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Financial advisers have a saying: if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. But sometimes, everyone can be a winner, and a remarkable photocopier deal set up by a group of local authorities falls into this category.

The deal not only saves schools up to half the cost of a photocopier, but gives them added protection in a sector that is notorious for its unfair contracts and sleight-of-hand dealings.

The Central Buying Consortium (CBC) is an informal association composed of 17 local authority supply departments, including Hampshire, Essex, West Sussex and Oxfordshire.

CBC members spend about Pounds 750 million each year, and this puts it in a strong negotiating position. They have established a number of specialist purchasing groups, including furniture, energy and office equipment.

The latter put out the first tenders for photocopier contracts in October 1997, with Gestetner emerging as the company that offered schools the best value.

The CBC deal lasts over a five-year period and will involve the supply of about 10,000 photocopiers. But why should schools consider going down the CBC route, when most heads and governing bodies can make their own purchasing decisions?

"Heads often don't have the buying experience and tend to buy a single machine," says Nigel Palmer, managing director of Gestetner. "The CBC members have a lot of experience in negotiating deals."

Neil Jones, head of purchasing at Hampshire County Council, was the main force behind the photocopier deal. He says that it isn't just about saving schools money but one of choice. "Gestetner equipment will be offered by all CBC members, but schools will also be given the choice of at least one other preferred supplier as well."

Schools buying photocopiers under the deal will get a choice of the latest digital copying equipment, a guaranteed minimum level of service, fixed-term rather than rolling contracts, and extras such as free relocation of the copier if required: "The deal is designed to be as flexible as possible," says Mr Jones.

Gestetner also benefits by maintaining its market share and through economies of scale (it's easier to deal with large organisations than thousands of individual schools).

Some local authorities prefer schools to place their purchasing orders through them, while others may ask schools to contact Gestetner directly, quoting the CBC contract. Your local authority will be able to tell you whether or not it is a CBC member. If it isn't, ask why your school can't take advantage of this deal.

Gestetner: 0500 102103

* Avoiding a jam * Are the machines new, second-hand or reconditioned?

* How long is your school's commitment?

* Is it a fixed or rolling contract?

* How much noticeof termination is required?

* Is it possible to change machines without incurring a huge penalty (useful if you find the copier does not meet your school's copying needs)?

* What level of service and support does the company offer?

* How much photocopying is your school committedto each month?

* What happens if you fail to reach the copying limit or exceed it?

* Is the company offering the latest machines or end-of-line products?

* Does it offer free relocation of the photocopier?

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