Mike Halley recalls the day last spring when his office's copy machine died. "We felt lost. It shut us down for a couple of hours until we decided what we were going to do," says Halley, operations manager at Transportation Monitors Inc., a small Memphis trucking company. After some frantic phone calls, Halley prevailed upon a nearby shipping company to let him use its copier for essential work.

The failure was more than just an inconvenience; it threatened the small business's cash flow. "When a bill of lading comes in, we need to send it out that day so we get our money quickly," Halley explains. "But we have to keep a copy. We're hurting if we don't have a copier."

Halley's experience is not an isolated one. Industry analysts say small-business owners tend to put off the decision to buy a new copier until equipment breaks down. And then exasperation overrules reason, and owners often make the wrong purchase.

This is particularly true because copier salespeople, who work on commission, tend to oversell features, says Richard E. Hanson, publisher of "Hanson's Guidelines," a newsletter that evaluates copier performance. To get the correct machine, Hanson says, "You have to do a lot of homework."

To be sure, the thought of boning up on the hundreds of copier models, priced from under $1,000 to more than $150,000, is probably enough to drive you to the nearest open window. But with a good understanding of your company's needs and the explanation of basic copier types and their features given here, you can make an informed decision.

If further encouragement is needed, you should know it's a buyer's market, says Frank G. Cannata, publisher of "The Cannata Report," which tracks the copier industry. Sales are flat, and the 20 or so manufacturers out there are competing vigorously. That means a small business can negotiate a 10% to 15% discount, try a demonstration model for a few days, negotiate an extensive service agreement, and even obtain dealer financing if desired.

Evaluating your needs

Whether you need a new copier or are purchasing one for the first time, start by determining tasks. Will all your copies be made on 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper, or will you sometimes require legal (8 1/2-by-14) or ledger (11-by-17) size? Will most copies be made from single-page or multipage documents? Will you need double-sided copies?

The most important question, however, is: How many copies will your company make each month? If you have a copier now, check its counter or service records to figure out your volume. If not, get estimates from all your employees and tally the results. Once you've got a number, then add to it to allow for growth, so the machine you choose will be adequate down the road. A good rule of thumb, some analysts say, is that a company's copy volume increases at about twice the rate of revenue growth.

Be sure to allow for another factor too: "When you get a new machine, the volume goes up 25% to 30% immediately," just because it is new, says Terry Wirth, manager of product evaluation at Buyer's Laboratory Inc., an office product testing firm in Hackensack, N.J.

Settling on a final figure for volume is critical, because it tells you the general type of copier you will need and approximately how much you'll have to spend. Market research firms like Dataquest, in San Jose, Calif., break the copier market into a number of segments. The first three, described below, account for nearly 80% of all machines sold and encompass the needs of the vast majority of small businesses.

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Personal copiers These most basic of machines sell for $500 to $1,000. All are tabletop models, recommended for making up to 500 copies a month. (Heavier use will degrade quality and increase the risk of breakdowns.) Better machines, which average $1,200, make up to 1,000 copies a month. All offer only limited features, such as the ability to lighten and darken copies; some may allow you to insert legal-size paper. These machines are fairly slow, typically making only about 6 to 8 copies a minute.

Low-range A copier in this segment costs $1,500 to $4,000. Average monthly volume is around 2,000 copies, although some can handle up to 10,000. These machines are quite a bit faster, averaging 12 to 15 copies a minute, and offer many popular features.

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Mid-range A typical machine in this category costs about $5,000 and will likely be freestanding rather than tabletop. Average monthly volume is about 7,000 copies, though many are rated at up to 25,000. These machines make up to 30 copies a minute and offer paper trays in all three sizes. At this level, most features a small business would want should be standard, but special additions can drive the price up to $7,500.

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Now that you have an idea of the category your company falls into, it's time to make a list of features you need and those you might like. You can use the list to compare machines and keep track of how much cost you're adding as the salesperson piles on features.

Many advanced features are of value only to a small percentage of users. For a company such as an ad agency, color copies might be a real help, but few others should spend the extra five grand. The majority of small, growing companies need to evaluate only a handful of features, explained here.

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Speed This is a measure of the number of 8 1/2-by-11-inch copies a machine can deliver in one minute. If your employees will use a machine often, a faster speed will reduce the time they spend standing around. Realize, though, that if you will be making frequent use of such features as double-sided copies or collating, speed will be lower, and some machines that make quick single copies are slow in other modes.

