The Consumers Are Restless

First some facts. In 2021 so far (3.5 months in):

  • Canon — one future camera (R3), three future lenses (100mm, 400mm, 600mm)
  • Fujifilm — two cameras (GFX100s, X-E4), four lenses (18mm, 27mm, 80mm, 70-300mm)
  • Nikon — one future camera (Z9), no lens announcements
  • Olympus — no camera or lens announcements
  • Panasonic — no camera, one lens (70-300mm)
  • Sony — one camera (A1), five lenses (24mm, 35mm, 40mm, 50mm, 50mm)

Normally in the first few months of each year, we get quite a few announcements, often triggered around big trade shows. We're three shows in, and we've got mostly squat, with Fujifilm and Sony being the main exceptions. Overall, we're probably at a quarter of the expected cameras, a third of the expected lenses for this time period.

It's basically like listening to crickets in Tokyo right now. The marketing departments appear to be on sabbatical. Management is huddled around Zoom meetings planning strategy. 

We're three months away from the (not yet cancelled) Tokyo Olympics. Normally that, too, would generate more apparent action in the camera companies—and probably explains the three cameras and two of the thirteen lenses that have been announced—but still not nearly as much action as we would expect. Given that the Tokyo Olympics won't have foreign spectators, the need to be marketing to the incoming crowds is nil. That's why the primary Canon/Nikon/Sony camera thrust has been at the pros who would be photographing at the games.

The camera business is mostly on hold at the moment. I expect that to change some in the next two months, but not a lot. 2021 is going to be a year of only a handful of new cameras as well as filling out lens lineups on known paths. 

I'm hearing more and more complaints from the enthusiast and pro practitioners about the quiet, and more and more complaints about things that are out of stock, as well (particularly Nikon, but it's happening with others, too, and will happen even more if other companies have to consolidate plants and other facilities). 

At the heart of this "quiet time" are four things:

  • The pandemic — offices got disrupted, travel by engineers to factories got disrupted, presentations from parts suppliers got disrupted and went virtual, some economies are lagging. 
  • Parts supply — semiconductor plants are pretty much fully booked, parts are still in short supply. A critical plant burnt down. Another plant closed for upgrade. Wafers are in short supply. 
  • Shipments — container supply in SE Asia is problematic. This appears to be partly residual damage from the US/China disputes where cargo started becoming highly one-way, as well as the fact that both the docks and return shipments of containers are operating slowly. Shipping costs have gone up. 
  • Contraction — the camera market is far smaller than it was even a couple of years ago. 

All of those things will resolve themselves in some way, though I don't think they'll resolve quickly.

Nikon has said pretty emphatically that they're planning (and managing) on being far smaller in the Imaging group than previously. Canon was making that same noise starting a couple of years ago, but hasn't really taken it to heart yet that I can see. Fujifilm and Sony are operating as if they can make it through the smaller market by filling more niches. 

The reality is simple: fewer products, higher prices, longer iteration cycles. That's the most likely combination of things that can weather the multiple storms and keep the dedicated camera companies in the camera business. Nikon, Olympus, and Panasonic already seem to be working in this realm. Canon still has some clear downsizing to do. Fujifilm and Sony probably won't be able to sustain their aggressive product pushes for very long; they'll have to figure out models to cut and get more aligned with the market.

My advice to folk is to think more long term. Your current gear still works, you don't need to be in a hurry to replace it, and when you do, it should be a carefully considered replacement. 

That said, my In Box gets more and more "where is the..." messages every day. The natives are getting more restless. 

This is exactly where marketing departments need to come to life. Unfortunately, marketing at the camera companies has now devolved to cut-and-paste product announcements (and, of course, we're getting fewer of those).  

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