Be Careful What You Wished For

(commentary)

You don’t have to look far to see what the Japanese camera makers are doing about North America: 59,000 mirrorless cameras shipped to the US in three months. Yeah, an average of 20,000 a month or so. That represents 8.6% of mirrorless camera shipments worldwide. By contrast, Japan shipped 21% of the DSLRs they made to the Americas in that same time period. 

Yet here’s the problem: 20k a month is not enough. 

I saw this issue first arise just before my Galapagos workshop, when a number of folk enrolled were looking for Nikon AW1 cameras to use while snorkeling. There weren’t any to be found (some calling around eventually found enough for the students that wanted them, but overall the impression I got was that most dealers had none on the shelves, nor did NikonUSA have more than a handful; I was told that if I placed an NPS order I could get one, but my dealer couldn’t get one at that same time). More recently, the same thing happened with the Nikon V3: the first round imported sold out and NikonUSA is waiting for more.

The Fujifilm X-T1 is in and out of stock as Fujifilm airlifts cameras into the US to meet demand. The Panasonic GH4 was in limited supply for a very short time and is now awaiting new shipments. On the other hand, the Olympus OM-D models and the Sony A7 models seem to have been overstocked, as they’ve never left availability, and have even had some discounting. 

What’s happening is that some camera companies are too optimistic and some are too pessimistic when it comes to how the US and the rest of the Americas respond to their mirrorless cameras. They seem to not fully understand the features/performance those of us in this part of the world want versus what we’re not interested in. 

Here’s my take:

  • Other than perhaps the GM1, we really haven’t responded to the non-EVF type cameras very well. We’re used to looking through viewfinders, and that’s what we want. Moreover, when the “low end” tends to be as high priced as the low end of the DSLR market, this problem is exacerbated. A D3300 or Rebel has only one liability compared to the soap bar mirrorless cameras: they’re bigger. But they have numerous advantages: focus performance, sensor performance, feature sets, and in some comparisons, more lens availability. In other cases, it’s the super convenience lenses that get the nod, you know, the 18-300mm does it all in one lens thing. Why these folk buy interchangeable lens cameras I don’t fully understand, but a lot of those DSLRs sell with only one convenience lens, and that lens has more telephoto on it than the mirrorless camera makers are offering. Bottom line: large sensor compacts with the right lens are probably the better answer than low-end mirrorless for this market.
  • Photo enthusiasts (and pros) have specialty needs they want filled. Even if they have an FX camera, they still have other desires. That AW1, for instance: it’s the best performing waterproof camera on the market, and not terribly priced. There’s long been a need for all-weather cameras that can be abused, but the Japanese makers got this all wrong: (1) they limited that to compact cameras that didn’t shoot raw; (2) they relied upon clumsy and bulky underwater housings; and (3) they really didn’t fully seal their high-end gear as we really only have a rubber gasket isolating any part of the outside from the inside. We also want a shirt-pocket camera, which is why the Sony RX100 got so popular. Finally, when an option like the V3 (or V2 or V1) comes along that gives us something that our DSLRs can’t do, we’re interested, but only at the right price and feature set. All three V’s got the price wrong, but the V3 gets the feature set almost right so some are willing to pay that price. Bottom line: the camera makers aren’t actually responding to customer needs, they’re iterating feature sets that aren’t necessarily wanted.
  • The “rush" to the DSLR-like models is not actually a rush towards something but rather a rush away from something. DSLRs need to come down in size and weight. We need long-overdue and significant updates to the mainstay prosumer crop-sensor DSLRs (7D, D300s). We needed lenses for those crop sensor DSLRs that were never made. Olympus, Panasonic, and now Fujifilm and Sony have all tried to cater to each of those things, while trying to get DSLR-like performance in the focus system (not yet, but it’s good enough for some). Bottom line: Canon and Nikon need to ramp up the crop sensor lenses, make the consumer bodies smaller and lighter. 

In other words, there’s a mismatch to what’s being produced versus what is desired, and the Japanese can’t read that nuance well enough, or are unwilling to produce to it. 

There’s more to it than that, though. In these days where companies like Apple are doing hourly micromanaging of inventory and manufacturing based upon real time sales analysis, the Japanese camera companies seem lethargic and out of touch with current inventory practices. Nikon’s insistence in making territory-specific serial numbers (there are no other territorial differences in manufacturing) means that if they underestimate or overestimate demand they are stuck with what they produced. With the early Nikon 1 models, they badly overestimated what would sell here in the US (and worldwide). With the most recent Nikon 1 models, they’ve underestimated what would sell here in the US. All across their line we have similar problems. Fire that person or group that’s making those decisions, please, and just make global cameras so you can transship inventory to where it’s needed from where it isn’t, and do so quickly. 

The problem is likely to get worse. The camera companies have been closing facilities, reducing staff, slowing development and R&D in some cases, and are mostly circling their wagons at the moment. The slowdown of mirrorless shipments to the Americas is one of those circles. Where the camera companies do seek growth is in places that are not sure things, such as India or Brazil or China, and often with the lower-end stuff because those markets are highly price sensitive outside those living at the top of the food chain. 

Finally, there’s this: if you show hesitancy or uncertainty, consumers detect that. If you cut back product lines, you lose shelf space and consumer visibility. The problem is that these things further contribute to any downward spiral. You can’t really get upward traction as long as you are doing these things. 

Which brings me back to Nikon. They lost shelf space and consumer visibility of the Nikon 1 by vastly overpricing it for the market. Those early cameras didn’t sell in the quantities delivered and that resulted in huge price reductions to clear inventory. At which point Nikon tried the same thing again with the second generation. Which had the same result. Okay, Nikon’s not completely stupid, so with the third generation they’ve decided to starve the market. Hesitancy. Loss of shelf space. Loss of visibility. What’s the expectation here? Generation four will only be available as special orders? 

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