Society and business may be going digital but it is unlikely they will get wherever they are going, without print – which is in fact in the middle of everything. The same goes for packaging and labels which cannot perform without information, inserts, outserts, QR codes, and barcodes apart from the variable printed manufacturing, sell-by, and use-by dates. Nevertheless, print has taken a knock in the pandemic because of the closure of schools and retail shops while packaging and labels have held up and become stronger in an era of remote shopping, commoditized choice, hygienic, or at least layers of packaging, handling, and last-mile delivery. All riding on the cellphone and digital backbone of the country which although cantankerous and occasionally frail is more than good enough for an emerging economy.
However, as the packaging and label industries grow even with the moderate 5 to 7% real GDP growth for the Indian economy that we expect – there are several overall trends that could even be described as cross-currents. Firstly, the economy has reached a level where even small growth matters for industry, especially for its consumer product segments since it is still a consumption-led economy. Secondly, there is more interest in our economy from global investors and manufacturers partly because we have reached a critical mass or size in consumption, and partly for other factors such as the need to diversify manufacturing supply chains from other parts of Asia.
The startup culture is also gaining traction. New organic, sustainable consumer products are also emerging which directly benefit labels and packaging. Cross currents are those of business or demand volatility which is normal from day to day but which has been accentuated during the last 22 to 23 months on a practically monthly, or quarterly basis. The positive side of volatility is that customers return and generally with erratic volumes and new demands. And this makes the more frequent (than earlier) shortages of raw materials such as label stocks a problem, because converters’ calculations and productivity go haywire.
Several of these issues, trends and cross-currents become apparent when we visit and talk to a mix of label printers who may have active plans to challenge the everyday trends in the industry and others who are also growing but more modestly or incrementally. However, the overarching issues are similar for the wide range of converters. There are the newbies with or without deep pockets who may have entered the industry with locally manufactured or high-end imported label presses, to the biggies who are scaling up with good access to investors. And in the middle are the established players with three or four label presses who feel the price competition, skill shortages, demand volatility, the raw material prices and delays more intensely.