The "In Stock" Holidays

If you want an indicator of just how healthy the camera business is, check store inventories of cameras and lenses. 

It used to be that recent, still hot camera products would either (a) be perpetually on backorder and you needed to be on a wait list to get one; or (b) the item flashed in and out of stock as new supplies trickled into the US.

In terms of camera bodies, those days seem to be over. It's too soon to tell for some of the just announced cameras (e.g. Nikon Z50, Sony A9 m2), but you don't have to go back more than a couple of months of camera intros to see recent cameras fully stocked and waiting for you to stop by and pick them up (e.g. Panasonic S1H or Sony A7R m4). 

This—plenty of stock available—is the main reason why prices have just cratered on many models and the significant discounts are widening to more cameras than usual. The fact that CIPA shipments are significantly down from last year means that the camera makers aren't stuffing the channels, either. Supply is down, but demand is down even more. 

With some very low volume, high priced recent lenses, I still see some of (a) and (b) happening. The Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF and the Sony 400mm f/2.8 being two such lenses. Neither company is going to be too aggressive about generating more inventory as the market for these lenses is small to start with. They're not going to rush to meet what is overall still low demand. Otherwise, with lenses it only seems to be just released lenses that are in short supply.

Frankly, I'm a little concerned about this holiday season. The sales started early. The inventories seem overly plentiful. Other incentives such as free shipping, future credit, or extra included items are becoming more prevalent. Yet we're still almost four weeks away from Black Friday and Cyber Monday. 

The problem is this: if you aren't in a buying mood and camera/lens demand continues its steep decline, we're going to see more and more casualties in the side businesses that support the industry. We've already had plenty of consolidation in the industry, some behind the scenes. Some trade shows have disappeared or gotten smaller. Some retailers have closed. Printed photo magazines have been going away as fast as they can be recycled. We're getting closer and closer to the point where some highly visible and long-established players you might count on start to disappear., for instance, looks like it will closing down or at least strongly downsizing. The much-used and cited comparison testing they did will probably disappear.

One of the costs the camera makers and the rest of the industry are trying to control is marketing costs. That means advertising money is continuing to trend downwards, starting at the top with TV/print advertising and working its way down to the smaller side support businesses, such as Web sites.

The good news is that there is some incredible equipment on sale right now at reasonable prices. I try to point the most interesting of the bunch out on the top of the front page each week, and I write longer articles here and on when I see significant sales within a brand where I can add value as to which items might have moved to bargain or good value status.

The bad news is that camera makers have scaled back production. They're running at lower manufacturing rates while trying to clear inventories. It's unlikely that if the inventories start to balance out better that they'll continue to have big fire sales other than on items at product end-of-life. That's the case the camera makers are hoping for: lower supply meets lower demand. Of course, if inventories don't balance out, we'll see more of the same and the entire industry will be more in jeopardy, because that means that lower supply still isn't as low as demand.

I'll say this, too: if there's a software vendor you want to see stay around—and yes, that includes Adobe—you need to be keeping your license current. Adobe is easy, since they want their small tithe every month and many of you are locked into that. But the others competing with Adobe are doing yearly updates that cost between half and full Adobe pricing, and if people don't update those products regularly, those Adobe competitors just won't have the resources to compete in the future. 

The camera market needs a critical mass to function. I outlined recently how I thought the "bottom" might hit 4m ILC units a year soon. Anything lower than that and I don't think we have a critical mass any more, and all bets are off as to what happens next. But even at the 6m unit mark you'll see companies and products go away, I think. 

Personally, I'm at an age and place where I could just walk away from the new product market and use what I've got for however long I still can reliably shoot. And that's the other problem with the camera market: too many of those that have been buying are getting up in age and buying less often if at all. 

I've said it before and I'll repeat it here: the camera industry really needs to connect to the younger crowd and show them that there's something they want that does more than a smartphone. The longer the camera industry waits  to try to come to grips with the "images are shared" world, the less likely they'll have a compelling story that rises above the smartphones.

Maybe dedicated cameras are the horse of the 21st century (it took awhile for autos to fully replace horses in the 20th century). I'd like to think that they aren't, that there is still a real role to be played by high quality image capture. But that has to live in an images are shared world to live. 

This site's exclusive advertiser, B&H, tries to use consistent wording in their pages. "In Stock" means it will ship immediately. "More on the Way" means that they've gotten information from the maker that they'll receive more units that would fulfill your order within two weeks. Sometimes they use the words "Back-Ordered" instead when they can't reconcile future shipments from the maker with order demand. "Released in Limited Quantity" is the (a) or (b) scenario I noted in the second paragraph of the article: the supply from the maker simply won't meet current demand. "New Item — Coming Soon" means that it's a just-announced item for which B&H's initial order hasn't yet been met by the maker, and B&H often doesn't yet know what actual demand might be.

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