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 user 2005-06-21 at 10:43:00 am Views: 76
  • #11616

    Entrepreneurs Offer Cheaper Printer Ink

    Thanks to a fierce price war, consumers can score good deals on feature-laden new printers these days. But when it comes to replacing the ink cartridge, they often face sticker shock.

    Computer users world-wide spend $22 billion a year on ink cartridges. The price of ink per milliliter from the big printer shops such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Lexmark International Inc. has been steadily rising, at about 1% a year, according to research from Lyra Research. At the same time, the big companies are getting stingier with the amount of ink they are putting into each cartridge. For example, when H-P eliminated one cartridge that had 42 milliliters of ink and cost $29.99, it replaced it with another that costs $19.99 but has only 19 milliliters of ink.

    During the past few years, however, entrepreneurs and mom-and-pop manufacturers have started offering ink cartridges compatible with the brand-name printers that cost 20% to 50% less than new cartridges from H-P, Lexmark and others. The new options include everything from do-it-yourself kits so consumers can refill empty cartridges themselves to used cartridges from the big names that have been refurbished to work as though they are new.

    Also, new retailers such as Cartridge World and Island Ink-Jet have unveiled stores where consumers can get their empty cartridges refilled on the spot. Since it was launched in the U.S. in late 2003, Cartridge World now has 200 locations nationwide. In the past three years, Island Ink-Jet has opened 75 stores.

    The flurry of entrepreneurial activity is an effort to snare some of the multibillion-dollar ink-cartridge market. Each year, about 1.2 billion ink cartridges are sold world-wide, according to Lyra. Ink supplies have been a lucrative business for the large manufacturers, spurring a reliable stream of recurring revenue and fat profits. In 2001, all of H-P’s $624 million in profit came from sales of ink and toner supplies. Since then that share of profit has slid, but ink and toner-supply sales still account for more than two-thirds of profit.

    But analysts expect the cheaper cartridges to quickly gobble up a substantial piece of the market. The market share of refilled and re-engineered ink cartridges is projected to hit 27.7% by 2009, up from 19.7% this year, according to Lyra.

    We recently tested some of the new ink-cartridge replacement options on several measures. Aside from cost, we wanted to see how the no-name replacements compared quality-wise with branded cartridges. We used everything from a do-it-yourself refill kit to a re-engineered ink cartridge off the Internet, and we also headed into a Cartridge World store and an Island Ink-Jet stall to get our empty ink vessels refilled.

    It certainly wasn’t hard to find cheap ink. A search of “remanufactured ink cartridge” on Google yields 1.1 million hits, and big office-supply retailers such as Staples now stock self-refill kits in their stores. In addition, Cartridge World and Island Ink-Jet are both opening refill locations at a rapid clip. Cartridge World says it is opening 25 stores a month, while Island Ink-Jet says it is launching as many as seven outlets a month.

    But cheaper cartridges are far from perfect. The price is often considerably lower, but consumer watchdogs frequently decry the quality of alternative ink, complaining that they can result in streaky printouts. “Shop around for the best cartridge prices but be wary of off-brands; we have found brand-name cartridges to have better print quality overall,” Consumer Reports recently cautioned.

    The most painless experience was ordering and using a re-engineered cartridge from the Internet. We ordered a cartridge compatible with the H-P 57 color cartridge from Number One Inkjet Inc. for $24.95, with free shipping. Two days later, the product arrived at our office. While the photograph we printed with the cartridge was a tad fuzzier than one printed with an H-P cartridge, the differences were barely perceptible.

    Getting our cartridges refilled at a Cartridge World and Island Ink-Jet was easy. (Though driving to the locations was a hassle.) At both places, customer representatives behind the counter were courteous and knowledgeable, explaining how many times a cartridge can be refilled and telling us how to care for the product. In both cases, we got an empty H-P 56 black-ink cartridge was refilled in less than 15 minutes. (Island Ink-Jet took only 10 minutes.) On H-P’s Web site, an H-P 56 costs $19.99, but a refill at Cartridge World and Island Ink-Jet cost just $11 each. Back at our printer, the refilled cartridges produced non-streaky printouts. We did, however, notice that our photos lacked the sharpness of ones printed using the original H-P cartridge.

    The most frustrating experience was with the do-it-yourself refill kit. We bought a product made by Jet-Tec Inc. from a local Staples store for $14.99. We used it to refill an empty H-P 57 color-ink cartridge. Since a new H-P 57 cartridge usually costs $34.99, it seemed like we got a great deal. The kit included three ink colors — yellow, blue and magenta — and a giant syringe that we used to inject into our empty cartridge. But we managed to squirt ink onto the office wall in the process and later realized we had inserted the syringe into the wrong openings on the cartridge. On our second try, we got it right. But after we printed out a digital photo, the image was marred by colored lines that cut across the page. Jet-Tec didn’t immediately return a call for comment.