Mass market retailers such as Target, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart have recently begun complaining to their suppliers that their customers--you and me, that is--have been using their stores as showrooms. We supposedly visit their stores primarily to get a first hand look at the merchandise and then do a price comparison with an online retailer. If the price plus shipping is less than the price plus sales tax, we go with the online retailer. These retailers have asked their suppliers to create products exclusively for them; products you can’t find elsewhere and therefore can’t comparison-shop.
There’s nothing particularly new to this. Back in the day when photo retail chains and shops were common they would offer special kits that would typically include an off-brand lens or two, a camera bag, a strap, a lens filter and so on, all to persuade you that you were getting a better deal from them than you could get somewhere else. The twist is that the big box stores and the decline in film processing have steadily been putting the smaller photo retailers out of business. These photo retailers were where we used to go to fondle the latest equipment. Now they’re as scarce as hard-core Republicans at an Obama campaign rally.
This doesn’t necessarily mean we photographers now do all our camera shopping at mass market retailers. For one thing, mass market retailers only sell mass market cameras. If you’re looking for something more esoteric, such as a Pentax K-5 or Fuji X100, or more pricey, such as a Leica M9, Nikon D700, or Canon EOS 5D Mark II, you had best look elsewhere. For another thing, the salespeople they employ are poorly trained and, shall we say, “ill-informed.”You’re not likely to get much useful information from them.
So where else do we buy if not at mass market retailers? Increasingly it’s at even larger online retailers such as Amazon, B&H Photo, Adorama, Calumet, and others. Handling the equipment is not an option with online retailers, at least not until you’ve bought it, at which point your options are either to keep it or return it.
I suspect the fact that so many of us have little choice except to buy expensive equipment sight-unseen explains why we scour the Internet for reviews and log onto forums to ask perfect strangers what camera or lens to buy. Others simply embrace the new zeitgeist and buy-to-try. As long as they can use a piece of equipment for a week or two, return it, and pay nothing more than shipping charges and perhaps a small restocking fee then what have they got to lose?
My fear is that as more sales become concentrated into the hands of fewer and larger retailers we will lose the very thing that has caused so much of the shift from large to small: competition. That could mean higher prices and fewer options—until a few retailers and manufacturers with an entrepreneurial spirit broke away from the pack to offer local showrooms stocked with real equipment, face-to-face customer service, expert advice, and reasonable prices. To quote the original French expression, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.”