ACCORDING to a US venture analyst, the average price of the personal/desktop printer has dropped 60% since 1996. And certainly, while I may still be paying off the first black-and-white laser printer I bought nearly 21 years ago, my most recent acquisition (a colour laser printer-scanner-copier acquired about two years ago) set me back only about R2,500. The same machine is now available for R2,370. That’s not to say, however, that we’re paying less to print these days.

Last week, having shaken the last whiff of powder from each, I was obliged to buy new colour toner cartridges. (By the way — and how sneaky is this — even when printing only black documents, if one of the colour cartridges is empty, the device won’t print at all.)

The yellow and magenta cartridges set me back R510.10 each, and the cyan cost R531.60. (The sales assistant couldn’t tell me what makes blue more expensive.) The black cartridge, which requires replacing most regularly, retails at R799. In other words, I fork out R2,350.80 every time I need a new set of cartridges. If I spent an additional R20, I could buy a new machine and sell the previous machine on at a profit.

So, the question remains: why is printer toner and ink so pricey? Indeed, unit for unit, it is, say several sources, more expensive than vintage Champagne and Russian caviar.

The reason is that, just as the razor business is not about the razor but about the blades, the printing business is not about the printer: it’s about the cartridges. Ink and toner are expensive so printers can be sold cheaply and in great number, ensuring as many consumers as possible keep buying costly cartridges. The razor/blade business model (also known as freebie marketing and the "bait and hook model") is widely used by marketers of other technology: you get inexpensive or free handsets when you sign a cellphone contract while low-priced PVRs encourage us to pay more than R650 a month to watch TV. SodaStream’s business is based on the same model.

Actually, I don’t mind when the technique is applied openly and unapologetically. But what bothers me about the printer/cartridge business is that it’s not transparent, which makes it seem like a rip-off.

Companies that manufacture printers and cartridges insist the high cost of ink and toner is due to "research and development", the "expensive nature of manufacturing the cartridges", and the quest to provide "reliability and image quality". Also, they go to great lengths to discourage purchasing generic cartridges and/or refilling cartridges, claiming the practice is damaging.

Do you buy it? After a little research, I don’t.

I calculated (after my latest purchase) that I would have saved R836 if I’d ordered four generic replacement cartridges online, which is what I’ll do next time. Or perhaps, having watched a YouTube clip of how it’s done, I’ll risk refilling the cartridges myself. After all, if I do damage the printer, I’ll simply buy another — and still save.