Is the market for personal printers dying?

Online storage and presentation may make the desktop printer a thing of the past.

Printing out a document or a photo on a personal printer consumes expensive ink, and only the person you give it to can see it. Posting the same material online costs nothing, and countless people can see it.

The result? Fewer people are purchasing and using personal printers -- and printer vendors are feeling the heat.

From 2010 to 2011, North American sales of consumer-level multifunction inkjets dropped 12%, according to Larry Jamieson, analyst at the Photizo Group, a market research firm in Newton, Mass. Total sales fell from 13.1 million to 11.56 million units. Additionally, the number of pages printed in the home has declined 15% since 2009, he adds. "The reason we printed photos in the old days was that it was the only way to see them," says Jamieson. "Now, viewing them on our phones is fine in most cases."

N.A. sales of printers
North American sales of consumer-level multifunction inkjets and single-function printers are expected to continue dropping over the next few years, according to the Photizo Group.

Meanwhile, the latest annual report from leading printer vendor Hewlett-Packard shows that its net revenue from consumer printers fell 4% in fiscal 2011. "In recent quarters, HP has been challenged by several external factors, one of which is weak consumer demand," acknowledges Tuan Tran, general manager of HP's consumer inkjet business.

"At the consumer level, it's a market under siege," adds Keith Kmetz, analyst at market research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass. "I used to print driving directions. Now I use a GPS. Now kids don't have to submit papers in school, they can submit electronic documents. I only need a printer [at home] when I bring work home."

There is also a generation gap, with young adults seeing little reason to print even while their elders continue churning out hard copies, notes Dan Ness, head of MetaFacts, a market research firm in Encinitas, Calif. Those in the 18-to-24 age range have the lowest incidence of high-volume home printing, dramatically less than those at age 54 and above, he says.

"Those with more experience tend to print more," Ness says. "We attribute it to habit rather than any need for hard-copy backup, but eyesight may also have something to do with it, since they may have a hard time looking at pictures on handheld devices."

Consumers want wireless

Those consumers who are still buying personal printers gravitate toward desktop color printers in the price range of $79 to $149, HP's Tran says. These same buyers also want wireless connectivity so that multiple devices can share the unit, scanning and copying facilities, larger ink cartridges, and access to online apps and cloud printing.

Veneeta Eason, Kodak's director of future product marketing, makes similar observations, pointing to four trends driving the home printer market. "First is wireless printing, so that entire households can connect to a printer. Mobile printing is important, since there is a lot of desire to print from smartphones. Then there is cloud printing for access to email and presentations, and then social networks." With an estimated 250 million photos being uploaded daily to Facebook, there should still be significant photo printing going on, she adds.

Others see no market salvation in social media. "As far as Facebook and other social media is concerned, I don't think it drives print," counters Kmetz at IDC.

"Social media like Facebook is not conducive to print," agrees Jamieson at the Photizo Group.

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