INK: WORLD’S MOST EXPENSIVE LIQUID
INK: WORLD’S MOST EXPENSIVE LIQUID
2005-04-21 at 10:08:00 am #9032
Replenishing pricey printer cartridges may save cash
but industry questions the quality.
Think gas prices are outrageous?
Imagine having to fill your car’s fuel tank with the ink found in your
ink-jet printer. At $30 for a cartridge filled with a few tablespoons of black
ink, collecting 15 gallons would cost about $40,000.
Ink has become one of
the world’s most expensive liquids, giving birth to a cottage industry that
promises to take the sting out of slaking your printer’s thirst.
At two chains that recently opened their first locations in Metro Detroit,
customers can get $30 printer cartridges refilled for about $15.
“It saves a fortune,” said Wendell Martens, vice president of the Sleep &
Wellness Center Direct at the Great Lakes Crossing mall in Auburn Hills.
The store prints a lot of brochures and mailers, and Martens now takes
several empty cartridges a week down the hall to Island Ink-Jet.
“We’ve stopped buying new cartridges all together,” Martens said.
Business at the Island Ink-Jet kiosk doubled in each of its first two months,
said owners Chuck and Kim Hobson. They expect sales to keep growing as word
spreads and more people remember to bring their empty cartridges with them to
Few consumers even realize this type of business exists because it’s so new.
“People still don’t know that we’re here,” said Dhara Patel, who opened
Cartridge World in Canton Township in January. “Once people come here they think
this is a good idea and they come back. It saves them money and it’s
The fact that stores such as Cartridge World reduce the number of cartridges
being tossed into landfills is what inspired Denise Skopczynski to take in the
empty color cartridge from her Hewlett-Packard Deskjet printer. She paid $17.49
to have it refilled — 45 percent less than a new cartridge would have cost.
“I probably would have done it if it was the same price, just for
environmental reasons,” said Skopczynski, 35, of Canton Township. “But the price
is a bonus, obviously.”
Americans throw out an average of eight cartridges every second, according to
Australia-based Cartridge World and British Columbia-based Island Ink-Jet.
Only about 30 percent of cartridges are reused.
About a gallon of oil is used to make a new toner cartridge for a laser
printer, so reusing cartridges also cuts down on oil consumption.
But ink and toner refillers are bad news for the bottom line at
Hewlett-Packard and other printer manufacturers, which make most of their money
off the $43 billion in cartridges sold every year.
A color ink-jet printer can costs less than $50. Owners can spend that much
on ink on the first 500-sheet ream of printer paper.
H-P’s profit margin on ink is about 70 percent to 80 percent, said Jim
Forrest, a senior analyst for Massachusetts-based Lyra Research.
John Solomon, H-P’s vice president for imaging and printing supplies, said
cartridge prices are reasonable, considering that the company spends $1 billion
a year on research and development to make inks look better and last longer.
Plus, cartridge sales compensate for printers being sold at or below cost.
“It’s well-known that we lose money on the sale of the hardware,” Solomon
said. “We have to bank on some degree of usage and try to price our cartridges
for that return.”
Solomon argued that customers get higher quality ink, and therefore a better
value, with new H-P cartridges. He cites a review in Consumer Reports magazine
that ranked branded cartridges better than ones that had been remanufactured or
Not surprisingly, Cartridge World and Island Ink-Jet franchisees, who stock
hundreds of specially made inks, disagree. Both businesses test the cartridges
and guarantee their work, promising to replace any printer that’s damaged by a
Forrest, who edits a trade journal on consumable printing supplies,
acknowledged that most branded cartridges are probably better.
“On the other hand you have to ask, how good do you need it?” said Forrest,
noting that most printouts are soon thrown away. Only when printing digital
photos that need to last for decades would a premium cartridge potentially make
a noticeable difference.
Besides, Forrest said, refill businesses won’t last if customers find their
work to be subpar.
“When somebody buys one of these aftermarket cartridges and it leaks all over
their printer,” he said, “they’re never going to buy another one.”
Patel, the 32-year-old owner of Cartridge World in Canton, recently made a
loyal customer out of Ypsilanti resident Lee Twombly, who had a toner cartridge
for his Samsung printer refilled. It didn’t work, so he took it back and Patel
bought a $150 printer to test it out.
“We have to make sure it was not any mistake on our part,” Patel said.
“I think the problem was me,” said Twombly, 62.
Most cartridges can be refilled six or seven times before the print heads
wear out. Some brands are good for dozens of refills.
To have a cartridge refilled, remove it from the printer when it starts to
run out of ink — empty cartridges can be ruined if they dry out completely —
then put it in a plastic bag.
Many cartridges can be refilled while a customer waits, although some take a
day or more. Cartridge World and Caboodle Cartridge, a similar chain, allow
customers who drop off an empty cartridge to buy an identical, already refilled
one at a discount, similar to the way many gas stations exchange propane tanks.
Chuck Hobson, the 35-year-old owner of Island Ink-Jet in Auburn Hills, said
the process is far easier and results are much better than with ink refill kits
that office supply stores have sold to penny-pinchers for years.
“Those things don’t work,” Hobson said. “They’re messy and people don’t know
how to use them.”
For now, Metro Detroiters have only a few refill stores to choose from.
Cartridge World is open in Canton and Brighton and opening soon in Troy and
Island Ink-Jet has two Michigan locations, at Great Lakes Crossing and Ann
Arbor’s Briarwood Mall, but 70 are planned statewide. Hobson is aiming to open
outlets at Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi this summer and at Lakeside Mall in Sterling
Heights later this year.