Calumet Closes its Doors

(news & commentary)

I wrote late last year that this was coming (more dealer closings), and now we have a big one: Calumet US has closed their store doors this week and declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy (liquidation). It was only last year that Calumet had picked up 5 of the remaining Penn Camera stores when that company went under. 

As of today, Calumet in the US has pretty much disappeared. The stores are closed, the Web site is gone, the Twitter account closed, and all ways of contacting it are gone. It’s unclear what those who had deposits, or had cameras waiting to be cleaned, or gear out on rent should do, as there seems to be no entity which they can approach other than the court. The 200 employees weren’t given any notice of the filing, either, most learning about it via email the night before the filing or when they showed up to work on Thursday.

The UK and European entities with the Calumet name are a different entity, and apparently unaffected by this US bankruptcy. 

The bottom line here is that we’re going to soon find out who had their accounts tightened down enough to survive a long decline in camera sales. Actually, here in the US, virtually all consumer electronics categories showed serious decline in 2013 continuing into 2014. This is a tricky land we’re in. Sure, some newly announced cameras generated lots of pre-orders (though mostly through Internet sales), but most dealers have plenty of existing camera inventory still sitting on the shelves. Unless you have deep pockets or have been running a very tight ship, it’s very easy to get hammered by that inventory when sales taper. 

We’ve witnessed the same thing happen with HiFi stores, personal computer stores, television stores, and even major consumer electronics Big Boxes: when the growth slope flattens or declines, someone is stuck with a lot of boxes and a lease arrangement that demands feeding, and it usually isn’t the manufacturer, though they too suffer from the decline in orders. 

As much as the E-M1, and X-T1, and A7/A7r mirrorless cameras look somewhat hot, and as well as the D800 continues to sell, these are not high volume products. The average selling price from the manufacturer of compact cameras at the end of 2013 was US$120, for mirrorless US$230, for DSLRs US$432, and for lenses US$176. In other words, it’s the lower end of the market that’s been running through all these stores and keeping the manufacturing plants open. 

At the moment there’s no end in sight. Simply put, we have too many older cameras still sitting on shelves looking for owners, and the camera companies haven’t found a new engine for growth. There’s also no evidence that they know what that engine would be. 

2014 is going to be a very messy year when it comes to gear. It’s difficult to predict who will do what, when, and why. Nikon’s launch of the V3 this week seems completely out of sync with the reality in the stores. Because it will only be sold as a US$1200 bundle in the US, I’ll bet that there aren’t a lot of stores loading up on it. How do they sell the V3 at that price when they’re still sitting on inventory of previous DSLR and Nikon 1 models at far lower prices? 

It’s almost a Keystone Kops chaos circle happening now: (a) US consumers don’t buy mirrorless cameras; (b) so we’ll limit the mirrorless offerings we bring into the US; (c) meaning that US consumers don’t buy mirrorless cameras. To expect a different result seems a bit insane to me. 

With Apple clearly building a camera team now, things may get a lot worse. If Apple can build up from the cameras currently in the iPhones, which seems the intention of all their recent hires and job openings, it just continues to collapse the ground on which the camera makers had previously relied. Should Apple manage to go further and disrupt stand-alone cameras, which I believe they will at some point, the sinkhole will be beyond escape. 

My advice? Buy what you think you want/need for the foreseeable future now, and then spend time to learn how to use it best. We’re in a golden age in one respect: for not a lot of money an amateur can create and output images of a quality that was tough to achieve 20 years ago. While every day I get the “should I get X or Y because X is .000001% better than Y at Z but Y is .000001% better at something else” type of questions, the reality is that there’s never been a better time to go out and take a picture. The gear is good. Really good. If camera making stopped tomorrow, we’d still be taking great photos. 

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