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Internet shopping could kill off original manufacturer printer supplies

News items appear in the media at least once a year (at Christmas), informing us of the scale of growth of internet shopping.  Time was when locating Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) supplies for your printer was easy and users wanting to hold fast to their principle to buy OEM consumables had a choice of many suppliers. Now? Not so easy! In fact, a user may have to work really hard to find OEM supplies at all, let alone have a decent choice of where to buy them.

Basically, OEM supplies are being drowned out by the ease by which compatible and refill suppliers can peddle their wares on the internet.

Taking just a brief and narrow snapshot of the market for printer consumables displays some shocking facts. Looking at the three major internet search sources, Google Shopping, Amazon and eBay (all in the UK for simplicity), there proves to be a startling lack of OEM supplies available from an even more startlingly narrow range of suppliers.

The following search results concern only one inkjet cartridge family – as an example – but searches on other cartridge families (both inkjet and laser) demonstrate similar characteristics (and maybe worse!). The searches were based on the premise that printer users will want to shop around for the best price they can achieve on the product they need. Therefore, most of the data was collected having sorted the search results by price from Low to High (where additional searches were performed based on relevance, this is noted).

Google Shopping:

  • 35 compatible products (including 4 dual-packs) appeared before the first single cartridge (C, M or Y individually) OEM product appeared
  • 12 more compatible products appeared (all of which were multi-packs) before the second single cartridge OEM product showed
  • There were only 9 OEM products included in the first 100 products listed, representing only 2 UK suppliers
  • Not until listing no. 105 (out of a total of 127 listings) was one listing found for a product (OEM obviously) that was actually available from multiple UK suppliers (and then only from 10 shops)
  • None of the OEM products listed were from the printer manufacturer’s shop

Narrowing the search to just the black cartridge:

  • 14 products showed (including 1 twin-pack and 1 multi-pack) before the first OEM product showed
  • Only 3 OEM items were present in the pitifully small return of 27 listings

Narrowing further to the high capacity black cartridge:

  • Only 3 products were returned – none of which were OEM

Amazon:

  • 26 compatible products (including 6 multi-packs) appeared before the first manufacturer’s original single cartridge was listed
  • 3 OEM cartridges (C, M & Y) were listed at that point, all from the manufacturer’s own shop
  • 14 more compatible products were listed before the manufacturer’s black cartridge appeared, again from the manufacturer’s shop
  • These 4 single cartridges were the only 4 OEM products to show in the first 100 products listed (out of 241), all of them from the manufacturer’s own shop

Changing the filter to ‘Relevance’:

  • 1st product listed was an OEM multi-pack priced at £82
  • 2nd product was a single OEM colour cartridge priced at £16
  • 3rd product was a compatible multi-pack priced at £30
  • Only 9 of the first 100 products listed were OEM and all were from the manufacturer’s own shop
  • 2 additional OEM products were listed – but from a shop in Germany (a barrier to UK buyers because of delivery times)

While 7 of the first 20 products listed were OEM, the prices given above demonstrate that the pricing shown to the buyer at first sight heavily favours the compatible cartridges – thus encouraging them to sort/filter to find a cheap product.

ebay:

eBay is far and away the best source for finding OEM cartridges quickly and easily, largely because there is one UK store in particular that has developed a high visibility for itself by having multiple listings for the same product (listing it for each compatible printer separately). Focusing on the black cartridge in the family, and searching specifically on ‘original’ product, this store has nine listings and there are then five further stores each displaying just one listing for that product.

