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More on printer ink

September 2011

It’s the small things in life that annoy us; big stuff, like the EEC, or the cost of the BBC we can take in our stride; but a helpline that is little help or a newsreader with an irritating delivery will raise our blood pressure.

I am always pleased to hear from you ( and a piece I wrote about the outrageous cost of ink for our printers has generated more correspondence than any other I can recall in the years I have been addressing you from this pulpit; what’s more, I share your views and am just as cross.

To recap: when you buy an ink cartridge for your printer, be it an inkjet (as most domestic ones are) or a laser printer, you are seldom, if ever, told how much ink you are actually buying.  Sometimes they give you an estimate of the number of copies it might print, but it is meaningless; clearly that depends on the sort of thing you are printing.

The only information that would be any use would be a cubic capacity of the stuff you are buying, and you will seek that in vain.

On top of this, the printer manufacturers all like to pretend that that the only ink that it is safe to use in their machines is the stuff with their name on it, which is, guess what, the most expensive on the market.  It’s clearly absurd, but we tend to believe them.  That’s odd, because we would all roar with laughter if Ford told us that the only petrol it was safe to use in their cars was their own brand, but such is the power of marketing.

It was my clear duty to bring the full weight of my columnar investigative resources into play, and look into the matter.  I did, and the plot thickened.

I discovered that there are three main classes of printer cartridge; the ones with the printer manufacturer’s brand on them, which will be the most expensive, perhaps £15 or more for a yellow one.  Then there will be the compatible ones which are made, or refurbished and refilled, in the UK (perhaps £6 each).  Finally there are the cheapest imitations made goodness knows where, which might be £2.99 each.

The market is huge (we all have at least one printer) and there are thousands of independent suppliers.  However, they are all living in the shadow of the handful of printer manufacturers, who are gigantic by comparison.  I spoke to a good few ink-mongers and it became clear very quickly that whilst trying to earn an honest living they are all walking on eggshells.  They are nibbling at the edges of a highly profitable business run by a very few, and they are all very concerned that those big players may, sooner or later, take steps to stamp on them and protect their vested interests.

Oldies will recall something similar when the late Freddie Laker took on the airlines in the 1960s, and was put out of business for his pains.  The big boys ganged up on him; they undercut him till he ran out of cash and then reverted to their old prices.

There are similarities: the few printer makers keep ink the prices artificially high; newcomers come along and offer the same thing cheaper, are welcomed by grateful customers but cut into the profits of the big boys at their peril.

 As it happens, I don’t think we need to worry too much. There are thousands of independent ink suppliers, not just one, Laker-like rebel, and there is strength in numbers.

The boot is on the other foot, actually.  The compatible cartridge industry is now big enough to have some clout of its own, so I call on them to unite and start telling us how much ink they are selling us, and shame the big companies into following suit.

In the meantime, my advice is to buy from a respectable source and ask them for the mid-priced stuff which was produced in the UK.  For what it’s worth I use a company in Suffolk called; you can buy from them online, or call them up and speak to a real person, which is a pleasant novelty these days.