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Tools, Grant Writing, and Small Businesses: How to Buy a Digital (Networked) Copy-Printer-Fax-Scan Machine

October 25th, 2009 · by Jake Seliger · 7 Comments

Buying a copy machine is harder than I thought.

It became a necessary task when Seliger + Associates decamped from Seattle to Tucson and decided to replace most of its aging office equipment. I got tagged with the assignment. This is the first of several posts on my experience.

You’ll end up spending a lot of time researching equipment, especially if you have the specific requirements we do: Mac OS X support, hydra-headed capabilities (print/copy/scan/fax), fast speed, low supply cost, and great tech support/service. This post is designed to share some of what I learned in hopes that your process won’t be as arduous as mine.

I would love for this post to be shorter, but, alas, it’s just not very easy to explain the “how” and “why” with sufficient depth and detail in a small space. But for people who really face the networked copy machine problem, as I did, the guide should be incredibly useful. It’s broken up into sections to facilitate using whatever pieces you find most relevant.

1. Why go Through This Process?

The cost of copy machines that met our criteria was in the neighborhood of $3,000 to $10,000, depending on whether we went color or black and white. That made it very much worth our time to shop with care for reasons that, if they’re not obvious, mean that you probably won’t care about the rest of this post.

In addition, copy machines have a million little features that make comparison shopping difficult. Envelope feeders, for example, can make an enormous difference in the utility of a machine. If you have to get up and manually insert an envelope once a day, or even once a week, you might have your work flow disrupted for 15 minutes, leaving aside the couple of minutes it will take you to walk to the machine and back. If your time is worth virtually anything at all, the more efficient, right machine is worth finding and buying.

2. How Big Networked Copiers Are Sold

If you buy, say, a computer, you go to Apple’s online store, or Dell’s, or whoever’s, pick your model and accessories, give them your credit card number, and wait for your iMac to show up. Network copy systems don’t work that way: you want buy a particular company’s product, but there is usually more than one “channel” through which the devices are sold. The channel you buy from affects who provides the service and the price you pay. Sometimes the companies provide direct purchase options, but you’re more likely to have to deal with local vendors. Either way, you’ll probably need to get on the phone and make some calls. In this respect, buying a new copy machine is more like buying a new car than buying a computer. You’ll also find that you can lower prices through negotiations, taking me back to the car shopping analogy. Try asking Apple for a discount because a Dell notebook is cheaper.

Service contracts are essential, as is how the service is provided. Large copy machines are incredibly complex and tend to shake themselves apart over time. So you’re not just buying a machine—you’re buying the company and service arrangement that go with it. It’s sort of like getting married: you get the mother-in-law and crazy Uncle Joe in the basement along with the bride.

3. Where to Find Manufacturers

Manufacturers of digital print/copy/fax/scanning machines include Xerox, Lexmark, Kyocera, Ikon/Ricoh (now the same company), HP, Toshiba, Konica/Minolta, and Panasonic. If you go to the website of each company and begin drilling down, you’ll find a “contact us” page that’ll deliver you to their local vendors (or deliver their local vendors to you). You’re often better off calling the local dealers rather than waiting; some of the on-line forms I filled out didn’t elicit responses for weeks. So much for working at the speed of light or “Internet time.”

If the companies offer a national contact line, call and then ask for local vendors. That will sometimes yield unexpected and useful results for your geographic area.

4. Narrowing the List

We ruled out a few of the companies based on reputation: many of the vendors we talked to who displayed grudging respect for their competitors thought Kyocera weak, and the Kyocera vendor in Tucson didn’t seem particularly on the ball. We also eliminated Toshiba relatively quickly using those metrics. The obvious contenders were Xerox, Lexmark, Konica/Minolta, Ricoh, and Canon. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent of Consumer Reports for small- to medium-sized businesses, so you’re stuck basically evaluating machines on reputation, advertised features, and price.

If you’re in a relatively big market like Seattle, or a really big market, like New York, you’ll be able to find a couple of sufficiently large vendors for each product. If you’re in Tucson or similar city, you’ll probably find only one or two. In Tucson, I found a variety of vendors, including Arizona Office Technology, IKON Office Solutions, Inc., Digital Business Systems, Copygraphix, Inc., Action Imaging, and a few others.

5. Our Criteria, Including OS X Support

We wanted a networked, standalone machine that would print in black and white, scan in color, copy, and fax. It should be fast enough to produce proposals, but speed wasn’t our main criteria.

We do little color printing, and although vendors promised color printing for “only” $500 – $1,000 more, that capability wasn’t worth the cost for us. We’d rather get a standalone color printer like a Xerox Phaser 6280N, which we ended up buying, or its equivalent. These will cost about $400 – $500. Even a standalone photo printer would probably do this trick, but vendors will try to upsell you to copy machines that print in color. If you don’t do a fair amount of color printing, I don’t think it worth upgrading, particularly because supplies for color machines are much more expensive than black and white.

