Promotion needed to build refill category

The inkjet cartridge refill business is still relatively unknown and that’s why some high-profile retailers and suppliers are trying to get consumers in the habit of refilling cartridges instead of buying new ones.

Walgreens, which has the largest footprint in the refill business, promoted its service last month with a day of free refills on Sept. 12. The chain staged the promotion at 3,000 stores where the service is available and allowed customers to bring in one empty black or color cartridge to the photo counter for a free refill.

“It was an overwhelming success, to say the least,” said Walgreens spokeswoman Tiffani Bruce. “And for the most part, people who came in for the free service were refilling their cartridges for the first time, so it really helped us raise awareness.”

That fact alone made what was a costly promotion a success for Walgreens, which still is trying to promote a service that isn’t easy to merchandise. The chain first teamed with supplier TonerHead to roll out the refill stations to photo departments in the summer of 2006 and expanded them to more than 3,000 stores this year.

Walgreens typically charges $10 for a black cartridge refill and $15 for a color refill, about half the price of a replacement cartridge. The cartridges usually can be picked up within an hour. “For small business owners, students or anyone who prints a lot of documents or Web pages, the savings can add up fast,” said John Sugrue, Walgreens general merchandise manager for photofinishing.

To date, Walgreens is the only major drug retailer to roll out an inkjet cartridge refill service on a large scale, but that could be changing. Supplier Inktec Zone is in talks with several retailers about bringing its Ink-O-Matic Inkjet cartridge refilling stations to stores.

“We’re currently conducting tests with four retailers and three of them are in the drug channel,” said Inktec Zone president Bill McKenney. He said he couldn’t name the retailers during the test period, but said they represent both regional and national chains.

Inktec Zone’s stations refill cartridges through the print head with a tiny needle and require less than one hour of training for employees. McKenney said drug stores are a retail channel of choice for the company, since most operate photo centers that are destinations for people who use printers to print their own photos.

“We’ve been in discussions with retailers for a while, but now they’re coming to recognize that the refill market is real,” McKenney said, adding that refills also are a good environmental option for retailers, since up to 1 million empty cartridges end up in landfills each day. A typical cartridge can be refilled up to 20 times.