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Volume Although speed is a telling trait, a more important measure of a machine's usefulness is volume. This is the manufacturer's recommendation for the number of copies a machine should make each month. "Should" means that with regular cleaning and maintenance, your copier will remain reliable. If you make many more copies than the number recommended, the machine will break down excessively and will not reach its design lifetime, typically three to five years. (After that, copy quality degrades and an overhaul is not worth the money.) Ask vendors for a suggested average monthly volume, not a maximum projection. Then compare it with the figure you calculated for the number of copies your company will be making.

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Paper trays These hold the blank paper. If you need to copy onto legal or ledger size, look for a machine with at least two trays that can easily be inserted and removed. Capacity is the other consideration. The more paper you can load into the machine, the less frequently you'll have to stop what you're doing to add more. For small machines, a 250-sheet capacity is typical; top-of-the-line machines can harbor 2,500 sheets.

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Automatic document feed This mechanism automatically feeds a stack of originals through the machine. You don't have to lift the top of the copier and place each original individually; just drop your stack in the feeder and walk away. It is useful if you duplicate documents that are many pages long. In a Dataquest survey, businesses indicated the feature they looked for most often in low- and mid-range machines was an automatic document feeder. This capability will add $1,000 to $1,500 to the cost of a machine, however.

If you usually copy only a few pages at a time, consider a semiautomatic feeder, which is less expensive. Rather than just dropping in a stack of pages, the user must feed pages one at a time; the machine grabs the page, positions it over the lens, then spits it back out. It is still much faster than manually lifting the top of the copier, placing a page down on the glass, lowering the top, copying, and lifting the top again to rescue your original.

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Sorter Generally used with a feeder, a sorter collates copies. The smallest option is a 10-bin sorter, but sorters with 25 or 40 bins are common. Some sorters even staple each packet of copies once an entire run is complete. Collating is a big time saver if you reproduce long documents, a waste of money if you don't. A 10-bin sorter costs about $1,000.

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Duplexing This is the fancy term for making double-sided copies from single-sided originals. Most machines with this capability offer what is called auto duplexing, which means you put your stack of one-sided originals into the feeder and get double-sided copies out the other end simply by pressing the start button. Some machines offer only a less expensive manual capability; this requires the user to reload paper in the proper order halfway through the process so the back side is copied correctly. That is simply a pain in the neck.

Even if you do not typically need duplexing, it is worth considering if you have high volume. Reproducing single-sided originals onto double-sided copies can save a bundle in paper and mailing costs. The feature also allows you to produce professional-looking reports that can be bound for use. Duplexing will cost $1,000 to $1,500.

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Reduction and enlargement Many businesses must reduce or enlarge originals. Those that don't have no need for this feature. "It's oversold," says Cannata. If your company has a minor need, you might get a limited version of this feature for little or no added cost; many machines today offer as standard equipment the capability to reduce or enlarge to preset values, like 77% or 129%. Zooming, which allows you to step in 1% increments from 50% reduction to 200% enlargement, is fun but expensive.

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Choosing a vendor

There are plenty of other options, ranging from the ability to preprogram copy jobs to electronically editing out parts of an original before it is copied.

It is easy to let features drive your choice of models, but there are more basic considerations. According to Dataquest, the most important factors to consider when buying a copier are reliability, copy quality, service, price, and ease of use, in that order. Reliability, quality, and service depend on the manufacturer and dealer, so finding the right vendor is essential.

Most machines are sold directly by manufacturers and their dealers. With the exception of personal copiers, which can be purchased at office supply stores, you'll find only one maker's product line at a given establishment. Dealers have a contract for a geographic area, so your task is to find the best dealer with the best product in your area.

Call some neighboring businesses to see which brands they use. Ask if their machines have lived up to expectations, and how satisfied they are with their dealer's service. Decide on at least three brands and set up appointments with the local dealers. Expect them to come to your office. When they do, "Tell them right away you are entertaining three bids," says Cannata. This minimizes overselling and sets the stage for negotiating the best price. Then ask them to deliver a demonstration model for a few days; after evaluating your company's needs, most vendors can arrange it.

You should grill all vendors on service. A copy machine needs more service than any other piece of office equipment, because it has many mechanical parts that quickly get dirty from paper dust and toner. A service agreement typically includes 8 to 18 regularly scheduled visits a year, depending on the anticipated volume of use. During a visit, a technician will clean all parts, insert a new toner cartridge, and make mechanical adjustments. Quick response to breakdowns should also be provided; the industry standard is to have a serviceman at your door within four hours of a call. If you buy an inexpensive personal copier, you might forgo the expense if the vendor can briefly train an employee on routine maintenance.

