expo in Long Beach for the first time to hang with the textillions and saw a screen printing show like I remember of the old SGIA days: busy, full of printers, and evenings packed with parties, music, and hanging out. The industry crackled with excitement for the upcoming year, but by February, news of the ‘rona was spreading, as was the virus. For me, long-planned trips to Austin for SXSW and Flatstock, as well as the first-ever SGC International (printmaking show) in Puerto Rico were canceled. Others began to fall like dominoes. The whole industry got turned on its collective ear, and we are still dealing with the fallout.

Anyone with ties to the live music industry was dead in the water by March. Every major and minor live event was canceled, so the Flatstock print community and the music tour merch business nose-dived. I was laid off at my work once I had taken care of the employees. I have to give a shoutout to the Canadian government at this point (March) because they came out with a no-nonsense Emergency Response Benefit to take care of what seemed like total unemployment, all within a few weeks.

In what was the first of a few silver linings to the COVID cloud hanging over this guy, our long-delayed move into our new house coincided with the layoff. With no travel and no work allowed, we moved in after the workers all disappeared. We slept on the floor for the first week, but we were finally in our “forever” home after two years of planning and building. Still unpacking, but that’s the story of my life.
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In the Thick of It

In April and May we saw not only our industry but the entire economy trying to figure out how to operate in the middle of a pandemic. And it wasn’t just North America. I reached out to a network of screen printers around the world, giving Screen Printing magazine readers a glimpse into how it was going in other countries through the “Come Together” series. Our subjects shared how the pandemic was affecting the day-to-day life in their city and within the print shops themselves. The contrast between the ways different countries were dealing with trying to control the spread in the spring, and where we are now in December, is a sobering kick in humanity’s collective butt: Pandemics are not just a science fiction fantasy or some nugget from history. Looking back, one of the predictions by the scientists was that the first wave we experienced in the spring and summer was going to become a tsunami in the fall and winter. But, of course, nobody wanted to listen.

Some cool things were happening in shops across the land as screen printers dove into the newest fashion craze to sweep the nation: masks. Hands up everyone who printed a mask before 2020. That’s my point. You have a squeegee, use it. A blank mask is an opportunity wasted.
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Rounding the Corner?

In June, with what seemed like half the people laid off or working from home, a funny thing happened on the way to the summer of our discontent. A new crop of would-be screen printers arose from the ranks of the recently homebound. Industry suppliers and retailers reported a surge in beginner set-ups, with a long-time, Vancouver-area supplier reporting the best month of sales since he started nearly 30 years earlier. My shop started back up in July, under protocol, and our customers gradually started ordering again.

We do contract printing for a number of our clients. One of the big shifts, and I’m sure it happened to you with your customers, is a move to online sales. Our biggest customer, West Coast Karma (westcoastkarma.ca) supplied a 65-store regional chain, and I distinctly remember the excitement of their biggest order yet last February. After the stock was ordered and almost printed, the malls were closed, and the order canceled. Our customer went online and hit social media hard. Seven months later, the mall stores are back, but their direct web sales are the main driver of growth, with much higher profit margins, and they’ve added employees and bought a house.

The downside to everyone selling online, is everyone buying. The Post Office is overwhelmed, the courier services are renting U-Hauls, it’s been “worse than Christmas” all year as my Postie says, and now it’s Christmas season. Double whammy. Remember our theme song? Yeah.

Supply chains are coming apart at the seams. What used to be periodic shortages of popular garment sizes and colors have turned into inventory zeros at most of the large distributors in the USA and Canada, and even when they have everything you want, the shipping is backed up. This looks like it will carry into 2021, and is potentially a deal breaker for a lot of printers. It also points out the faults when we lose local/domestic manufacturing.

Amid all this gloom and doom, it does look like we’ll come out on the other side. This month (December) they announced trials were winding up on a number of vaccines and distribution has started. That’s pretty good news. With vaccines in production, they’re cautiously predicting we all might be inoculated by fall of 2021. Even more importantly, the companies in our industry have taken some hard knocks and had fundamental changes thrust upon them over this past year, yet they managed. This magazine shed its printed skin and emerged into a completely digital landscape, and then saw the venerable and iconic ST Media Group sold to a new corporation that wants to continue the work of the last 100 or so years. Nobody is going anywhere. We just need to stay safe, stay healthy, and stay creative.

I’ll leave you with this little nugget. When the going gets tough, the screen printers come through.

Andy MacDougall is a screen printing trainer and consultant based on Vancouver Island in Canada, and a member of the Academy of Screen & Digital Printing Technology. If you have production problems you’d like to see him address in “Shop Talk,” email your comments and questions to andy@squeegeeville.com

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