Cheap Ink and Toner: Solving the Puzzle Behind the Price

There's the cartridge price, there's the tax and shipping, and then there's voodoo.

Shopping online for cheap ink or toner--how hard could it be? I’m not talking about buying third-party options--the do-it-yourself refill kits and remanufactured ink cartridges that PCWorld’s Serial Refiller has tried. I shop for the vendor’s own ink or toner cartridges, because I'm trying to get representative selling prices for the consumables of a specific printer I'm reviewing. I go online, I check a handful of national retailers, and I'm done--or so I thought. When I delved a little deeper, I found it takes more than obsessive due diligence and healthy skepticism to get the best deal--not to be confused with the best price.

This all started when I noticed that Staples.com usually had the highest ink and toner prices of the retailers I checked routinely. Intrigued, I picked several other new printers from a variety of manufacturers and consulted the same assortment of sellers. What I saw, regardless of printer brand, is that two online sellers tended to charge more than anyone else: Staples.com and CDW.

The online pricing research I did on the Canon Pixma MG5320 illustrates the trend. As you can see in the table below, at the time of my research, CDW had the highest prices of all the sources I checked, and Staples.com had the second-highest prices (by a small margin) for the color cartridges:

Highest prices are in bold.

After surveying six different printers in total, I saw that Staples.com had the highest prices for two of them, and the second-highest prices for three others. CDW charged the highest prices for three of the printers surveyed--but was reasonable in all other cases.

When I showed my research to Staples, a company representative responded by saying that Staples focuses on the incentives it offers to habitual buyers of ink and toner. For instance, as part of Staples’ Rewards program, 10 percent of what you spend on ink and toner comes back to you in the form of store credit. Customers who bring their empty cartridges back to a Staples store receive a $2 store credit. Staples.com offers free shipping on all ink and toner purchases over $45, and shipping is free for all orders of HP ink or toner. These incentives don't change the fact that Staples' ink and toner prices tend to be higher; they just provide a tradeoff that you might consider worthwhile.

CDW responded to my questions by lowering the prices of some of the items I had researched. That was nice, but in the case of one product line, the company stopped too soon: Related items, such as multi-packs of the cartridges I researched, retained the same, higher pricing as before, offering no savings over the newly discounted individual cartridges. (As of this writing, CDW had been informed of this finding and was looking into it.) I also noticed that CDW’s shipping costs could be high. An order I placed for a $54.99 ink cartridge multi-pack carried a shipping charge of $13.15--almost 25 percent of the cost of the cartridge pack--and that was the lowest-cost option available.

Finally, I tried to find out more about the cheapest seller I had encountered, an online retailer called Bluedogink.com. Whatever I shopped for, this site’s price was a few dollars lower than anyone else’s. Even the shipping prices looked reasonable: $6.95 for any purchase up to $100, then a percentage of the cost beyond that. The site boasted of government and education customers, making it seem like an established retailer.

When phone calls and a query through the website led nowhere, however, I started checking around. I found that Bluedogink.com was not accredited by the Better Business Bureau, and that the BBB had fielded an average of eight complaints per year about Bluedogink.com for the last three years. While most complaints were resolved satisfactorily, the BBB’s letter grade for the company was just a C. My random search for user complaints in other places yielded stories about unexpected shipping charges, slow or missing refunds, and spotty responsiveness. Bluedogink.com’s bargains suddenly seemed less tempting.

Of course, no retailer is an angel; all of them are trying to get your money somehow, not just through ink and toner. For a little more perspective, I shopped online at all three national office-supply chains (Office Depot, OfficeMax, Staples) for some common office products: ballpoint pens, paper, scissors, and so forth. Staples charged the highest price for a 22ml bottle of Liquid Paper: $1.99, compared to $1.89 at Office Depot and $1.69 at OfficeMax. Office Depot charged a ridiculous premium for a pack of 12 Bic Clic Stic medium-point black pens: $9.18, versus $7.29 from both OfficeMax and Staples. Unfortunately, OfficeMax looked the worst, charging $13.99 for a single ream of Hammermill LaserPrint paper, compared to $10.29 at Office Depot and $10.79 at Staples.

After all this shopping around, I’ve concluded that finding the lowest price is easy, but finding the most honest deal is a lot harder. It's not just about checking multiple sellers, and digging into the shipping charges and return policies to make sure you don’t get caught out. If you want some sense of security, going with a national retailer like Staples probably provides the best chance for redress in case a problem crops up. Unfortunately, finding a place that offers both low prices and reliable service seems elusive.

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Melissa Riofrio

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