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10 May, 2005

Photo finished?

There seems to be an flawed assumption in today's Guardian report that:

Jessops profits hit as digital camera sales fall... The group said the digital camera market had unexpectedly run out of steam in February, hitting its worst level since digital cameras were launched in the mid 90s.
Is that really true?  Has there been a sector-wide reduction in sales volume, or just in the number of people buying from Jessops?

I suspect it's mainly the latter, perhaps extending to offline vendors in general. Given the greater range of cameras, superior information provision and overwhelmingly better prices available from online stores, who would prefer to buy in person nowadays?

I can think of only two reasons to still visit a high street shop.

Firstly, having done one's research online, one might like to compare particular cameras 'for real'. I did that when buying mine last year: I visited a branch of Jessops to study the model I'd already chosen online, and spent some time assessing the weight, grip, interface layout and other usability concerns a website couldn't resolve so readily. Yet after 15-20 mins, I politely thanked the manager and left, as their best price was a full £120 greater than I'd already found online.

Secondly, one might need advice. Websites provide a lot of information, especially if one is willing to spend time reading around the entire subject, but some consider there's no substitute for talking to someone familiar with the photography market. On reflection, this added value not offered by websites may be the USP which could save high-street shops.
Paradoxically, this favours small, independent camera shops, staffed by experts, which had previously been out-competed by national chains such as Jessops, as the latter tend to be staffed by retail workers, not photographers. They may have skills in product display and customer service, but could be selling books, bras or baked beans – retail's retail, whatever the product. Generally, one has limited confidence in information or opinions expressed by such staff (no more than in information provided by a website, anyway), and Saturday staff, typically teenagers still at school during the week, are stereotypically useless.
Of course, having obtained advice, there's nothing to prevent someone leaving an independent shop and buying the recommended equipment cheaper online, but I suspect that someone seeking personal advice would be more inclined to want an ongoing relationship with a 'real' shop. Owner-managers might also have the discretion to offer a free case or memory card to secure a sale, reducing any on/offline price dispariety.

There's a third alleged reason: to support local shopkeepers, on principle. No. Absolutely not. If the retail model is dead, it's utterly pointless to feed a corpse – sentimentality can't be justified. So long as specialist shops are genuinely viable, great, but if the end is approaching for Jessops et al., tough.

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