If you’re trying to grow a successful e-commerce business, streamlining your label printing process can work wonders for your bottom line and peace of mind. One can probably think of about a thousand better ways to spend your days than fighting off a finicky paper jam with your shipping label printer or writing out labels by hand.
In this guide, we’ll take a look at three of the most popular shipping label printers for online businesses—inkjet printers, laser printers, and thermal printers—and break down the pros and cons of printing with each, the best labels for the job, and other considerations like environmental impact, how labels hold up to the elements, and more.
Inkjet printers use separate ink cartridges to spray tiny droplets of liquid ink onto the page. These cartridges typically come in the colors cyan (blue), magenta (pinkish-red), yellow and black. Each one is fitted with its own printhead which transfers the ink onto the label or paper. A vibrant array of printable colors are created through the combination of the different inks.
If your company is printing a lower volume of shipping labels/packing slips and needs printed materials or photos that feature-rich, vivid color, an inkjet can be an excellent choice for a shipping label printer.
Pros & Cons of Inkjet Printers
- Low Upfront Costs. Purchasing an inkjet printer for your online business is relatively inexpensive, with a budget at-home printer available for as low as $30 and a high-end model averaging about $500. In comparison to a laser printer, a like-for-like inkjet model will almost always be cheaper.
- Good Quality, Vivid Prints. Inkjet printers have come a long way in recent years. They can print photos, fine details, and razor precise resolutions (as high as 1440×1440 dots per inch) easily and with eye-catching results.
- Compact Size. Inkjet printers are great if you’re trying to save space. They’re generally smaller than lasers.
- Easy to Use. With a low warmup time, and fairly straightforward installation and interface, inkjet printers are pretty low maintenance compared to other types.
- Ink Cartridge Cost. While upfront costs may be low, a single set of inkjet cartridges could run you as much as the printer itself. And if you have to buy them several times per year, the supply cost could start to really add up. For reference, purchasing three black ink cartridges per year would cost between $60 and $120, depending on the size and brand. While three, color cartridge sets per year could cost between $75 and $150. For a printer that could initially cost as low as $30, that can be hard to swallow.
- Higher Cost Per Page. Cost per page is the price of the ink or toner cartridge divided by the number of pages printed before it needs to be replaced. Since liquid ink is pricier than toner, the cost-per-page of black-and-white inkjet printouts will be around 5-10 cents, while color printouts would cost 15-25 cents per page.
- Slower Printing Speed. While some inkjet printers can be quick, they’ll never be as fast as a laser. Inkjets typically print 15-25 pages per minute at the highest quality setting.
- Potential For Blurring and Bleeding. Since ink is, well, ink, it’s subject to blur, bleed, or leak. This can cause unwanted flaws in the final print job.
Types of Inkjet Printer Labels
Inkjet printer labels are available in standard white, matte white, white gloss, clear, metallic, fluorescent, pastel, true color, 100% recycled, and more. Some labels even come with extra opaque coverage and technology that helps the printer avoid misalignments or jams.
Other Things to Consider
Shipping in extreme conditions? Waterproof and weatherproof labels work in both inkjet and laser printers, are made of freezer-safe film, and are resistant to tearing, smudging, and scuffing.
Laser printers use static electricity to attach toner—a powdered, grain-like ink—to a sheet of paper. For printing at high volume, they can be a viable shipping label printer option, since they offer super-fast printing speeds.
Pros and Cons of Laser Printers
- Lower Cost Per Page. Despite higher toner costs and upfront expenses, laser printers can still be an economical option in the cost-per-page department. With a laser printer, it costs less than a few cents per page for black-and-white prints and just about 15 cents per page for color.
- Longer-Lasting Toner Cartridges. Although toner cartridges have a greater initial expense than ink cartridges, they’re known for long-lasting use. They’re also less likely to dry out than inkjet cartridges, which can shrivel up when they’re not being used.
- Quieter Printing. Lasers are significantly quieter than inkjet printers.
- Efficient High Volume Shipping Label Printing. Since lasers are more efficient and print much faster than inkjets, they are a strong high volume label printing option.
