Selective Focus: Browsing in One Place and Buying in Another

Selective Focus: Browsing in One Place and Buying in Another


In the CE world, the consumer is browsing in one place and buying in another. The irony is that the very technology that places like Best Buy are selling is what’s killing places like Best Buy (plus CompUSA, Circuit City and numerous other CE shops). The world of widescreen TV sales is a wicked one indeed.

In regard to the photo industry and camera sales, I’ll be darned if I can figure out how one buys a camera without holding it in one’s hands, despite the best 3D views engineered to entrance on the Internet. It’s like buying a car online without test-driving it. How do you know if your hands fit the camera or if the zoom is wide or long enough for your way of seeing? How do you parse every specification to be sure that there is a wanted depth of field preview or that the ocular has a diopter strong enough for your extremely nearsighted aunt?

With more Best Buys and their ilk closing, I wonder where the consumer will get that in-hand experience anyway, given that specialty retailers are not exactly on every corner.

What’s happened, of course, is that purchases are made on the basis of price, and that price comparisons are the first thing you get with any search of a product online. Yes, there is marketing; yes, consumers research the items on the web or via magazines. And they will go kick the tires at a retailer, but at the end of the day they go back home and plunk their hard-earned money down with an online seller.

There’s no question this is what’s killing many retail outlets, and photo specialty stores, or even large photo departments in other shops, have not been spared. But guess what—in some cases, and increasingly in the photo business, I’m discovering there’s really no advantage for consumers to do that.

In olden days, the expectation was that you might pay more at one shop or another, but you shopped and bought at a place that might charge the extra few bucks because you expected, and got, some time there with someone who knew what they were doing. They could help you make a decision based on knowing you, your needs and desires, and thus match you with the right gear. Manufacturers would spend lots of training time helping dealers and their staff qualify the customer, and then familiarity and some good old-fashioned salesmanship would hopefully take over from there. It didn’t hurt that the customer would also visit the shop when they wanted to get their film developed, making them a frequent visitor who would become a friendly buyer.

That relationship exists in some shops, and they are our industry’s treasures, but increasingly even a visit to one of the vaunted CE retailers to query about some tech matter is more often than not met with a blank stare and a mumbled tip to “check online for that.” Well, who can blame them? What with so many specs and so many models and so many odd questions from tire kickers, they know they will just go home and shop online anyway.

It’s pretty easy to get a price comparison on the Internet. You just Google the camera and there are more than enough offers and charts. Even the manufacturer’s site will give you a “where to buy” button, although the direct sell is becoming more and more common among photo goods makers and distributors.

The interesting thing, though, is that with some manufacturers and models, the reins on price are so tight that buying online or in a shop may not make any difference price-wise. The minimum advertised price policy is perhaps a way that manufacturers are protecting retailers, or it may be a way to tightly control distribution and competition and profit margins. That’s not for me to judge.

As an example, I recently ran some research on the price of a popular DSLR from a major manufacturer, and every place I researched, including online, local retail shops (that had a web-selling portal), big-box CE retailers and even the company’s direct-buy offer on their own site had the same, exact price. To the penny. (BTW, I also found that “gray” has made it online as well. That same model, listed as “new,” was available from a Hong Kong seller at $27.50 below the other prices, with “free worldwide shipping,” and no tax, I presume.)

My question is: if the camera maker can enforce the price online and in brick-and-mortar retailers to such an extent, what possible advantage could there be to the consumer in buying the model online? Why not get the benefit of the salesperson’s knowledge and buy the camera right at the counter? Why schlep back home and go online and risk all those pirates and spammers and scammers?

The answer I think is simple—proximity. That proximity is the glowing screen on the kitchen table or in the home office, one that’s always open, makes shopping easy and doesn’t raise the probability that your car’s side door will get keyed in the parking lot. It’s not having to check business hours and fitting the whole shopping scene into a hectic schedule.

But, as I said, if someone is buying a camera I feel they need to have some hands-on time, don’t you? Well, how about another scenario—shopping online to get the price (the customer will get the same price everywhere anyway) and then going to a retail shop to buy it? Turn the tables on the whole insidious business and get folks back to work. Yet, the sad scene is that as more shops close, and the specialty retailer becomes more rare, the online buy might seem to offer benefits of zero travel time and much less hassle to find someone who knows an f-stop from a bus stop.

I suppose it might all get down to the degree of information one might need for a given product or the price of the product itself. In other words, the more complicated the product and the more the need for professional advice, the more likely one would be to visit a retailer rather than shop online. That bodes well for pro dealers, and those whose goods and services require more information than how long the zoom lens might be or the code on the inkjet cartridge to fit a user’s printer. But for commodity items like the above-mentioned but unidentified DSLR, there seems to be little difference in price, shipping, etc., that would make anything but inconvenience a block to buying anywhere.

I am just posing a dilemma that we need to solve. Should we accept the premise that photography has become a commodity business and that anyone can go and buy a camera or a quart of milk with the same lack of passion for the purchase? Frankly, for me, trolling the Internet has become the equivalent of watching a late-night movie on a cable channel with too many commercials—it’s five minutes of an overly edited movie and 10 minutes of commercials.

Bringing the passion back to the purchase, creating environments where price no longer need be the driver to browse one place and buy another, and making sure that retailer both large and small are given decent spreads at the commodity price are what may give some new lifeblood to the industry. Perhaps the infection of the Internet—and its creation of a price-driven consumer—has gone too far, but now that it is beginning to lose its price advantage, there may still be a cure.