Cheap Ink and Toner: Finding the Best Deal

Shopping online for cheap ink or toner--how hard could it be?

Cheap Ink and Toner: Finding the Best Deal
I’m not talking about buying third-party options--namely, the 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 major retailers, and I'm done. However, when I delved a little deeper recently, I found that the best price wasn't always the best deal.

CDW, Staples Trend Higher in Price

All of this started when I noticed that Staples usually had the highest ink and toner prices of the retailers I checked. 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, was that two online sellers tended to charge more than anyone else: Staples 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 had the second-highest prices (by a small margin) for the color cartridges:

Ink Cartridge Prices for the Canon Pixma MG5320

CARTRIDGEBest BuyBlueDogInkCanonCDWOffice DepotOfficeMaxStaples
PGI-225BK 15.99 12.99 15.99 18.99 15.99 15.99 14.49
CLI-226BK 13.99 11.99 13.99 16.99 13.99 12.99 14.49
CLI-226C 13.99 11.99 13.99 16.99 13.99 12.99 14.49
CLI-226M 13.99 11.99 13.99 16.99 13.99 12.99 14.49
CLI-226Y 13.99 11.99 13.99 16.99 13.99 12.99 14.49

Highest prices in bold.

After surveying six different printers in total, I saw that Staples 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 repeat customers. For instance, as part of Staples’ Rewards program, 10 percent of what you spend on ink and toner (among other things) comes back to you in the form of store credit. In addition, customers who bring their empty cartridges back to a Staples store receive a $2 store credit. Staples offers free shipping on all ink and toner purchases over $45, and shipping is free for any order of HP ink or toner. These incentives don't change the fact that Staples' ink and toner prices tend to be higher; they just present a trade-off that you might consider worthwhile.

CDW Adjusts Prices Quickly

CDW looked at my spreadsheet and lowered the prices of some of the items I had researched, stating, "If we find pricing that is out of line with the market, we correct it as quickly as possible." Interestingly, in the case of one product line I researched, 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 for individual users looked 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 pack--and that was the lowest-cost option available.

Bluedogink.com Seems Spotty

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.

When phone calls and a query through the website led nowhere, however, I started checking further. I found that Bluedogink.com was not accredited by the Better Business Bureau, and that the BBB had fielded 25 complaints about Bluedogink.com over the past three years. Although most 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. 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 premium for a pack of 12 Bic Clic Stic medium-point black pens: $9.18, versus $7.29 from both OfficeMax and Staples. OfficeMax charged $13.99 for a single ream of Hammermill LaserPrint paper, compared to $10.29 at Office Depot and $10.79 at Staples. E-mail queries to Office Depot and OfficeMax went unanswered.

When the Best Price Isn't the Best Deal

My online shopping experience reinforces for me that finding a low price is pretty easy, but finding an honest deal can be hard. It's not just about checking multiple sellers, and digging into the shipping charges and return policies. It's also about feeling comfortable with the vendor's integrity and accountability. Proceeding with caution continues to be the rule of the game.

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