In addition, all of our office computers are Macs, so OS X support was vital—which I’ll elaborate on in tremendous detail below. This counts. When I walk into a copy vendor, what would really be nice is for them to install whatever software and drivers they need on my MacBook and use it for the demonstration. That would impress me. Almost none of them could or would do it.

6. Further Narrowing the List

Once I had an approximate list of vendors, as opposed to companies, I began getting price quotes. Most salespersons will first want to jawbone you, which can be somewhat useful but isn’t nearly as interesting as the bottom line. In short, you’ll spend between 20 minutes and half an hour on the phone or in person with each vendor, during which time you’ll describe what you want and which, if any, other machines you’ve looked at. Expect to spend close to a full day on this if you want genuinely competitive bids.

7. Warning: Vendors Will Try to Waste Your Time

Much like buying a car, if you walk into what is in effect a dealership for copy machines, they will want to give you their whole sales spiel. Don’t be afraid to say, “No,” “I don’t care,” or “I don’t want to hear it.” For us, copy speed above about 30 or so pages per minute is fairly unimportant, but that didn’t stop vendors from telling us over and over that their machine goes to 50. That’s wonderful, pumpkin, but not of great interest to us.

They’ll also want to sit down and discuss their quotes in detail and give you more marketing materials. This is useless unless you have competitors’ quotes and specs right there. Try to avoid this to the extent possible.

That being said, going in can tell you some useful things. In the case of the attractive-on-paper Lexmark unit, it told us that their envelope feeder wasn’t adequate. We want automatic envelope printing capability, and once we figured out the Lexmark didn’t really have a solution, the machine was an unlikely buy.

8. Attention Companies: Show Me OS X Support

When I type in “Xerox OS X” into Google right now, the first result is “Mac OS X 10.4: Some Xerox printers may require newer PPDs.” “Canon OS X” gets me “Mac OS X 10.5: Canon inkjet printer cannot scan.” Ricoh is slightly better—”Ricoh OS X” gets me Products&Solutions | Compatibility of Mac OS X | Ricoh Global, which is a slight improvement, but it’s still just a product page. “IKON OS X” brings me a bunch of stuff about telescopes, and so on. If you’re a big vendor, you might want to create a dedicated OS X page that promises you’re going to have compatibility and support.

Contrast that with Microsoft’s approach: if you type in “Office OS X,” the first page up is a friendly one directed at the great team for Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac. “Google OS X” brings me Google Software Downloads for the Mac.”

If I’m praising Microsoft for doing something right, you can be assume that your tech company is doing something terribly wrong. I should be able to type “http://www.xerox.com/mac” and find all sorts of whiz-bang stuff about Xerox’s awesome Mac support, which they have, but apparently are too dense to advertise. That would give me vastly more confidence than vendors who say, “Oh, yeah, we have PostScript Drivers.” In this class of machine, everyone does. Tell me more.

Only one company is smart enough to have figured this out: Lexmark. Google “Lexmark OS X” and you get Mac OS X — Lexmark United States. Nice. That’s exactly what I want. If only they met the envelope tray requirement.

9. Why Does OS X Confidence Count?

We can usually solve low-level problems that yield their secrets through Google searches of error messages and the like. At our still-low level of technical sophistication, problems are more likely to occur will be in the class of those Frederick Brooks describes in The Mythical Man Month: “The most pernicious and subtle bugs are system bugs arising from mismatched assumptions made by the authors of various components.” In the case of complex machines like the ones we’re looking at, those can and have been fiendishly difficult.

This has been a problem in the past. The worst thing that can happen to end users of these kinds of systems is a blame-game problem: Apple tells you to talk to Ricoh, and Ricoh tells you to talk to Apple, and no one wants to solve your problem. If you, a copier vendor, say that you will make sure your machine works with the latest version of OS X, damnit, come hell or high water, I’m going to buy your machine over a rival’s. If you promise to solve all my problems, regardless of who is at fault, I’ll be more likely to buy your machine.

10. Service Contracts Count Too

If you lease machines, service will often come with the lease. If you buy a machine, you’ll usually get a service contract that covers virtually everything: parts, diagnostics, etc. In some cases, the service may be “hidden” in a cost/copy charge. This means you have to factor service into the price and also decide if you want a stand alone service contract or a cost/copy charge. If this isn’t confusing enough, most of these machine, such as those sold by Xerox, actually come with a one-year warranty. But that won’t stop some vendors from trying to charge for service from day one. In addition, if the vendor is going to provide the service, rather than the manufacturer, you’ll probably want to go with a slightly larger outfit than a slightly smaller one: if the vendor you buy from has two people servicing machines, and one has a baby while the other gets appendicitis, you’ll have trouble getting your machine serviced.