- Higher Upfront Costs. Laser printers are generally more costly than Inkjet printers, with lower quality models ranging from $70 – $200 and premium models ranging from $500-$1500.
- Toner replacement. Replacement toner cartridges for laser printers can also come at a premium.
Types of Laser Printer Labels
A wide variety of shipping labels are compatible with laser printers, including white, fluorescent, color, removable, weather-resistant, quick-lift, blockout, kraft, clear, foil, and even integrated labels that print packing lists and shipping labels on the same sheet so it’s easier to consolidate your e-commerce packaging and printing needs.
For a more eco-friendly shipping label printing option, you can opt for zero waste shipping labels or 100% recycled sheet labels. They’re printable on laser or inkjet printers and make it simpler for paper pulpers and recyclers to process packages.
Other Things to Consider
If and when it’s possible, using labels for laser printers that are either easy to remove (like a multiuse label with removable adhesive), 100% recycled, or made from the same material as your packaging can ensure your customer’s labels aren’t contaminating other recycled waste.
Thermal printers transfer pigment onto paper using tiny elements of heat. They offer speed, convenience, and high-quality prints and can expedite the fulfillment process by quickly creating barcode labels, shipping labels, receipts, and even safety signs.
There are two different types of thermal printers:
Direct thermal printers heat a chemically-treated paper with a thermal print head without needing printing ribbon, toner, or ink. They’re great for labels that don’t require a long shelf life (like shipping labels).
Thermal transfer printers also use a thermal print head, but instead of applying heat to a chemically-treated paper or label, it’s applied to a wax or resin-based ribbon. The ribbon ink is then pressed into the label paper to create the final print. Labels printed with thermal transfer printers tend to be more durable and long-lasting than those printed with direct thermal printers.
Pros and Cons of Thermal Printing
- Easy Upkeep. Compared to inkjets and lasers, thermal printers have fewer components, generally last longer, have minimal maintenance, and are more dependable.
- Ideal For Barcode Printing. Thermal printers produce precise, high-quality images with superior edge definition. They’re designed to print within tight parameters and meet the exacting specifications that barcodes and scanning require.
- Low Long-Term Costs. Compared to inkjet and laser, the ongoing cost of printing with a thermal printer is less.
- Faster Printing Speed. Some thermal printers are lightning-fast and can print at a rate of 300 millimeters per second, or 60 pages per minute.
- Less Supplies. Since thermal printers don’t use separate ink, toner, or, in the case of direct thermal printer, even ribbon supplies, you can cut down on the office supply costs and keep printing economically.
- Higher Upfront Costs. Thermal printers can be significantly pricier than inkjets and lasers. Even the most basic models can cost hundreds of dollars.
- Limited Color Selection. You’re limited in the colors you can create with thermal printers because the high heat elements restrict application options. This makes them less-than-ideal for printing vivid photos and graphics.
- Sensitivity to the Elements. The final print from a direct thermal printer will be extremely sensitive to environmental elements like heat and UV light. This could be a challenge for orders shipping far or through extreme conditions.
Types of Thermal Printer Labels
Thermal printer labels come in rolls and are designed for easy use with both direct thermal printers and thermal transfer printers. They can be used for everything from shipping and tracking labels to barcodes and product identification.
Direct thermal roll labels can be as small as 1” X 0.5” and as large as 4.5” X 2.5” with the option of a 1” or 3” core made of a spirally round, sturdy paper.
Thermal transfer roll labels come in the same size and core specifications as direct thermal roll labels, but don’t require a printer ribbon for use.
Other Things to Consider
If you’re factoring your e-commerce company’s carbon footprint into the shipping label equation, direct thermal printing is capable of small batch or single label printing with next to no waste. On the flip side, the thermal transfer printing ribbon is not a candidate for recycling, so it can be particularly wasteful if little is being printed on it.
Whether you’re prioritizing the low up-front cost of an inkjet printer, the high volume printing capabilities of a laser printer, or the all-around efficiency of a thermal printer, finding a smart shipping solution that streamlines the shipping label printing process is one of the best ways to free up even more time and resources for your online business. Shippo is here to help.