A Look Back at Pre-Pandemic Print Trends and Where We are Now

It’s wild to realize that the pandemic began four years ago. When we rewind and think back to when stay-at-home orders were mandated, it brings back that sense of urgency we had in purchasing everything we needed to work, learn, and play from home. We all had to pivot and rapidly adapt. We had to navigate change. The market — and the data — showed how that all played out.

We first saw these changes with the development of the home office as lockdown orders forced many of us to work from home. The orders pushed those of us who previously worked in a central office setting to purchase home office equipment essentially overnight. Employees and organizations began snapping up devices essential for work, such as laptops, monitors, computing accessories, and even printers. Once we realized many would stay in lockdown for extended periods of time, purchasing needs made their way throughout the home. We started with work, then we moved to entertainment and bought items like TVs, then made our way to upgrading our homes with new appliances.

So first, let’s zoom in to print, then double click one more time to focus on consumer print because this is where so much of the growth opportunity was during the height of the pandemic. 

Consumer printers saw the largest boost in sales in over a decade

We all know that the consumer print segment has been challenged and in decline for years, well before COVID-19. That trend took an unprecedented turn during the pandemic as work-from-home shifts brought a massive resurgence in demand for home printers. The heightened demand served as a bright spot in earnings (at the expense of office equipment), that is, until the supply chain and inventory took a major hit.

Inventory was a challenge, but stock levels have improved

Printers and other home office equipment sold transactionally (i.e., e-commerce) were observed with significant declines in in-stock availability. Customers looking to purchase printers online (typically through Amazon due to their fast shipping for Prime members) were quickly greeted with sold-out displays and even flat-out listing removals as Amazon pivoted toward allocating its shipping resources to household essentials. Being unable to purchase a printer online wasn’t ideal, especially because the pandemic accelerated an already-apparent shift away from the brick-and-mortar channel and toward e-commerce as stores shut their doors.

In January 2020, 62% of e-commerce listings for all printer hardware showed an in-stock status. Just three months later, that figure dropped by seven percentage points to only 55%. During the worst point, only 22% of online printer listings were in stock for purchase. That was in March 2022. Currently, that figure’s sitting at a much-healthier 68%. See Figure 1.

Zooming in to consumer and SOHO segments, these printer stock levels took a significant nosedive at the very start of the pandemic. These devices were intended to be good enough to get work done, and they carried lower prices than their higher-end office counterparts.

From a technology perspective, inkjets appeared to be in higher demand than their laser- and LED-based counterparts early on in the pandemic. For consumer and SOHO segments alone, nearly 900 inkjet printer listings had an in-stock status in January 2020. States began to implement shutdowns two and a half months later on March 15.

There were only 550 in-stock listings by the end of March, and a growing number of printers were out-of-stock until reaching their lowest point in August 2020 when less than 120 printer listings showed an in-stock status. See Figure 2.

Prices were up, but are on their way back down

When demand was reaching heightened levels, supply declined and pricing went up. Printers perfectly exemplified the classic economic law of supply-and-demand. Of course, there were other factors to consider regarding pricing, like global supply chain shortages, rising component costs, logistics challenges, increasing freight costs, and overall inflation.

Upward price adjustments were deployed across brands and across segments, with several OEMs even bringing price increases to customers several times over the past few years. Entry-level devices were hit especially hard with higher prices at checkout. 

Looking at A4 SOHO devices in particular, current average hardware acquisition costs are up 13% compared to Q1 2020. This is noteworthy because prior to the pandemic, it was unheard of to see hardware prices go up. In fact, prices had been coming down for years. Furthermore, these hardware price reductions were coupled with aggressive discounting. The lowering of prices and ongoing discounts that customers came to know and love came to a screeching halt once demand grew. See Figure 3.

But that was then, this is now, and many of these issues have subsided alongside changes in work-from-home and return-to-work policies. The return-to-office shift paired with adapted supply chain strategies has brought printer stock levels to a healthier place, pivoting the market back to lowered net pricing and more promotions. When supply goes up, prices come down. Prices may be up compared to Q1 2020, but year-over-year prices are down 5% on average within A4 SOHO segments, and these prices are expected to come down even more. 

