Published in Imaging Spectrum issue December 2008
Throughout the 1990s, photography went through a major evolution. What started as film is now a memory chip, and the complex development process involving a darkroom and chemicals is now a desktop printer and cartridge. What took hours now takes seconds. The OEMs saw this as an opportunity to make a killing, and the aftermarket questioned whether it could take a share of those profits.
Although there is a considerable install base of photo centric or photo specialty printers, the number of consumers using them is not as high, explained Steve Hoffenberg, director of consumer imaging research at Lyra Research, Newtonville, Mass. This makes at-home printing services less appealing for many large remanufacturers. However, for the small- to medium-sized remanufacturer/refiller, servicing these photo printing cartridges may be a niche market that can help keep your customers coming back through your doors.
Photo printing did not take off as much expected due to the other options available to consumers, such as dye-sublimation printers, found at stores like Wal-Mart and Walgreens, and online photo services, such as snapfish.com. Many consumers use these services to print their photos; in fact, on snapfish.com’s Web site, it claims, “Over 60 million people already use it.”
“The infrastructure for online and retail photo printing has significantly improved … to the point where the percentage of photo prints at home is declining,” Hoffenberg said. “When people only have a couple photos to print they will probably do it from home, but when they want to print 20 or 30 or 50, they are more than likely going to use an online or retail service.”
Although these services offer many incentives, and many consumers are using them, there are drawbacks to them, as well.
The plus side to dye-sublimation (dye-sub) printers is that they use dye-based inks, which are durable and have a better color gamut, explained Charles Brewer, managing editor of Hard Copy Supplies Journal. The printers are convenient, quick and cheap. And this entices people to use them, especially when printing larger quantities of photographs. “I know for a fact that dye-sublimation is doing very well,” Brad Roderick, executive vice president of InkCycle in Lenexa, Kan., said. “It’s cheaper and takes less time.”
In addition to the convenience, “There is certainly a group of consumers that prefer the ‘hands off’ approach of printing their photographs,” said Eric Pray, product manager, ink jet, of Nukote International in Rochester, New York. “They are used to the traditional film model of dropping it off at a store and picking up later. It is routine for them, [while] other consumers do not feel comfortable trying to produce high-quality prints on their home printers.”
But on the downside to dye-sub printers, they cannot provide the quality or the durability that ink jet printers can, and prints can be affected by ozone, causing photos to fade after 20 years. “At one time, dye-sublimation was far superior [to ink jet],” Brewer said, “but now, in terms of permanence and print quality, it’s not as good – ink jet is much better.”
The plus side to services like snapfish.com is that they offer consumers many incentives. Cheap prints, online storage and space for customers and their friends and family to log on and view/order photos are all at the top of the list of offerings online photo services provide. They also offer delivery services and the ability to customize photos into photo albums, mugs and other gifts.
However, on the down side, there is no customer service when consumers use these online services. There is no human experience. One reason local SMBs exist and do well is because of the customer service that is provided. In many of the local remanufacturing and/or refilling businesses, the staff knows the names (and often the cartridges) of their customers, and people like that. It becomes a personal experience, and that keeps customers coming back for more.
Maggie Papp, owner of a Rapid Refill in Pittsburg, Kan., carries photo printer cartridges in her store. She services nearly 400 Epson Stylus and HP Photosmart cartridges a month. “If you have a good product and provide excellent customer service, people are extremely loyal, and they’ll be loyal forever.”
Remanufacturing photo printer cartridges does not work for everyone. Large remanufacturers have to buy empties and top-notch quality ink, as well as invest in the technology to make remanufactured cartridges provide the kind of quality and permanency that consumers expect. “The investment in technology and R&D to keep up with all the photo printing technologies that the OEMs have might not be worth it to an ink jet aftermarket manufacturer,” Chris Solberg, president, OneSource Imaging, Eau Claire, Wis., said.
InkCycle’s Roderick said, “From a dealer standpoint, I have almost no demand. They don’t turn fast enough to warrant the space [they take up on the shelf].”
Rafael Tomik, vice president of business development at Planet Green in Chatsworth, Calif., shared a similar view. Planet Green currently remanufactures photo printer cartridges for HP, Lexmark and Dell. “But for every 10 regular cartridges we sell, we sell one photo cartridge,” Tomik said. “The demand is diminishing for old HP and Lexmark models, so we’re fazing them out. We can’t have thousands of cartridges sitting on our shelves.”
Although larger aftermarket remanufacturers may have a hard time making a profit on photo printer cartridges, this does not mean that the small- to medium-sized remanufacturer/ refiller cannot turn a profit. There are advantages that SMBs have and ways to make more profit in this segment of the industry, and these cartridges may be a way to diversify your business, offer your customers more and keep them coming back.
Small, local remanufacturers and refillers don’t need to buy empties. Customers will bring theirs in to get them remanufactured and/or refilled. Although the search for and purchase of empties is not an issue, finding the best photo printer inks for customers is crucial. “There can be no margin of error here,” Tomik said. “Photo-printing consumers are much more sensitive and have a very low threshold.” This is not the area in which to be cheap. Photo-printing customers are counting on your product to print their memories. Investing in quality ink will help retain and gain more business. “The bottom line is this: When it comes to photo printing, the end-user is much more sensitive to print quality. The ink has to be the best possible and as close to the original as you can get it,” Tomik continued.
SMBs should also look into carrying supplies that customers may like to purchase with their photo printer cartridges. Items like photo albums, scrap book paper, stickers and markers are a few ideas. Offering a free gift when the customer has their cartridge filled after a certain number of times is another way to keep people coming back. Research the offerings on snapfish.com. There may be ideas/products that can be incorporated into your services.
Finally, educating the consumer is key. Many people believe that dye-sublimation printers provide better print quality and permanency; in reality, that is not true. So, if you can provide a quality ink, it may be better for your customer to print their memories from their home ink jet photo printer. “Customers are looking for value as much as quality, and they’re getting [both] from the aftermarket,” Pray said.
As the Generation Y (individuals born from 1980 to 1999) demography grows older, Pray said, “Family printing will migrate to the home … Many of these 20-something consumers are very computer savvy, [and they] feel very comfortable, and in fact, prefer the control over printing their photos at home.” With software like Photoshop and Apple’s photo manipulation programs, people are having fun with photos at home and want to print them. “As they enter their 30s, I expect to see them and their families printing more at home rather than using a service to produce their photos,” Pray continued.
Remanufacturing and/or refilling photo printing cartridges may not be profitable for everyone. But for some, it might fit perfectly into your product offerings. With the economic recession, diversifying your products may be the key to success. The more you offer, the more choices your customers have, and the more business they will give you. Photo printing may never be the majority of your business, but, “the business isn’t going away,” Tomik said. “In fact, I think it’s increasing.”