Why Are Brand Name Ink Cartridges Expensive?

by Pete on November 10, 2009

Ever have that surreal moment in a computer store? You know, when you look at the price on that ink cartridge and you feel like you’re in a weird dream where ice cream cones grow on trees,printer-brands all cars run backwards and printer ink is worth more per kilo than gold? Except it’s not a dream. Printer ink really is worth more per kilo than gold, or at least it seems that way—two or three cartridges are definitely worth more than your entire printer, which you bought full price.  Why on earth, you might be wondering, is printer ink so expensive?

Is it because the ink is made of some expensive space-aged technology? No. If you ask original manufacturers why they charge so much for ink, they’ll often start talking about piezoelectric technologies and acrylic monomers and hard solvents, and about how technologically intensive it all is, and about how much it costs to engineer inks that mesh perfectly with the company’s signature line of papers—so you should always buy original manufactured paper (regardless of cost) because it goes so well with the original manufactured ink.

But printer ink, eighth wonder of the world though it may be, doesn’t have to be expensive. Third-party ink cartridge companies produce their own ink as well—which they either insert into cartridges designed to replicate original manufactured designs, or into actual original cartridges that are used. And their prices are lower by as much as half. So it can’t be that the ink is expensive and difficult to produce.

Is it because the cartridges are expensive to produce? It’s not likely that this is the case, either. Many ink cartridges are complicated—containing microchips, for example—purely to make them more difficult to recreate, preventing more users from using third-party ink cartridges. But even so, these cartridges can be produced by third-party manufacturers—and sold for much less. In fact, third-party cartridges and the originals are often made in the same factories, from the exact same components. So printer ink cartridges aren’t extremely expensive just because the cartridges are amazing works of engineering that cost a lot to produce.

Is it because original cartridges just make better printouts? It isn’t likely. In many tests by consumer advocacy groups and technology groups, third-party recycled and remanufactured cartridges hold their own quite well against the originals. The colours are bright, the ink dries quickly, and often the quality is much closer than the price. So it’s not likely that when you buy original cartridges, you’re getting better printout quality for your money.

Is it because people will pay the price? This is getting closer. There are other options—remanufactured and recycled third-party cartridges are available, but some people still trust the original manufacturers’ products more. Perhaps this is because third party cartridge manufacturers were less reliable in previous decades; now, the quality of third-party cartridges has improved significantly. Today, those who buy third party cartridges often don’t go back to buying originals, especially when they find the difference in quality, if there is one, doesn’t justify the difference in price. It may be, however, that the original manufacturers do have a captive audience in some buyers, who think the originals are the only legitimate option.

Is it because that’s how printer manufacturers make their money? Very likely. Printer companies sell their printers for dirt cheap—hoping you’ll look at the price tag on the printer and not the one on the ink cartridges. It’s effective to sell printers more cheaply and ink cartridges at higher prices, because a printer is a one-time purchase—it’ll last you a couple of years, at least—and ink cartridges need to be replaced more often. The printer manufacturers would rather see you spending money over and over on cartridges than it would have you spend it once on a printer.

So if you think printer ink is expensive because there’s a worldwide ink conspiracy to rip off consumers…you may not be far off the mark. Don’t be a victim—buy compatible cartridges for a fraction of the price, and save money on your ink and toner. Original manufacturers’ cartridges may hurt your wallet—but you do have other options.

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