You should also ask the vendor to estimate the cost of toner and common repairs. For example, the photo drum, a key component of the imaging system, often has to be replaced before the rest of the machine becomes worn out. These costs vary greatly from one manufacturer to the next. For an average low-range machine, the combined cost of toner and replacement of the photo drum works out to about 1.5¢ per copy made. If one maker quotes you 0.5¢ higher than another and you make 20,000 copies a year, the added cost is $100 a year. As you calculate your budget, be sure to include the cost of paper, which runs about 1¢ a page if you buy in volume.

Finally, consider how many copiers best suit the company. If you figure your volume at 20,000 copies a year, but you run a sprawling manufacturing plant, you might lower employees' trips across the factory floor by buying two smaller machines instead of one large one.

Though it may seem a bit exhausting, if you take a little time now to choose the right copier, the model you buy should serve you well. And that means you won't have to duplicate this process any time soon.

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Stephen J. Simurda is a business writer living in Northampton, Mass.


Buy a machine with excess capacity. How much? Analysts say a company's copy volume increases at about twice the rate of revenue growth. Then add on 25% more, because employees use new machines more.

The copier market is flat, and manufacturers are competing vigorously. If you push vendors, you can get a demonstration model to try before you buy, a 15% discount, and a great service contract.


Copiers don't just keep on copying. They're designed to make a certain number of copies a month. If you make 3,000 copies a month on a machine meant to make only 2,000 (that's about 100 each workday), the machine will die before its time.


Copiers operate at a set speed. The cheapest machines produce only six or eight copies a minute, leaving plenty of time for daydreaming and for a line to form behind you as you do so.


If you need 20 copies of a 40-page report, collating it by hand will take you all afternoon. A sorter does this for you by sending the photocopied pages into 20 separate bins until all 40 pages are complete.


This is industry lingo for making double-sided copies. It's helpful for nice-looking reports and for saving paper (and money) if you copy single-sided originals onto double-sided copies.

Semiautomatic feed

Instead of lifting the copier top, placing a page on the glass, closing the top, and pushing the start button 40 times for a 40-page report-whew!-you can stick each page into a feeder that whips it through the machine.

Reduction and enlargement

If you want to scale down an original or blow it up, here's how. Try the former to show how much your paycheck's worth after taxes, the latter to demonstrate how much bigger you think it should be.

Automatic document feed

Semiautomatic feed helps, but you've still got to stand at the machine. With auto feed, just pop the 40-page document into the holder, press start, and go get a cup of coffee.

Paper trays

Obviously, you need a paper tray for standard 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper. Better machines will give you one or two extra trays, for legal (8 1/2-by-14) and ledger (11-by-17) stock.


Volume The number of copies you will make each month determines the class of machine you'll need. Check current copy records, or survey employees to calculate your current volume. Use will increase at about twice the rate of revenue growth; add this amount. If you find you can get by with 1,000 copies a month, a personal copier will do. For up to 2,000 copies you'll need a low-end machine; up to 7,000 a mid-range machine.

Speed This varies within each class. If many people use the copier, get a faster machine, because it will reduce waiting time. High speed may cost more, though. Average speeds are: personal copiers, 6 to 8 copies a minute; low-end, 12 to 15; mid-range, 20 to 30.

Paper trays If you copy originals that are not standard size (8 1/2-by-11 inches), you will need extra paper trays for either 8 1/2-by-14 (legal-size), or 11-by-17 (ledger-size) paper.

Auto document feed
If you routinely duplicate documents of more than a few pages, this is a must.If you make multipage documents only occasionally, a semiautomatic feeder will do.

Sorter If you distribute copies of multipage documents, this too is a must. If you distribute to only a few people, a 10-bin sorter (10 collated documents) will suffice. Larger sorters have 25 or 40 bins.

Duplexing This is needed to make double-sided copies. Consider it also if you duplicate long documents; making double-sided copies from single-sided originals can save $100 or more a year.

Reduction and enlargement This feature is useful unless all you do is copy invoices or such. Most companies will find it sufficient to use a machine with preset values, say, 77% or 129%. If you design ads or graphics, you may want to pay extra to zoom in increments of 1%.