In addition, if you buy a machine, remember to add the cost of your service contract to the bottom line when you compare buying versus leasing.

11. The Contenders

We picked the following machines for final consideration: the Xerox WorkCentre Pro 5225, Xerox WorkCentre Pro 5632, Xerox WorkCentre 4250, Ricoh Aficio MP 2050, Ricoh Aficio MP 2550, Canon imageRUNNER 3225, Konica/Minolta Bizhub 282, and Lexmark X654de. They all hit the major feature requirements. Some of them had better local vendors than others. I did the best I could getting apples-to-apples bids from each of them and learned a lot about copy machines in the process. Some important questions to ask that I didn’t know to ask at the beginning:

* How many local technicians do you have?
* What is the interest rate on the lease? Please include that in your bid.
* What is the probable fair market value of the machine at the end of your lease?
* What does the service contract include?
* Which phone number do we call (national or local vendor) when something breaks? Can we call both?
* Do you use old parts in new machines?

Those questions all came from conversations. I could never have learned that I needed to ask them from looking at websites.

12. Our Decision and Rationale (With Photos!)

We went with the Xerox 4250X, upgraded to four paper trays, because we previously had a Xerox digital machine for over ten years with excellent Mac support that worked reasonably well:

xerox_front

Also, this machine has the ability to print up to 50 envelopes from a standard paper tray, eliminating the need for a dedicated envelope tray. But if we’d gone through this process two months prior, we might’ve picked the Lexmark; our original Xerox quote came to $7,625 for one of the bigger machines. By asking a lot of questions, we ended up paying several thousand dollars less for a machine that actually better meets our needs. Xerox and its vendors have evidently figured out that premium pricing in a weak economy isn’t a brilliant move and were willing to negotiate on price.

The Lexmark was also a strong contender, but it looked a bit like an alien device had been mounted on a paper tray, and it couldn’t take a dedicated envelope tray and couldn’t print envelopes from the standard trays. The physicality of the Xerox was probably the best of the machines we saw. It cost less than the larger machines; although it can’t do color, it has the other features we need. The display is bright and easy-to-use, it prints at 45 PPM, and duplexes. Incidentally, the machine it replaced, our trusty DocuCentre 432 cost about $25,000 in 1998, while the new 4250X, fully configured was less than $4,200. That’s what I call good deflation. And the user interface is far easier to use:

xerox_top

Once we decided on the 4250X, the next decision was where to buy it. Xerox has three distribution channels: buying directly from Xerox, from an authorized reseller, or from a so called “agent.” In Tucson, the reseller is Arizona Office Technology (AOT), a wholly owned Xerox subsidiary and a fairly large company, while the agent is Tucson Copy & Xerographics, a mom & pop operation.

Both Xerox Direct and Tucson Copy had the same price, with service through Xerox central. AOT was considerably higher in price and does their own service. Based on our years of experience with Xerox, we like the idea of getting service and tech support directly from Xerox. This is particularly important for Mac users, as one can actually get to a knowledgeable engineer that specializes in Macs by calling the Xerox “800″ support number. There are lot of guys & gals with toolboxes who can fix copiers, but, when it is a software or driver problem, you want someone who can find the right person at Apple or Microsoft to resolve it. We also like paying less for equipment and were charmed by the small business aspect of Tucson Copy, so they got our business.

Conclusions

Nonprofits and small businesses of up to about 50 employees probably face the exact same problems we do is selecting equipment. Larger offices and institutions tend to have purchasing managers who are dedicated to handling jobs like these. Now I understand why. We only needed to buy one networked copier—I can only imagine what buying and deploying 10 or 100 would entail.

But many if not most of our readers who are with nonprofits or small public agencies are probably going to face the same frustrating problems I had in trying to balance efficiency, productivity, cost and the like. The last time we faced these issues, I was too young to work for Seliger + Associates and the word “blog” hadn’t even been coined—so Isaac had to go through the process of searching and sorting office equipment systems on his own. My big hope is that this series of posts saves readers some of the pain I’ve gone through.

And picking office machines like this is a pain, but it’s a worthwhile one. The top bids we received were close to $8,000. The machine we eventually picked costs closer to $4,000, as noted above. Some of the vendors were willing to drop their prices to match competitors, provided we could show those vendors real bids. So, buying a digital copier is pretty much like buying a Honda, without edmunds.com to give you information on pricing and reviews. I wish someone else had written this article before I started the process so that I could’ve read it.

Tags: Advice · Technical · Tools