Will Printer and Printer Supply Sales Ever Recover?

By Jessica Davis  |  Print this article Print

The recession has slammed sales of printers and printing supplies as hard as it's slammed most other technology sales. But vendors such as HP, Lexmark and Xerox are grappling with the question of whether the move toward green technology and doing more with less will fundamentally change how companies consume printers and printing supplies. And how will reseller solution providers evolve to fit the new model?

Are printers and printing supplies going the way of other outmoded technologies like external modems and tape backups—destined to pile up in some forgotten IT closet?

That’s the scenario that has some in the industry closely watching earnings announcements from companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Lexmark and Xerox.

The question is, are the huge sales drop-offs in printing and supplies by these companies caused by the recession, or is there a bigger trend at work?  Is the move toward green computing and doing more with less driving some companies to re-evaluate their printing practices?

Angela O’Donnell, owner of New York City-based solution provider W. O’Donnell Consulting, says that company gate keepers from CFOs to office managers are casting a more watchful eye on the printing supplies purchased and used.  

"As a function of the recession, a big piece of the business that wasn’t looked at too hard was printing expenses," says O’Donnell. "Now businesses are looking at every single expense."

For example, she notes, some of her customers are changing the way that drivers are installed at their site so that certain groups within the company can only print in monotone and not in color anymore. That’s translated into a big drop-off in color toner sales for her company.

And O’Donnell says that office managers are no longer stocking up on supplies. They are working with more of a just-in-time stocking process.

"I do think this will become a permanent change," says O’Donnell. "It will change what people think about the things they really need and how they need to work."

HP’s CEO Mark Hurd disagrees, saying that the changes to the printing business right now are "cyclical rather than secular." Answering analysts' questions during HP’s earnings conference call this week, Hurd told them that digital printing content is growing.

"So the cyclical stuff that we’re seeing right now … is based on GDP and unemployment," Hurd says. "… Is there some big secular change in printing? Secular changes occur over years and decades and over very long periods."

However, Hurd points out, HP is also hedging its bets. He says that home photo printing makes up less than 10 percent of the company’s supplies revenue, but that business is shifting to the Web and to retail locations.

"[That’s] one of the reasons you see HP investing in Snapfish," Hurd says. "It’s one of the reasons why you see HP investing in retail photo kiosks," which use HP supplies.

But some think the drop-off in printing hardware and supply sales is more a function of the recession than anything else, and will pick up when the economy is humming once again.

"There have been a ton of layoffs and therefore less folks printing," says Becky Connolly, director of computer and imaging supplies and accessories at Technology Integration Group, a Torrance, Calif.-based solution provider. "I have found a surplus of printers at my clients’ sites due to closing of facilities."

But Connolly believes that’s temporary. While companies are looking to operate more efficiently and looking toward green practices, sales will come back when employment does.

"I see a lot of companies evaluating in this space, and I feel more devices will be sold, once they go through what they have and what can still be used energy efficiently," she says. "When people are employed, they print."

And even if the change is a permanent one, as O’Donnell believes, vendors are gearing up to address changes to the market.

"Clearly, more and more organization are moving toward paperless technologies, which by extension equates to less printing and therefore less load on printers and need for supplies," says M.J. Shoer, chief operating officer at Portsmouth, N.H.-based Jenaly Technologies. "However, this is not to say the printer business is dying. Far from it, but it is evolving."

Shoer points to Xerox’s solid ink technology as a strong value proposition for companies concerned with the amount of waste they are generating.

"To me, this makes sense as the print market has been evolving," he says.

Jessica Davis covers the channel for eWeek and Channel Insider. Her technology journalism career began well before anyone heard of the World Wide Web and has included stints at Infoworld, Electronic News/EDN, and the Philadelphia Business Journal. Her work has also appeared on CNN and Forbes.com. She has covered hardware, software and networking, as well as the business side of technology. She has won several journalism awards, including a national ASBPE award for best staff-written column, and was named Marketing Computers hardest working tech journalist on their inaugural list of top tech journalists. Jessica can be reached at jessica.davis@ziffdavisenterprise.com