Consumer Fatigue

It started with some comments on YouTube but as I thought through the implications, I started to feel that what is true of cameras, which is where this started, might also be true of very many other product areas and that has broader implications for the global economy.

As my passion is photography, over time I have found a handful of people who post camera revues and vlogs about photography in general on YouTube they are always worth watching whenever they publish a new material, one of these is a chap called David Thorpe.

Background

David is a photographer and he specialises in using Micro 4/3rds mirrorless systems which are a lighter and more portable alternative to DSLRs. Whilst I have a lightweight mirrorless system, I still prefer using my DSLRs but David has a very good way of expressing himself plus a superb voice over style so I enjoy the work he posts. This particular one was a revue of an upgrade to an existing Panasonic camera but one that comes somewhere in their ‘mid range’ line up rather than at their premium models.

I posted a comment and whilst the following exchange may at one level only be fully understood by people who are into photography, perhaps the sense will still come through, below after this, I will highlight particular key aspects.

Me

Good review but then again, yours always are. I must confess that I wondered why they bothered, it seems very incremental but Panasonic (4k with everything) probably felt that they had to do something further down their product range having rather peaked with the GH5, GH5s and G9.

David Thorpe

Thanks, John. Yes, I agree they are rather forced into ‘upgrading’ their models to keep the interest up and the sales flowing. I find it hard to see what they can do now since the IQ has probably gone as far as it can with the 20Mp sensor and lack of low pass filter. I wonder if they are working on a new sensor type – that seems the only big new thing they could do. I read stuff about it but it all seems pretty far in the future. They can probably get 120fps 6K another stop or two of stabilization but those sort of things are just circus tricks as far as I’m concerned. I’d like 24Mp with two stops better noise as an aim but I’m not really bothered. So what now?

Me

David, yes in a way it seems to me that the ICL camera industry is in a bit of an odd spot currently with both Sony and Panasonic having rather “over performed” technically in recent years. Where do they go next in a volume market that has fallen considerably in numbers of boxes shifted whilst the really clever technical stuff comes with a big price tag and likely niche numbers in terms of sales volumes. Strangely for Canon and Nikon, the way ahead is crystal clear, high performance mirrorless !

Canon has already mapped out their ‘consumer end’ mirrorless offerings in the M Series which the recent M50 seems to indicate that they will upgrade but keep around/under the £1,000 price point, all they need now do is to match Sony at the full frame end of the market. Where I think Panasonic still has a major edge is around the GH5 type package which is still a stunning value for money platform for those people into serious video and film making.

David

You’re right about Canon and Nikon. They can still trade on brand recognition gained over the course of half a century and for them starting out on electronic cameras gives them a direction. I think Panasonic will survive OK because they are such a widespread consumer business and they are innovative too, so that advances in digital imaging can be applied to their ENG cameras etc. I hope Olympus survive but they seem the most vulnerable. Interesting times!

Changing Times

The picture that heads this piece is of two video cameras, the larger one I bought in 2002 and uses video tape which is the big cartridge beside it, the smaller one in front is a present day camcorder which uses small SD memory cards. I won’t bore you with the technical differences but suffice it to say that in terms of the sheer convenience and quality of output, the newer and smaller one is far better and because the “engineering” has been greatly simplified, it is far cheaper to manufacture which translates into a far lower retail price.

However whilst most people would look at the cameras, in reality it is the two storage mediums that are most important in understanding why the tape cameras are no longer made. Tape is linear, you have to wind the tape backwards and forwards to get to the particular video sequence you want to look at, SD cards are not, you can go directly to the file you want just by browsing the card, no rewinding required.

But for all that, today sales of consumer grade video cameras are in decline and whilst one might say that many of these sales have ‘transferred’ to more conventional types of cameras because they all now incorporate extensive video capabilities, that is probably not true either because their sales too have declined since around 2010 which was probably the “peak consumer demand” in terms of sales volumes. The main driver for this has undoubtedly been the rise of the smartphone as the primary “camera of choice”. This was underlined for me this morning whilst attending Mass on a Sunday when young children were making their “First Holy Communion”, lots of photographs were taken but all on smartphones, not a single conventional camera was to be seen.

The point being that smartphones which most people have with them most of the time are not just more convenient than carrying another device, a camera, by using it they have their pictures right where they need them, on their phone, Facebook etc because few pictures actually get printed out !

Where It Gets Interesting

Whilst the mass market might have deserted the market for buying cameras, a sure sign being that Currys/PC World carry far fewer models than they used to in their stores, photographers both professional and amateur have not but this will have an impact on the whole economics as far as camera manufacturers are concerned which touches on David’s “So what now ?” question.

Due to the high volumes of sales 7/8 years ago, there has been an enormous amount of investment in cameras designed around complex electronics, the demise of the DSLR with its mechanical pivoting mirror engineering has long been predicted. This is logical, if mechanical function can be eliminated and replaced with solid state chips, it will be in the interests of greater longevity and lower manufacturing costs. However if production runs are diminished because of lower sales volumes, it may not be economic to do so as R&D plus production tooling costs may never be recovered in the normal product cycle period on lower sales.

Additionally, if you strip out the consumer element which drives sales volumes, something else happens because few photographers change their cameras every year even if they are professionals, in other words, your core customer base is not by nature, your high volume base from the “good years”. Inevitably prices will rise and innovation, decrease which may not be a bad thing in some respects.

Modern Manufacturing

The big problem with much of the global manufacturing business is that its high quality output relies on very heavy investment in R&D and production tooling which in turn requires high sales volumes to recover those costs whilst keeping the products competitively priced in the marketplace. I couldn’t understand how a mobile phone brand that only sold 6 million or so units in a Quarter could be considered a ‘failure’ until I grasped that global output amounted to roughly 1.4 billion units of all types per annum !

The obvious drawback with all this comes down to what happens when either markets become saturated and/or, people simply fall out of love with a brand or product type as they have currently with diesel engined cars. The problem with the car industry is that they don’t have an immediate and attractive alternative, electric and sensible hybrids are not mainstream and fully developed anyway, its almost as if the public don’t have a fresh new product to buy so an industry wide slump seems pretty inevitable and this is likely to happen to whole swathes of industry because there is and has been for some time a lack of product innovation an iPhone is an iPhone nothing radical about the latest version…

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