Is It “Humpty-Dumpty” Time HP?

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HP overall may be holding its own during the recession, but a primary profit-generating product sector appears headed for “humpty-dumpty” time, barring a u-turn on quality. I’m talking desktop printers–but not the hardware side. The ink makes all the money, as you’re reminded every time you buy replacement cartridges. And ink makes lots and lots of money. But if customers stop buying your printers, the green ink well will dry up.

We used to be an almost 100% HP office. Then we abandoned HP computers for Lenovo, after a string of quality issues–like the expensive work station with a hard drive that began sounding like Marine One on the White House lawn, just after the warranty expired. But we’re talking printers here, and we stayed HP with our tree eaters. Then, the first chink. HP didn’t bother providing a migration path for their humongo HP 5 Color Laser-jet. Great for selling more printers–Xerox printers in our case, because we don’t like vendors that too quickly let expensive hardware go obsolete. So then we were down to multi-function machines, where we stayed HP for the familiarity.

By nature, this whole product category suffers from short life spans, so we weren’t surprised at having to replace a few. Hey, almost any HP repair on these babies costs more than a new one, so why worry. It’s only money. But then came the plunge in quality. And I mean “plunge.”

We had a couple that lasted much less than their already abbreviated expectancy, but we replaced them with more HPs. Comfort level, I guess. But the last two–well, shameful. Cheapo plastic parts that snap if you look at them wrong. Ink cartridge carriers so hard to load they’d be a good stand-in for Rubric’s Cubes. Took a half-hour to figure how to twist and turn the cartridges to fit. But no matter. The latch holding the black cartridge in place was dead-on-arrival anyway. Then one had a control panel with no copy button. No documentation came with it either, and it took us a while to discover you had to scroll through a menu and enter the number of copies and whether b/w or color just to make one copy of one document you’d placed on the flatbed. Oh, and the set-up instructions were for a whole bunch of different machines and didn’t necessarily apply to our model. Brand “strength” doesn’t mean squat, at this point.

Whoever designed these things obviously failed high school industrial arts.

But no matter. The LED display started asking us to clear the paper jam. What paper jam? We hadn’t fed it any paper. Must have been some assembly worker’s sandwich wrapper, ’cause all the shipping stuff was removed. Message wouldn’t go off. Set-up aborted. But no matter. Lack of a latched-in black cartridge would have aborted set-up anyway.

So what do you do now? Bring it back and get another? Why? These cartridge-holder design problems weren’t random. They’re design and manufacturing issues. So what chance did we have that another one would work? Between slim and none, IMHO. So we got a refund at Office Depot. Clerk didn’t bother asking us why we were returning it. Seriously. And we saw other HP returns sitting by the customer service desk. Swine flu hitting HP combo printers? Maybe.

Off to Staples, where they do ask why, nicely, when you return something. Even a cable still in bubble wrap. And they make sure you have what you need. Only I went along to choose a new brand.
Sales guy virtually greets us at the door. Yeah, go find one at Office Depot, but that’s another post. Shared our HP story. “Let’s skip the HPs.” Asked about the Brother machines, which I’d always been leery of. He said, “They’re not coming back.” Nice turn of a phrase. Turns out they had a couple of HP desktop returns in the customer service pen. So we bought a Brother. Hardly an executive decision, but we do spend a bunch on printers. Very well made machine, by comparison. Vastly better controls design. And the cartridges–they slide straight in and lock securely with one finger push. I know. Did it myself. Took longer to unwrap them than insert them. What an engineering feat. Like inventing sliced bread.

Bye HP. It’s been real. Too real, lately. And having predicted the fall of Citi, Circuit City, CompUSA and Sprint long before the fact, based on quality of customer interactions, I’ll make another bold prediction. Either HP straightens out desktop printer design and production problems or it won’t matter how friendly a face the printer guys show their dealers and customers. The printer ink will run red.

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