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Guide to buying a printer for your small business

October 8, 2011

Printers for your office or home office are so plentiful and cheap that you may feel there is no need to research your options. However, there are so many different types of printer around and the hidden costs can be huge, it’s important to understand the implications before you buy.

Printers are sold using what is known as the “razor and blades” business model. This was pioneered by King Camp Gillette, whose name is still used to sell razors today. At the very beginning of the 20th century he figured that he could sell lots of high profit margin disposable safety blades if he sold the handle for a lot less than it cost to manufacture.

He correctly reasoned that once people had the handle, they would stay loyal to the blade. This is known as a loss leader. By giving something expensive away for free or at a very low cost, you generate a continual market for something else.

King C was right, with sales of blades starting at 168 units in 1903 and rising to 70 million units a year within just 12 years.

Printers follow exactly the same business model. You buy the printer for less than it costs to manufacture, and then pay a relatively high price for ink cartridges or toner. Over the lifetime of a printer this generates more profit for the manufacturer than just selling you a printer alone. And it’s why you need to think wisely about your purchase.

What will you use the printer for?

Do you just need to print a Word document or email now and again, or will you be printing off hundreds of sheets a day? This is important to work out in advance. Even modern printers are delicate piece of machinery, and a small laser printer designed for the domestic market may not cope with five hours of non-stop printing every day. Make sure the printer you choose is up to the job. Generally the more printing you do, the more robust a printer you should choose. Also, check if your chosen printer can take envelopes or larger sizes of paper if needed.

Device versus cartridge

Research the cost of a new cartridge before buying and find out how many sheets it will print on average. You can normally easily work out the estimated cost per page. It can make a lot of sense to spend more on the printer up front to reduce the cost of cartridges over time. Remember that some printer cartridges can also be refilled which will make them cheaper… but may invalidate the manufacturer’s warranty.

Black & white or colour?

Full colour printing is cheap and easy. But it can still be expensive. The cost of colour laser printer cartridges is literally shocking! Most businesses get by just fine with a black and white printer. If you really think you will need colour now and again, make sure it has a separate black ink cartridge. That way when the black runs out – which it always does before the other colours – you’re not having to waste the other colours. If you only do a little colour printing but do it regularly, it might be more cost effective to get two printers; one for black and white and one for colour.

What technology?

Laser printing is so cheap now that all businesses should look at it first. Inkjet may well be cheaper and perfectly suitable for a home, but the extra edge you get from laser printing cannot be overestimated. A document printed on inkjet has a certain amateur look to it. You can also get dedicated photo printer which will produce stunning looking photo prints.

All in one machines

There are a lot of multifunction machines on the market that allow you to print, fax and photocopy with one machine. A great idea in principle and potentially a handy device for a small office. Just ask yourself how often you really need to photocopy or fax. There are always pay offs when you stuff more gadgets into one machine. If you really just need a printer, get a dedicated printer.

Other things to consider

It’s worth knowing the speed a document will print, especially if you print a lot. Most modern printers are fast enough that you don’t need to worry about it. Printer manufacturers will tell you that resolution is important – i.e. the quality of the print – but again, most modern printers are so good you don’t have to worry about it. The final thing to consider is connectivity. The majority of printers (if not all) are now USB and just work with computers. Many printers no longer come with a USB cable so you may need to buy one.