Not only have OEMs introduced hard price drops across their portfolios, but they have also increased the frequency and depth of promotions offered. But one area where prices aren’t coming down? Ink and toner supplies.

The rising cost for ink and toner supplies isn’t new and certainly didn’t subside during the pandemic. Prices for consumables aren’t expected to go anywhere but up. gap intelligence supplies analyst Adrienne Spear has captured widespread price increases across brands, and even found that prices for some subscription-based services have increased, further demonstrating how much OEMs are adapting their printer-supplies pricing strategies to drive revenue amid lower page volumes.

Product lines are refreshing across brands

Manufacturers haven’t just been busy updating pricing; they’ve been busy updating their printer hardware portfolios. Refresh cycles for printers sold through open distribution channels lengthened during the pandemic, but now that many of the COVID-fueled challenges have subsided, we’re starting to see well-overdue portfolio overhauls across brands. Prior to the pandemic, brands would update their lineups like clockwork on a one- to three-year basis. For some OEMs, we could even predict launch announcements to the exact day.

Although launch timelines have shifted over the past four years, they’re finally starting to return to a new normal. Last year, 164 printers were launched within open distribution channels. That figure may still be 20% lower than 2019’s launch total of 206, but it’s still the healthiest observed since the pandemic began.

It’s also worth noting that some manufacturers have implemented reduced SKU launch strategies to lower their overhead costs and to alleviate both partner and customer confusion around all of the different SKUs. For example, we’re all aware that products can come in a range of configurations – dn, dw, dtn, dtw – you name it. The consolidation of SKUs on a generation-to-generation basis has also contributed to the drop in SKU-level launch activity.

This year’s already off to a strong start, with 16 new models entering open channels in January and February alone. Over the past year, there have been key product refreshes from Brother (low- to mid-range A4s across its B&W and color lines), Canon (A4 inkjet and laser) HP (A4 inkjets across its consumer and SOHO lines and just-announced A4 LaserJets), Lexmark (new mid-range A4s), and Xerox (entire first-generation A4 VersaLink lineup). Keep in mind that these launches represent only products intended to sell transactionally. Even more products were launched for the dealer channel, delivering even more much-needed refreshes across segments. See Figure 4.

So what’s next?

At this point we should all be able to nod our heads in agreement that print is not expected to go back to the way things were before the pandemic. Page volumes will remain below pre-pandemic levels, the way we work has shifted, and the need for hybrid systems is clearer than ever. Consumer print will continue to see significant challenges, however, and the office print environment remains ever-evolving.

I’m often asked, “now that it’s been so long since ‘pandemic printers’ were purchased, shouldn’t these be due for an upgrade?” Yes and no. Many work-from-home employees are back in the office, at least part time. The industry never quite got a handle on how to manage the lower-end at-home devices, leaving home device management loose and largely up to an employee honor system. And with supplies costs up, employees would much rather print what they need in batches in the office on the days that they’re required to go in.

The tug-of-war between employers and employees and their respective requirements and preferences with the return to the office will continue. Statistics and trends around return-to-office policies keep changing. Now, many major organizations are forcing employees to return to the office or face the consequences of being outright fired or ineligible for promotions. Meanwhile, some companies are embracing the work-from-home preference and leveraging it as an opportunity to attract, recruit, and retain top talent.

Beyond the policies, work-from-home comes down to the personal level. Work-from-home productivity varies among both organizations and employees. It’s clear by the changes in return-to-work policies that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.

As a print or service provider, this means that more than ever you need to meet customers and organizations where they are and be ready to adapt and lean into flexibility. It’s critical to have a suite of offerings that provide answers to the questions your customers have and the problems they’re looking to solve.

We’ve seen the evolution of brands moving from product-centric strategies to vertical-focused, to services and to solutions. Now more than ever, it’s critical to embrace a customer-centric approach. 

Valerie Alde-Hayman is a senior analyst at gap intelligence