The Buy and Return Problem

(commentary)

My site's advertiser won't like me writing this article, but so be it. 

In the last year camera sales slowed down and showed that there really wasn't growth in the market any more. The last numbers I saw for the US retail system were DSLR units down about 15-20%, mirrorless off 3-5% on meager volume and only because of fire sale prices on low-end models, and compacts off 33%+ year-to-year. Worldwide the numbers are slowing, too, though I don't have as much access to actual purchase numbers outside the US and thus can't give any retail sales percentages for Europe and Asia. However, the CIPA shipment numbers to those areas are down big time, which is an indicator that the same thing is probably happening in those areas. 

Partly because of the slowdown there's been a bigger push by the camera makers towards what I call "launch excitement." The GM of Sony's Imaging group was recently quoted as saying "every six months I want to do something new" in an interview on dpreview.

This constant launch excitement shows up mostly in two ways: controlled escalating leaks by camera companies in order to try to build excitement for the actual press event for a product, at which time the Internet affiliate programs all push live links for pre-ordering said product literally the minute it has been officially announced, because the Internet retailers are in on the game. (Disclosure: the byThom sites have an advertising contract in place with B&H, and the byThom sites have affiliate links for Amazon hidden away in the Support this Site page). 

Many sites that use affiliate programs get embargoed links the night before a launch, so that they can show ordering information at Hour Zero (disclosure: the byThom sites also get these, but as advertising links). Almost never is the product actually available at Hour Zero, though. That doesn't matter: pre-orders caused by launch excitement do a number of things for the camera maker: quickly sucks out initial supply creating an apparent shortage of a hot product due to demand; gives them a good first read on whether their manufacturing goals are set right; and sometimes even drives demand for older products when people decide that they don't need the new thing, but can settle for the cheaper older thing.

Which brings me to a critical point, given that we’re coming into the big buying period of the year for cameras: new cameras will be announced and launched again in January and February. We’ll probably see leaks on many of these (indeed, already are for a few) during the Thanksgiving to Christmas run-up. To some degree this is our old friend FUD at work (FUD is Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, a term for a marketing technique used to keep people from buying competitor’s products). FUD is now being used through leakage year-round. The camera in the bush is worth none in the hand. So wait. Don’t buy during the price markdowns of the big selling season! Something better is coming soon, and you can pre-order it soon! (Just to be clear, that was the manufacturer’s speaking, not me; I say buy what you need or want when you need or want it.) 

Now don’t get me wrong. I have no problems with advertising and affiliate programs. I've used them both for 15 years on the Internet. If readers want free content it has to be paid for in some way, after all. Running a good site takes time, energy, resources, and money. I also have no real problems for taking pre-orders on gear that will absolutely appear in stores in a week or two in sufficient volume. Unfortunately most of the time neither you nor the deal have any idea how many product they'll be getting and the dealer usually won't tell you where you are in the pre-order queue, so really popular products end up creating yet another phenomena: people placing multiple pre-orders to ensure that they get an early unit. 

Which means there's been one of those unanticipated side effects from all the launch excitement push this past year or two. Notice all those refurbished cameras that suddenly popped up in recent years? Where do you think many of them are coming from? If you guessed from people ordering because they got excited by the hype of the product launch and then later found the product wanting in some way, you guessed right.

Quite a few things can happen when the launch excitement wears off and the product actually ships to a customer:

  • Quality Control FailuresSound familiar? The D800 was one of the most launch-excited and pre-ordered products in 2012. So much so that the pre-orders didn't all get taken care of for five months. But also happening during those months was recognition that there were a number of D800 bodies that had focus issues. I know a lot of folk who finally got their pre-order, tested it, found it wanting in the focus area, returned it and asked for another. I'm not sure if B&H had a policy with a concrete number of returns they'd accept from a single customer before the D800, but they do now. 
  • Performance not up to the Marketing PitchI can't count how many times I've seen a press release in the last few years claim "fastest focusing camera" (sometimes with a category caveat, but often not). I'm sure they all believed they could prove their claim in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion performance claims don't always pan out. This shows up most in the mirrorless category here in the US. Everyone gets over-hyped into thinking that "mirrorless X" is better than a DSLR, plus it's smaller and lighter, too. "Better than" is a tough mountain to climb, though. Being better at one or two things may or may not be enough to make up for the things that the product isn't better at. While all the mirrorless companies were trying to convince you that their camera was a DSLR replacement in the past two years, most customers found that something critical pushed back at them: battery life, focus performance, sensor performance, shooting lag, whatever. If you've been reading my sansmirror.com site, you'll notice that I've long advocated a different approach: thinking of the mirrorless cameras as "better than compact" cameras. During the fire sales of excess mirrorless camera inventory, that phrase tends to be one of the things i write, as in "at US$299 the EOS M is a far better bargain than any compact camera on the market." 
  • The Internet Amplification Effect of Spec SheetsRight now I'm seeing a lot of folk saying that the Sony A7r is going to kill the Nikon D800. After all, they're both 36mp with the same sensor genesis, and the Sony is lighter, smaller, and cheaper. Those same folks then go even further and suggest the A7r is a great landscape camera. Uh, with what lens? And have they tried the focus performance? Right now the D800 is probably the best all-around DSLR, and maybe the best all-around camera in general, that you can get. Assuming of course you're willing to spring for the right lenses and don't mind its size and can afford US$3000. Unfortunately, when the box for a hyped up new product shows up at the door, you unpack it, then you actually handle the product when there aren't a bunch of boys fanning the flames in your living room. You're by yourself evaluating a camera that was hyped enough for you to pre-order it without ever having seen or handled it. Even I've been surprised when a camera that seemed really good on paper got into my hands and I found that it just didn't live up to some fantasy idea I had gotten from the launch excitement. Likewise, I've been surprised by cameras that seemed a bit lackluster in the launch information but turned out to be well-rounded, competent products I like. The original Sony RX100 strikes me as one of those that were a pleasant surprise. Sony's previous attempts at high megapixel count smaller sensors didn't tend to deliver, the f/4.9 end of the lens looked sad, no viewfinder option (on the original version) seemed to relegate it to arms-out shooting, and the battery looked way too small for serious shooting. In reality, the things that the RX100 did well, it did really well, and I could overlook the fact I was carrying five small batteries into the field every day. Bottom line: you can't judge a camera from a press conference, a press release, a rumor site, or a spec sheet. You have to shoot with it, and when you do it's you versus the camera. You'll either validate the things you thought about it, invalidate them, or be surprised by things you didn't even think about when you pre-ordered at Zero Hour. 
  • Reality Sinks InThe A7r again comes to mind, but so do a lot of other nascent systems. What lens will I use? Did I imagine something, like focus performance or more importantly frame rate with autofocus, that turned out to be less useful than I imagined? Did I really think through how this camera would impact my shooting? Even really good products can have disappointing things about them when you're holding them in your hand. Things that you didn't quite catch onto when the Internet fired up all the press release rewrites and all the folk at press junkets got their "initial impressions" in. But the far worse thing that's causing for a bit of reality letdown is the number of “guessed-at inflamed impressions" followed by an affiliate link these days.
  • Overly friendly return policiesWhat’s the harm in pre-ordering if you can return the item and get your money back? Costco, at one point, had a return policy that would let you use an item for months before deciding to return it. This is the old “get it in the users’ hands and they’re not likely to endure even a simple process to return an item” tactic that some retail stores have been using for years. But nevertheless, there will be some small number who take advantage of that and return the item, causing another statistic to be added to the refurb pile. Indeed, some of these return policies are so friendly that people often write me saying something along the lines of “I’ll preorder the X and also they existing Y and Z and then just return the two I like the least.” 


