When Will the Panic Start?

(commentary)

An interesting thing is happening. CIPA shipment numbers indicate "sales" to the US of DSLRs at or above last year's in the last two months, but retail sales numbers from cash registers in the US show DSLR sales down by double digits. That means that there likely is an inventory buildup happening in the US. 

This is on top of an inventory that wasn't fully sold out for the last generation of cameras. At the moment, we have new D90, D3100, D5100, and D7000 cameras still available, for example. Yet shipments of more even more DSLRs are coming into the country. 

Earlier this week Bloomberg quoted a Tokyo-based Goldman-Sachs analyst as saying "I can't imagine the camera market will grow much further in the coming decade." This was in response to Canon themselves cutting their annual profit and sales forecasts. Canon also cut its interchangeable lens camera forecast for the year from 9.2m units to 9m, a 2% cut. Nikon, too, has indicated that their quarterly results may come up a little short of plan.

But let's go back to that Canon forecast 2% cut in interchangeable lens camera sales. One of the companies that track US cash register sales reports a 20% decline year-to-year in the category for the past two months. See the problem? Yes, I know the US isn't the entire world camera market, but the US is a relatively healthy economy compared to Europe at present, and represents about a third of DSLR sales overall. If you have steep declines in the US, you'd have to make large increases in sales somewhere else. Where is that somewhere?

I think we're going to have a very interesting Christmas run-up this year in cameras, especially if the CIPA shipments continue to be anywhere near 100% of last year's numbers. I think we're going to see some aggressive discounting in the final quarter of this year, and maybe even in the third quarter, as well.

Meanwhile, rumors persist about Sony going all-in on the all-electronic DSLR. As in removing the mirror completely and relying on the imaging sensor for focus. This is an interesting cycle, as well. Nikon was the primary leader in the original film SLR. Minolta changed the market completely with autofocus, launching the AF era. Nikon changed it again with the D1, launching the DSLR era. And now we have Sony appearing to be near a total commitment to the mirrorless DSLR era (legacy mount and depth intact but mirror removed). Is that the tipping towards another new high-end camera era? If so, it means that the increasing inventory of current DSLRs building up on shelves will have even more pressure on them to find homes.

Lest anyone think that what I'm writing here is that "Sony will dominate, and Canon and Nikon will fail," I'm not. Neither Canon nor Nikon has to be first mover in anything. They do have to respond. But as I've written before: it's all about the lenses. How well Sony will do with their new offerings is as dependent upon lenses as the removal of the mirror and other technical aspects. Canon and Nikon carried over from film to digital easily because they had large, loyal, legacy lens bases. Note that the two film players, Fujifilm and Kodak, recognized that enough that their early DSLRs used those lens mounts and were built off of Canon/Nikon film bodies.  

So what's to be learned from all this?

  1. If you're looking for your next DSLR and want a bargain, it might pay to wait a bit and see whether we get the sales I anticipate.
  2. If you're looking for the next great technology that drives DSLRs further, it might pay to wait a bit and see what Sony is up to. It could be a dud, it could presage the future. 

The thing about tech is this: there are two basic cycles: iteration and disruption. The constant iteration cycle has produced a lot of inventory, and there appears to be a potential for disruption not far off. You want to consider both things if you're in the market for a new camera.

But what I'm seeing right now from the Japanese is that they think they're using the Valentine McKee philosophy: "See, we plan ahead, that way we don't do anything right now." The question is this: when will they do something?


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