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SnakebyteXX
02-16-2006, 07:46 AM
(Re)fill-er-up
Cutting cost of ink for printers turning into big business

By Clint Swett -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Thursday, February 16, 2006

At CompUSA recently, you could buy a single Lexmark ink cartridge for $32.99 - only $5 less than the price of an entire new printer.

That example starkly illustrates that while the price of most computer hardware has plunged over the years, the cost of ink supplies has barely budged.

That's been a boon to firms like Hewlett-Packard Co., whose printing and imaging business accounted for 51 percent of HP's operating profits in the most recent quarter. But it's been a financial pain for most consumers and has spawned an alternative industry: cartridge refills.

Franchise retailers like Cartridge World and Caboodle Cartridge are growing quickly, both here and nationally, where consumers can bring in their old cartridges for refilling. And corporate giants such as Walgreen Co. and OfficeMax are getting into the game, too. In most cases, they're offering refilled or so-called "remanufactured" cartridges for about 40 percent to 50 percent less than new ones.

"People don't want to pay $35 to $40 for a new cartridge anymore, and they are willing to try an alternative," said Charlie Brewer, managing editor of Hard Copy Supplies Journal, which tracks the print supplies industry.

That's the case with Jennifer Stanley of Sacramento, who purchased several remanufactured cartridges from Caboodle Cartridge on Folsom Boulevard this week.

"Price is definitely a factor," she said. "I could order my cartridges directly from Dell, but that would be much more expensive."

One thing that hasn't changed is demand for ink cartridges. Despite the predictions of a paperless society, home and office printers are working harder than ever.

The popularity of digital cameras means more people are printing ink-hungry color photos, and Web users can't seem to resist printing out maps, receipts from online purchases, e-mail attachments and even recipes, said Tuan Tran, Hewlett-Packard's vice president for printing and imaging supplies.

Indeed, according to Lyra Research, based in Newton, Mass., worldwide ink cartridge sales are growing at a compound rate of 6 percent a year, and will hit $37.6 billion by 2009.

Refill technology is nothing new, but early versions had some flaws. People who wanted to refill their own cartridges bought kits consisting of ink packages and a syringe for injecting a depleted cartridge. It was often a messy and sometimes an reliable task.

Refilled cartridges purchased online were sometimes of questionable quality and difficult to return for a replacement or refund.

"People were very leery of the quality," Brewer said. "There have been stories about the cartridges leaking or the nozzles getting plugged up."

But improvements in technology and demand for cheaper products turned refills into a $909 million business in 2005, one that's expected to reach $1.78 billion by 2009, according to Lyra.

There's still debate over whether refilled and remanufactured cartridges are as reliable as new ones. An HP-sponsored study in 2003 by Southern California-based QualityLogic Inc. found that 54 percent of refilled color inkjet cartridges had problems, compared with 1 percent of new HP cartridges.

Walgreen's debut in the market could give the industry a major boost by raising customer awareness of the refill industry. The Chicago-area company is installing refill machines in the photo departments of 1,500 of its 5,100 drug stores in March, said company spokeswoman Tiffany Bruce. It's not known whether any Sacramento-area stores will be included in that group.

Bruce said it will take employees at Walgreen stores about two minutes to refill a customer's cartridge with ink - at a price about 50 percent less than a new cartridge.

"We've heard substantial customer sentiment that there is a lot of frustration that a new pair of cartridges costs about the same as a new printer," she said.

That frustration also has prompted strong growth in franchise stores that sell refilled or remanufactured cartridges.

Cartridge World, based in Emeryville, has grown from 10 stores in 2003 to more than 350 nationwide today, including four in the Sacramento area, said John Dring, the company's chief operating officer. Another 200 stores are under construction.

One of the refill cartridge industry's biggest challenges, Dring said, is overcoming its reputation of poor quality.

To that end, employees at Cartridge World test every cartridge they refill at least four times and offer a money-back guarantee for faulty products, said Philip Irizarry, who recently opened a franchise in the Natomas area.

It takes Irizarry's employees about 10 minutes to fill an inkjet cartridge at a cost of about $22, significantly less than a new cartridge.

"You can take a brand new cartridge and print with it, and then bring it here for a refill and you can't tell the difference," he said.

Rather than refill cartridges on site, Caboodle Cartridge on Folsom Boulevard sends all its cartridges to company headquarters in Santa Clara. Caboodle customers exchange their old cartridges for a $3 credit toward a refurbished one. Franchisee John Costa said his company's remanufacturing process, which involves replacing filters and sponges inside the tiny cartridge, results in performance on a par with new units from major companies.

Tran of HP disagreed. He said so much research and technology goes into HP cartridges that refills can't possibly be as reliable.

"It takes a lot of technology to deliver ink on paper in a consistent way," he said.

Even if refillers are using the correct amount and quality of ink, he said, HP's cartridge print heads, which combine sophisticated electronic circuitry and tiny spray nozzles, have a limited life span.

"Those print heads are only designed to last a certain number of pages," he said. "If you refill the cartridges, it will cause a certain degradation in quality."

"That's not the case at all," countered Don Wolf, who co-owns the Caboodle franchise on Folsom Boulevard, one of three in the Sacramento area. "We test them and the cartridges can be used many times over."

Aside from the quality debate, there's an environmental benefit to refilling cartridges, something that refillers are quick to point out.

Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, says reusing cartridges is the best of both worlds: promoting both the environment and company bottom lines. Refillers are keeping cartridges out of landfills and eliminating the cost of recycling and manufacturing the plastic products. "It's a marriage made in heaven," he said.


web page (http://www.sacbee.com/content/business/tech/story/14195115p-15021752c.html)

Deeman3
02-16-2006, 07:51 AM
I re-fill my own. They do degrade in quality after about 4 or 5 re-fills but you can't beat the price. It can be a little messy the first ime you do this but it's worth the price and learning curve. I go through several HP 56 and 57's a month.


Deeman

eg8r
02-16-2006, 11:16 AM
I never did get caught up in the refills. I had tried using refills a few times, and either it screwed something up, or they ran out incredibly fast. I also wonder about the ink, do they use the same ink for all cartridges? The reason I ask is that Epson has "durablend" and HP might have something else. If the inks are proprietary then it might not be such a good idea to put any ink in the printer.

I just fork out the money for the name brand stuff.

eg8r