Looking at the family as a whole, and not specifying ‘original’, despite there being three stores with a fairly high visibility selling OEM product:

  • 38 compatibles were listed (single colour cartridge) before the first OEM (single colour cartridge) product showed
  • Then, however, there are 43 single colour OEM products listed before the first compatible black showed
  • 47 OEM products showed in the first 100 listings
  • Total listings numbered 435, with 176 (40%) being OEM products
  • 5 of the OEM product listings were shipping from Spain and 3 from Germany = 168 (38.6%) UK originals
  • Listings of compatible cartridges included multi-packs of up to 24 cartridges in one purchase (and packs of up to 30 cartridges can be found)

Ten years ago, searches like these would produce listings of 100 or more suppliers selling OEM product that buyers could choose from Now, the tables are reversed and buyers are bombarded with so many compatibles from so many suppliers that it becomes an impossible maze for the discerning user to navigate.

  • Brand new compatible cartridges, as delivered

    Which compatibles represent good value for money (quantity of ink vs price)? There is no guarantee that compatible cartridges will contain the same quantity, or consistent quantity, of ink or toner.

  • Which cartridges are built to a suitable quality (e.g. no leak potential)? Testing by CharisCo Printer Labs has shown that some third party cartridge designs are significantly susceptible to leaks or not being accepted by the supposedly compatible printer.
  • Which inks and toners are of a decent quality (e.g. will not clog ink nozzles; will the toner adhere to the paper; will produce a top quality, durable print with no streaking)? Testing by CharisCo Printer Labs has shown that incorrect or substandard inks can severely damage a printer – in one instance consigning a printer to the scrap heap after only 153 pages!
  • Which inks and toners are the correct chemistry for the printer in question? Dye inks fed into inkjet printers designed for pigment inks or ground toner fed into laser printers designed for polymer toner can cause serious problems and categorically will NOT give users the quality and durability of result they are looking for.

So, a buyer now has to be pretty determined to locate and buy OEM product without being seduced by the lower prices and bigger multi-packs of the compatibles. There are, of course, stores where OEM supplies can be guaranteed to be found. These are the retail stores, usually on retail parks. But, prices tend to be higher than buying through online stores. The one big advantage these retails stores have is that cartridges can be accessed almost instantly, as opposed to needing to wait a day or more for an online delivery.

And, also of course, there are the major printer dealers and Value Added Resellers that sell to businesses rather than individuals. However, for the resellers majoring on Managed Print Services (MPS), the temptation is also increasingly strong to supply compatibles to customers in order to maximise their profits.

What could be the long-term effect of ‘compatibles overload’?

If printer manufacturers cannot recover a significant portion of their research and development costs on the supplies, because so much business is being drawn away by the compatibles and refills, then they will have to raise hardware costs to ensure that R&D investment is adequately covered for future developments.

Do we want the cost of hardware to rise to realistic levels? A 4ppm mono laser printer in 1986 cost in excess of £2,500 (equivalent to about £7,200 in 2018). This compares to being able to buy a typical 20ppm mono laser printer for less than £50 in 2018 (equivalent to about £17 in 1986!) or a 21ppm colour laser printer for around £90 (equivalent to about £31 in 1986!). I’m not suggesting that the price of printers in 2018 would, or should, start at £7,000 but we might realistically expect prices to be at least double, or maybe even treble, their current levels if the supplies did not subsidise the cost of hardware.

And, let’s face it, placing the majority of the cost of printing to the user onto the supplies rather than the hardware, simply places that cost into the ‘per page’ arena – the more you print, the more you pay, like highway tolls – instead of primarily being a function of the hardware capital cost. This is not an unreasonable way to pay for print and is, after all, the model utilised in MPS contracts.

For the printer manufacturer, a new print ‘system’ (the entire ecosystem surrounding a printer – design, mechanical hardware, print head/laser engine, electronics, firmware, software, cartridge, inks or toners and papers) costs well in excess of half a billion dollars to develop.  This is because each and every component is carefully designed, and thoroughly tested, to work in complete unison with every other component to ‘guarantee’ the best possible print quality and experience for users.

Do we, as printer users, really want our printer technology to stagnate because the manufacturers cannot afford to develop new technologies?  By comparison, this could never happen for products like mobile phones because there are no consumables involved in phones and we, as consumers, are totally nuts about keeping up with the new technology.

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