Does Kodak cut it? Low cost ink strategy one year later

One year ago Kodak entered the multifunction ink jet printer market with a radical new concept: Sell the printer for a bit more and the ink for a lot less. So did the strategy work? Yes and no.

Kodak's approach with the EasyShare 5000 series (and the successor ESP series which launched this month) turned the generally accepted marketing wisdom on its head. While most vendors sell ink jet MFPs at a low margin and make up the difference selling high-margin ink and paper products, Kodak went the other way, hoping to tap into frustration among frequent printers over the high cost of ink cartridges.

Robert L. Mitchell on

The cost of printer ink

  • HP explains why printer ink is so expensive
  • Kodak EasyShare: Cheap ink, solid printer?
  • Does Kodak cut it? Low cost ink strategy one year later
  • Ink wars spread: Another printer vendor to offer low-cost color ink
  • Kodak printer sellout: Are consumers voting for lower ink prices?
  • The great printer ink rip-off
  • Its marketing efforts seem to have struck a nerve with some consumers who were fed up with the ink jet consumables prices, particularly those who print photos. “People don’t want to spend $50 for cartridges [but] $15 [for a Kodak color cartridge] is not that big of a hit,” says IDC analyst Ron Glaz.

    Interest in the low-cost consumables strategy appears to remain high among people who do online research before choosing a printer. Nearly a year after I first posted this blog on Kodak's strategy, it remains consistently one of my most read postings week after week - as does this in-depth comparative review of H-P and Kodak MFPs last July. In cost per print, the Kodak unit came out on top.

    As to its success, Kodak says it shipped 520,000 EasyShare 5000 series units worldwide last year - a drop in the bucket when you consider that the total market shipped 61 million ink jet MFPs in that timeframe, says Glaz.

    But Kodak isn’t trying to appeal to all consumers, just a specific subset. "Our goal is to sell to the ‘big burners’ who print a lot," says Magnus Felke, Kodak’s ink jet product manager. Although some buyers experienced hardware and setup issues early on, he says those problems have been resolved and users are happy when they go to buy lower cost replacement cartridges. “Our customer satisfaction surveys are phenomenal. People love the fact that we’re not ripping them off on the cost of ink,” he says, repeating Kodak's populist marketing mantra.

    (Then again, Kodak could use a mass market success, as revenues from its traditional film-based business continue to decline faster than revenues from new businesses are coming online. How ironic that the Goliath of photography now finds itself the David of the MFP ink jet photo printing business.)

    Several other factors have conspired to limit Kodak's uptake in the ink jet MFP market. These include:

    Fierce competition. Kodak's ink jet MFP strategy also ran into a strong headwind last year. In the U.S. the MFP ink jet market grew by 22% but prices dropped 13% according to NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker. “Unfortunately, their entry sparked renewed aggressive pricing from H-P,” as well as new competitors in the segment from Epson, Canon and a wireless printer from Lexmark. “That likely crimped their revenue,” Baker says, noting that Lexmark now sells an ink jet printer for $39. At that price, he says, we’re getting to the point where it’s almost cheaper (although not greener) to buy a new printer when you’re out of ink. (Although the industry practice of including a partially filled "starter" ink cartridge with new printers would preclude that.)

    People still buy printers based on price and features, and don't think about consumables cost. "Nobody really puts the ink cost on the table when you're buying a printer," Glaz says, adding that sales people at retailers like Circuit City and Best Buy aren’t pushing the concept and that most buyers are still focused on the cost of the printer and features such as speed. "Kodak does a marvelous job selling the concept that their ink is cheap, but nobody else talks about that," Glaz says.  To date, not one competitor has countered with its own low-cost ink strategy. The approach seems to be to ignore it and hope that Kodak goes away.

    Most buyers don't educate themselves prior to purchase. While car buyers may do extensive research online before stepping into a dealer showroom, IDC’s survey results show that most consumers do very little up front research before walking into a store and making a purchase. “There are people who do research online. The majority…say they’ve done very little,” says Glaz.

    Consumers don't always get to choose their printer.
    Because so many home computers come in bundles, consumers often end up taking what they get, says Glaz. Typically, that’s not a Kodak product.

    Consumers aren’t using as much ink. "We're finding that people are printing less," says Glaz. Users have easier and more mobile access to the Web and so are less inclined to print everything out. And they are printing fewer photos at home, choosing instead to just take a CD-ROM down to their local Wal Mart, says Glaz.

    It appears, then, that Kodak will have the greatest success with knowledgeable consumers who do a lot of printing and are looking for good quality printing and the lowest cost per print – and who are willing to pay $30 or so more for a printer up front. If that doesn't sound like a recipe for mass market printing success that’s OK with Felke. “People who don’t print a lot should stay with the alternatives because you get a better deal on the hardware if you only use one cartridge a year," he says. (On the other hand, it doesn’t take a lot of photo prints to use up a color cartridge. Glaz estimates that the difference can be made up in cost savings after using 2-4 cartridges, depending on the models you’re comparing. See the review link above for a comparison of Kodak and H-P models)

    Even if Kodak doesn't end up with a huge installed base, it could improve profitability at the expense of competitors by cherry picking away the most profitable group of MFP ink jet buyers: Those who do the most printing. It’s the old 80/20 rule. Consumables bring in the profits and 20% of users do most of the printing.

    "If these people print 40% more [than the average user], the revenue Kodak gets from sales will be pretty good for them," says Glaz. At the same time, the industry leaders, such as H-P and Canon depend on those hefty margins on consumables to make up for razor-thin profits on the hardware. If they end up with a larger installed base but most of those users are using only one cartridge a year, they will be less profitable.

    From that perspective, Kodak doesn’t need to gain mass market appeal to win. Instead, its strategy could upend the system by dominating in just one important user segment.

    That's the dream. But it will take more than a 1% market share to get there, and the competition has never been tougher.

    Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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