PMA 2007: Predictions of “Firsts” Mark a Watershed Year

PMA 2007: Predictions of “Firsts” Mark a Watershed Year

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The enthusiasm around this year’s PMA was palpable, with many calling it the year that the industry finally “got it”, or as one colleague described it, “PMA meets digital 2.0.” The change from last year’s show in Orlando in terms of both attendance and opportunities was noted by many. Dealers found more ways to get involved with digital than ever before, and I don’t just mean the large number of digicams and accessories that made their debut at the show. It was more about the realization that billions of digital images now reside in various venues, and that now’s the time to begin to show consumers, avid amateurs and even pros how they can make the most of those images. It’s about, to borrow another phrase heard at the show, “keeping images buoyant.”

One of the firsts mentioned above was a fairly startling statistic given out in an excellent DIMA gathering: 2007 marks the first time that more prints will be made from digital than “analog” (film) sources. I guess print counts are somewhat quantifiable, but then again how can one know how many prints are made at home, unless of course paper and ink buying is factored in as well?—it’s not. Nevertheless, the fact that this information is put out there gives it a certain “truthiness”, as Steven Colbert would say. Regardless of whether the number is 51/50% or not quite at such a tipping point is unimportant—what is important is the fact that the infrastructure is in place that would make such numbers plausible. This is something that we might have been hard pressed to say last year and surely could not say the year before that.

The same goes for the number of exposures made through various cameras, which is also said to be approaching the analog/digital tipping point. I couldn’t begin to guess how many film frames, on everything from 126 to disc to APS to 35mm and larger formats are being made out there, but after almost a century of accumulation of cameras it has to be quite a bit. And how the industry mavens know how many digital images are exposed each year baffles me completely; no one ever polled me, and I take lots of images with various digital cameras. Nevertheless, the numbers are an indication of a perception of the decline of film cameras. I don’t doubt the decline—anyone walking down a busy street in a tourist town can figure that one out. And film throughout can be measured by labs open and chemicals used. And most of those labs, if open at all, have been converted to digital image factories. So it’s now obvious that digital has not only overtaken the hardware side of photography—it’s overtaken the image, or “soft” side as well.

Photo Gifting Surge

One indication that manufacturers and service providers are “getting it” is the fact that for the first year we are seeing quality, and easily obtainable books, albums and other printed matter being offered to consumers, and not just the usual mugs and tee shirts. Now don’t get me wrong, everyone likes a good photo mug, but the books I am talking about are hard or soft bound, with easy, interchangeable layout templates and type interfaces, and can be ordered on the Internet or at photo kiosks in dealers with ease.

And these books weren’t just offered by the big two or three—they were available through any store—your store—with branding and infrastructure to boot. There was talk of books for everything from trips, to birthdays to special events and yes, even at funerals. I have attended many such sad events where the picture board was a wonderful reminder of a life lived as well as a spark for many a story. A book of photos at such an event, one which many could take away with them, would be a wonderful remembrance.

In fact, I would say that the photo “book”, or digital album, will be one of the hottest selling items in the coming years, and will become even more so as more consumers see its marvelous gift potential. It makes the most out of the digital “promise” by creating an easy to use venue that has tremendous personal value. If you haven’t yet explored this market I’d say it’s time to get aboard.

Repeat Buyers Dominate

While there was much talk of the end use, or output, of images, gear captured lots of attention at PMA 2007 as well. Another first in 2007 is that repeat buyers of digital cameras will now outnumber first time buyers. This is a fairly profound suggestion that the photo industry has turned a corner, one where buyers are much more savvy about what they want, and perhaps more importantly, what they don’t want in their digital camera. One thing we know for certain is that they do not want a camera with shutter lag, which more than anything, even the dreaded camera phone, has cut into the demand for low end, low tech digicams.

I have discussed this in past columns and will not flog that horse again, but if it is true that repeat buyers will outnumber first timers then many of them will be going after a digital SLR. And guess what—they are. Another first this year is that there will be an actual overall decline in the number of cameras sold, and that number is deflated by digicams (or point and shoot, or integral lens cameras, what have you) but not by DSLRs, which are predicted to be steady or actually rise somewhat in sales. The decline in digicam sales numbers has been called by some a “maturation” of the digital camera market, which I think is pretty funny. That’s some fast growing kid.

The dollar numbers will drop as well, what with the amazing price point/value propositions seen around the show floor. The entrance of GE Imaging into the business (whose company, by the way, had the second largest booth space at the PMA show, albeit way back in the hall) signals a very aggressive price war that will take place in the sub-$100 to $250 category. At a GE press event it became quite clear that the proposition would be about grabbing the lower end of the market, and while “we will be among the top three” is a clarion call for many digital camera makers and brand holders, the folks at GE said so as well, albeit giving themselves a three to five year time frame.

Zero Sum Game

And speaking of competition, it’s been said by many a maker that the digital camera business is fast approaching a “zero sum game”, which, simply put, means that if maker A sells more cameras then maker B will sell less. This is a fascinating prediction that, if true, will alter the landscape in how products are marketed and what products will, and will not be brought to market. While everyone is growing, competition is based on features, price, marketing and of course distribution muscle. But even if there’s less strength in one of the areas a growing market means that everyone might well get a piece of the pie. But in a tight market, or a zero sum scenario, then lack of strength or attention in any area can cost a maker dearly. This might cause additional consolidation, more alliances (such as within the 4/3 system) and perhaps even some makers reconsidering their play. I don’t believe it’s a dire as some would make out, but clearly the shifting among the top three this year has lessons for all. And when innovation equals market share equals survival, which for me has been the recent math, then showing strength in the DSLR field and technology in general will be more important than ever.

But there’s good news for dealers, and particularly for consumers in all this. In fact, while digital camera sales might be slowing accessory sales are soaring. This has made the independent lens manufacturers very happy (they have been waiting for this moment to arrive) as well as makers of bags, tripods and various other SLR accessory makers. Indeed, at one DIMA session it was predicted that bags will grow over 30% and even the good old tripod by almost 40% in 2007. How many years has it taken for those standards to get back into such territory? And even though CE and mass merchants certainly get to share this growth, the camera specialty dealer might be one of the greatest beneficiaries.

After all, when a customer is seeking a DSLR they will more than likely go somewhere to shop where they feel they will get good advice from someone who knows their business, and understands their personal needs. Yes, they can do all sorts of research on the Internet these days, but there has to be a point in a $600-$3000 purchase where they need to put their hands on what they are buying. And when it comes to a higher end DSLR, which a number of repeat buyers will be seeking, the camera specialty dealer is where they are most likely to go. And that would be another welcome first time event in a number of years—when the number of camera specialty dealers actually grows. yy

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