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SMBs Shopping For Ink Cartridges Must Read The Specs

A dry inkjet cartridge triggers an adventure in comparison shopping, leading to various discoveries involving ink prices.

A dry inkjet cartridge triggers an adventure in comparison shopping, leading to various discoveries involving ink prices.The adventure began when the aging HP Officejet 7210 MFP in my office began producing irregular colors and loudly demanding a replacement for its HP97 three-color ink cartridge. Being a cash-starved SMB, I weighed my options:

HP's online store, OfficeDepot, and OfficeMax charged $39.99 for an HP97 rated at 560 pages, or 7 cents per page.

OfficeDepot also offered remanufactured (by which they must mean refilled) ink cartridges-but not of the HP97. They did have the HP95, which is smaller three-color cartridge rated at 330 pages. The list price for an HP95 is $28.99, or 9 cents per page. The OfficeDepot remanufactured version was $23.09, which looks better until you see that it's rated at 260 pages, which brings us back to 9 cents per page.

OfficeMax also offers house-branded remanufactured ink cartridges. They had a HP97 version, but it cost the same as the brand name version, or $39.99. Meanwhile, the specs showed it was rated at only 450 pages, or 9 cents per page, making it a worse deal than the HP version. What's the point? (The in-house version of the smaller HP95 listed for $22.99, and was rated at 260 pages, or 9 cents per page, so there was no savings there either.)

So I turned to a local (Texas) chain called InkSell, offering refilled cartridges. They had an HP97 for 20.95, but its rating was only 450 pages. Still, that was a comparatively attractive 5 cents per page. (A refilled HP95 was $19.95 and rated at 260 pages, or 8 cents per page.)

InkSell also offered individual refill bottles at $3.75 per color, bringing the price down to 3 cents per page (assuming 450 pages) if you had the kit needed to refill the cartridge. InkSell was out of such kits.

But that brought to mind the fact that OfficeMax has an in-store refill service. Checking, I found that they do HP97s for $24. That was more than InkSell, but InkSell is primarily in the mail order business with limited retail hours.

So I showed up at the local OfficeMax and gave the clerk the old HP97. She stepped over to a Phoenix Ink kiosk where a video walked her through the steps. These included changing the cartridge's serial number to fool the printer into thinking it's a new cartridge, and sucking out the old ink while she marveled at how much was left. The kiosk seemed designed for basketball players, but she managed to reach everything and the HP97 was handed back to me, newly boxed, after about 5 minutes.

In a previous life I had tried refilled cartridges, with experiences ranging from complete satisfaction to watching the ink pour out onto the floor. (I can also remember the old ribbon re-inking kits, of which the less said, the better.) The experience this time was completely smooth. The printer accepted it without question, and the printouts were perfect.

The moral of this exercise seems to be that while better deals are available, they do not get us off the high-markup ink treadmill. That would take dramatic action.

For instance, InkSell also offered 1,000 ml bulk refill ink bottles for $59.95 each. Assuming 14 ml per refill, that's 71 refills per color per bottle, for a total cost of about 25 cents per three-color refill. Assuming 450 pages per refilled cartridge, that brings us down to a twentieth of a cent per page.

Actually, the word is that you can't expect to refill a cartridge more than about ten times before its ink jets wear out, and good luck doing it by hand. But it does hint at what kind of markup is involved.

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