But the reasons that trigger the returns don't really matter. What matters is that a lot more cameras seem to be being returned to vendors these days and many of those are ending up in the refurbish bin. Which brings us to the next problem: what does refurbished mean?

Nikon published their original definition in 2005 and updated it this year. It says: "These products have been carefully reconditioned by Nikon Inc. to meet all factory specifications. Refurbished products may have signs of previous use (minor body wear or other cosmetic indications) but contain all original cables, batteries, manuals and other accessories and are protected by a 90-day limited warranty." 

I believe that this means that Nikon puts the returned camera on their test station and does the same basic set of overall function tests that they do on cameras that come in for repair. "Factory specifications" is a range on most things, like focus. If you remember back when the D800 focus problems were at their height, a lot of folk sent their camera in for repair and got them back from Nikon with the words "within factory specifications" even when they could see clearly that they had a left side softness bias in the focus system (i.e., the problem they had sent it in for and which Nikon was repairing). Thus, I'm not sure that "factory specifications" is going to catch all possible issues. In fact, I'm sure that it doesn't. I’ve seen plenty of reported cases of "refurbished" D600's having the shutter problem and "refurbished D800's" having the focus problem, for example. 

As you long-time readers all know, I’m a fan of buying on need, not want. And especially not lust or heat of the moment. So if you’re in the market for a camera during the next few months, I suggest that you try to dial down your reaction to leaks and rumors and look more at the reality of what you can get today, how much it costs, and whether it’s what you really need. If you can’t get something (out of stock), it costs too much, or it’s not what you need, then wait; every year around Jan/Feb and again in Aug/Sept we get a large number of new product launches, and these days we’re seeing something interesting popping up virtually every month in the camera world. When those new things get announced, try to get to the facts and reality of the product not the lust factors. If it’s likely what you need and you haven’t bought yet, great, pre-order the item from your favorite vendor (which I hope includes this site’s exclusive advertiser) or better yet, wait for the real evaluations by the more unbiased organizations reviewing cameras to get done and then order it if it meets your needs.

There will always be some refurbished gear hitting the market. As you might have noticed, a lot of things can cause gear to get returned in ways that puts it into the refurbishment mill. But hopefully if we as consumers make more informed decisions and dial down our lust factor we can keep the refurbishment problem from getting bigger than it already is. 

As I was doing some final edits on this article, I noticed a post on a camera forum from someone that basically said “I just saw some images from a friend who shot them years ago with an older camera and I was wowed by those shots.” Uh, yeah. Some of us pros have been shooting with digital for well over a decade now. Ten years ago I supplied some digital shots to a magazine that hadn’t yet used any—they were a bit of a film bigot at the time—and no reader ever noticed anything different about them. In fact, when National Geographic started treating digital shooters pretty much the same as film shooters many years ago, I knew that we had hit a threshold: the cameras were good enough for one of the most finicky photography user out there. 

Cameras have only gotten better since. So I’m pretty sure there’s a camera on the market today that will take great photos for you. Sure, there will be someone who thinks that the new camera smell is critical taking great shots, but they’re wrong. The next camera announced may indeed be something I want to use because it gives me something critical that I’m missing today. But the likelihood of that gets lower and lower as cameras have gotten better and better. 

Let me put that another way: there isn’t a DSLR in Nikon’s current lineup that I couldn’t shoot with and generate the images I do. Not a single one fails at my basic needs. So the bar is set pretty high for me to lust after a new one. In case you’re reading this Nikon, I’ve stated for years what that bar is: communicating, programmable, modular. Now even I would pre-order that the minute a dealer would take my order.

 

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