Sunday, March 23, 2014

The great ink rip-off

It has been written about many times by many people but printer-ink is the biggest rip-off of modern times. It has been described as more expensive than vintage champagne.

The printer used here is an HP 7000 Wide Format printer - the one before they made the 7000i wireless printer. It works just fine so there's no reason at all to upgrade. Purchasing this printer was actually a bit of an error. At the time the attraction was that it was wide format and the idea was to print 11x14 prints to go into a portfolio or to hang on the wall of a local cafe for sale. That never happened so in fact an all-in-one printer would have worked better for me.

One of the major obstacles to home printing is the cost of ink. It's worthless printing photos at home because of that cost. Sure, it's fast and the quality control is better than that at say Walmart (where it's non existent). Generally though and I worked this out using the costs for an Epson printer, printing at home was just not economical. It was handy if one needed a print quickly but in general it was better to get them made elsewhere. It seemed to be at least twice or three times the price to do it oneself. Where the kicker is - if it's just a single print then doing it at home is cheaper. If it's several then it's way cheaper to get it done elsewhere.

The major problem with printers is wastage. Put a sheet of paper in and it might go crooked or misfeed or the ink might not lay on it correctly. The last Epson printer ever used here was terrible - it would put the expensive pigmented ink onto the paper and the ink never soaked into the paper which meant that it would just brush off when it was dry. It didn't matter which paper was used. The result was the same. At $100 for a full set of ink cartridges, it wasn't more than a couple of sets before that printer was on ebay and good riddance. This location is now 100% Epson-free and will remain so until the end of time. That wasn't the only sour experience of Epson printers either. Ink falling off the paper was just the last straw for Epson.

Ebay seems to have good value inks. Bearing in mind an ink cartridge is a chunk of plastic (which is cheap enough) with some water and pigment inside, soaked into a sponge and you'll see why inks are so grossly overpriced. Full bottles of ink can be purchased for next to nothing - enough to fill a whole lot of cartridges. The plastic cartridges are churned out by various manufacturers.

The problem with the off-brand cartridges is that quality control is in the hands of the buyer. If the cartridge is bad, the buyer has to return it. With the name brands, quality control has to be done by the manufacturer or they cannot justify the ludicrous cost. Look at these two ink cartridges:
Both cartridges fit the HP 7000 printer. They're both 920XL cartridges. The grey cartridge is made by HP and the other is made by some other manufacturer. The difference in cost? Well, the HP cartridge was $35 in Staples and the other brand was $5.50 for two cartridges on eBay. That's quite an appreciable difference!

As stated before, buying the non name brand is a lot cheaper but quality control is in the hands of the buyer. In order to prevent people from using cartridges made by independent manufacturers and sold at honest prices, the printer manufacturers put chips in their cartridges making them into disposable electronic devices. Then they make the cartridges expire after a certain date or certain amount of uses and make them non-refillable. A fellow from one of the research outfits actually got 38% more printing out of each cartridge by disabling the chips. One of the problems with off-brand cartridges is that very often they don't read as having the same amount of ink as the named brand despite having the same weight of ink. In order to break the anti-competitive monopoly, Europe banned printer manufacturers from blocking other manufacturers from making compatible inks for their printers.

The black ink cartridge is $16 from HP direct. Staples wants $35. For $29 it's possible to buy a brand new printer cheap printer with ink cartridges included. Indeed in Britain at one stage, Lexmark printers were so cheap that people bought new printers rather than buying the ink to go in them.

People go on about the costs of import but honestly, they're nothing. I used to work in an import broking office. Let's take candles as an example. Candles are subject to 108% import duty. They're made so cheaply in China that they're imported by the container load and still undercut domestic candles. Importing is dead cheap too. A 40 foot shipping container carried from Shanghai in China to the port of New York by ship would take about 3 weeks to get there by sea. It would cost $4,000 for shipping it plus the customs duties on the contents. Think how many ink cartridges would fit in a 40 foot shipping container. That's 40 feet long, 8 feet high and 8 feet wide. That's 2,560 cubic feet. Even allowing for plastic-wrapped shipping pallets inside with cardboard boxes full of printer cartridges, that still means that a heck of a lot of ink cartridges will fit inside. My HP920XL cartridge measures 3 inches by 1.5 x 1.5. That's 6.75 cubic inches. 2560 cubic feet is 4423680 cubic inches. That would be enough space for 655,360 printer cartridges or enough printer cartridges to make importing from China very attractive. According to US customs, printer inks are zero rated for duty. 

Printer cartridges are so cheap to make and sell that the Chinese are shipping them airmail for very little money. As an example, I just looked and a full set of 5 cartridges for one HP printer is $16.84 shipped via airmail from Hong Kong. There's a minimum order of 6 sets but that still works out as dirt cheap. Compare that to the $35 for one single cartridge via Staples.

The public is being ripped off by all the ink resellers. Even HP charges $16 for the same ink cartridge that I can buy from China for less than a dollar. Wake up, people! Even airfreighting a meter square box of cartridges from Shanghai would be cheap enough to start up an ink shop in your town. Even charging $10 a cartridge for ink, you can undercut the big box retailers so massively that it's not even funny. 

HP etc is most likely getting their ink from China too. At about $1 a cartridge they're making something in the order of 1600% profit per cartridge. Printer ink is the great rip-off of the 21st century. Have a look here to see what I mean.

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