Retail Shopping Provides Great Disservice for Printers

by Larry Jamieson

Online shopping has grown by astronomical proportions over the past decade, and it sometimes seems a little mind boggling what we can now purchase with a click of the computer keyboard. It is the old mail-order paradigm on steroids as we can find what we need today and have it on our doorstep tomorrow if we are willing to pay for overnight shipping.

It works pretty well for most products, especially ones that are repeat purchases or whose operation we know and understand. Where it breaks down a bit is on products that we need to see in operation or have certain aesthetic values. We really do want to “kick the tires” on a new car, try on clothes for fit and look, and we do like to see how printers operate and check that the print quality meets our needs. It is particularly important for small businesses considering whether to buy a desktop laser or business inkjet. Is the quality on the business inkjet truly good enough for their applications?

The most obvious way to do this is to find a local retail outlet that has the products of interest. That is no problem in a large metropolitan area, but I live in a backwater of Florida where office superstores are pretty scarce, with the closest about 13 miles away and in the opposite direction from the next closest competitor. Sure, there is a Walmart within four miles, but I make it a point not to darken its door and Walmart doesn’t carry the printers of interest anyway. 

Eventually, this requires an expedition to OfficeMax/Office Depot and Staples to try to gain additional product information and some print samples for a more informed purchase decision. Perhaps we can throw in Best Buy, though that is more consumer-oriented, but may have the needed information and print samples. 

This project, however, is easier said than done. In every store, there was a wide array of products, but little useful information. Sure, there are speeds, feeds, and some other bits of information about Wi-Fi and paper capacity, but nothing about ink cartridge capacities or cost-per-page. Worse, several of the products were flashing error messages or just shut off because of they were out of ink or had a paper jam. Though employees outnumbered shoppers, everyone seemed to be scurrying in different directions, desperately avoiding eye contact with customers. Only in Best Buy did an employee engage in a greeting, though he was helping another customer at the time. I might add he was among the oldest of the store sales staff.  Perhaps he was a throwback to an earlier, pre-millennial era.

So it appeared getting print samples would be a do-it-yourself proposition. The printers of interest did not have any instructions as to how to create a print, so instead of prints, I made copies of a convenient “Printer Protection” upsell brochure. Retail does have its priorities! Nobody can be bothered to help run through the basic printer operation, but they are more than ready to add on to the sale. 

Regardless, I began the do-it-yourself operation, but what I discovered was hardly encouraging. The output quality of the copies from several devices was abysmal, with low-quality graphic images and severe banding problems. Only one device produced high-quality inkjet — an HP OfficeJet Pro X476 in Staples had a thumb drive for making print samples, and the samples provided a method to output an email or document from your phone. The instructions were not too clear, but persistence paid off. I might add that at no time while I was pushing buttons and opening printers did any sales staff venture near, lest I asked them a question.

Rather than giving out failing grades to the devices that provided the terrible print samples, however, let’s make it an incomplete. I’ve seen much better print quality from all of these devices tested and I am willing to take another shot. However, most business printer buyers may not be as forgiving. Even if they do go back for a second chance, how likely are they to buy? Perhaps one of the store personnel will venture into the aisle and actually help the customer get a representative print sample, but will that really make the customer want to commit to this device? Printer vendors have just lost their chance to make a good first impression and buyers who were on the fence about inkjet and laser have just been shoved into the laser camp. 

The retail “customer experience” has been declining consistently over time. Assistance on the retail floor is virtually non-existent, and when a customer does finally get someone to pay attention, the help is extremely suspect. Does the person who sheepishly came over really know anything about the product or are they just reading the bullet points off the shelf?  

Let’s say, however, that while the customer may have had a difficult time in the aisles, he really needs a printer so he chooses one and brings it to the front to check out. Now the retail outlet will shine in the “customer experience” category as the “guests” (no, I am not booking a room for the night) are herded into checkout lines to be electronically summoned to the next available cashier. Not only will the customer be subject to upselling of useless services such as extended warranties, the cheery checkout person will ask “Did you find everything OK?” (Will they miraculously locate the item that I needed if I answer “No”?) and “Please take this survey?” 

Retail is one of the most obvious examples of issues with lower staffing rates, but it is rampant across virtually all industries. Businesses have been cutting staff for years in an effort to boost quarterly profits, and relying more on “big data” and “analytics” to run their businesses. There are certainly gigantic mounds of data available now as all processes move to digital workflow from old paper based systems. While there is a lot more data, who is left in the business to actually analyze and make sense of the information? What does it really mean? 

Pundits may claim that we have moved from an industrial-based economy to service-based economy, but where is the service? It seems more of a self-service economy because no one is there to give you an answer that isn’t on the basic script. There is very little help in making a truly informed purchase decision, but retailers demand from their “guests” e-mail addresses, phone numbers, surveys, assurance that their analytics put the right products on the shelf, and additional revenue streams from useless extended warranties. It is no wonder that brick and mortar stores are virtually devoid of customers.  If there were a way to get print samples to potential customers in a timely manner, all printers would be bought online.

The printer market is already facing a difficult situation in declining printer sales and page volumes, which is being exacerbated by an incredibly bad “customer experience” in retail. This may just push small businesses and consumers to find alternatives to printing altogether, unless there are improvements in getting critical information to the customer on a timely basis. 

Contact Larry Jamieson

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Imaging Channel