One Size Fits No One

The days of "make more SKUs" (stocking units) are over for most companies. That's because making the specific thing that someone might need is highly inefficient for the company making it. You've probably seen this on the clothing racks of your local store: not long after the new clothes arrive, a lot of Smalls are left, but not so much Large or Extra-Large. By the time the end of the fashion season arrives, colors, sizes, and other choices are all highly limited, yet there's often plenty of "excess" inventory that has to go on closeout racks for the lucky few that are the right size, looking for the right style, and waited.

At its height in the digital camera era, we had multiple brands with hundreds of camera SKUs (compacts, DSLRs, cameras+lens, and other kitting). Today, that's mostly gone. For example, here in the US it seems that Nikon is down to something like 12 Coolpix SKUs, 24 mirrorless SKUs, and 18 DSLR SKUs. Many of those are effectively out of stock. Realistically, if you walked into the physical B&H store today and tried to buy a Nikon SKU (one that isn't imported, or refurbished, or a B&H bundle), you'd probably only find about two dozen actually available to walk out of the store with (e.g. less than half the SKUs NikonUSA says are available).

The ongoing supply chain crisis is certainly having an impact here, as I've pointed out many times in the past six months. Couple that with the continued lowering of overall camera sales volume that's triggering all the brands to go upscale. Then add in the fact that the bean counters at the companies are trying to squeeze pennies out of everything to make the results look robust. What we're left with is fewer products to choose from.

This is the time of year that the traditional Japanese companies using top-down management styles are all huddled in conference rooms (or perhaps zoom portals these days) locking down short, medium, and long-term strategies. Since I'm most familiar with Nikon's inner workings, I can say with some certainty that the executives there—now with the top team knowing their fates and ranks via promotions—are making tough decisions. Those would be mostly centered on medium and long term strategy and tactics, but sometimes short term tactics will get suddenly changed during this period.

For instance, last week I wrote about crop sensor cameras. DX in Nikon-speak. The DSLR DX line has been squeezed down to current cameras only, many F-mount DX lenses have been completely shut down, and the fact that pricing in the DSLR DX line is no longer showing discounts—the D7500 is the sole exception—are all indications that crop sensor DSLR is being closed down by Nikon. They'll milk the last production and then recycle those portions of the Thailand manufacturing plant for something else. 

Meanwhile, mirrorless DX has essentially two models that are nearly identical other than outerwear: the Z50 and Zfc. We have three mirrorless DX lenses with only two more known to be coming. There's not a lot of meat on the mirrorless DX bone at the moment. It's more than possible that those management meetings going on right now might decide that DX as a strategy is no longer compelling, and thus should go on the closeout rack along with DSLR DX.

It's also possible that Nikon realizes that mirrorless DX still has potential. But here's the type of decision making that's going on behind closed doors in Tokyo right now: would it be better to make a Z70 (higher end DX) and add some lenses to the lineup or would an EVF-less, full frame Z4 and more lenses like the 24-50mm, 28mm, and 40mm be the better revenue producers? And should that mythical Z4 be the long-running button+dial style, or the dial-oriented style of the Zfc (and Df before it)? 

In the Sony world, there's the "they should make a 100mp full frame camera" chants from (a few) customers that echo across the Internet. I'm sure Sony management is thinking about that, as it's extension of the strategy they've been pursuing. But does the 61mp camera then go away? 

Canon and Sony right now are the last vestiges of "do something for everyone" philosophy in their design departments. However,  with overall market volume still dropping, you simply can't do that. If you do something new, two old things probably need to go, maybe more. 

That's the reason why I published the two articles I did last week. For Canon, Nikon, and Sony, the most likely thing to dial back is crop sensor cameras. For Fujifilm, Nikon, OM Digital Solutions, and Panasonic, success with high-end models is key to keeping the numbers working for them. Fujifilm and Pentax (Ricoh) still are being run mostly like hobby businesses under huge other umbrellas, so can and will try poking here and there as they please. Panasonic, and to a far lesser degree Sony, have very specific corporate-wide financial goals that are expected to be met or else top management goes into jettison mode. OM Digital Solutions still has to prove its overall viability in order to continue getting the venture funding they need to keep iterating.

We're not going to see as many new camera releases in 2022 as we saw in 2021, and last year was a down year to start with. My fear is that viable products that have smaller user bases and smaller margins are all being examined in Tokyo right now as to whether they should be continued. Nikon, for example, now has a reasonable full frame lineup that could start at US$1000: Z5, Z6, Z7, Z9, with the two middle models having two generations available to give a little more pricing spread. But that's the start of what my headline suggests: the fewer choices we have overall, the more likely that the exact product you want doesn't exist. 

Which brings us to this: you may have to overbuy (Z9) to get the things you want (and thus pay for things you don't want/need); or you may underbuy (Z5) and just give up on things you really wanted. A few of you in between (Z6/Z7) might get something closer to what you wanted, but the limited choices mean it's unlikely that you get exactly what you wanted for the price you're willing to pay.

To some degree we've always had that problem. With every camera ever released I've gotten a stream of "close, but it's missing X" messages in my In Box. Or worse: "nope, not what I really wanted." I expect in 2022 I'm going to be getting far more of those messages than in past years as the few new cameras trickle out, while older products disappear. 

All the "Brand X should do Y" suggestions that constantly flood the photographic-centric portions of the Internet are (mostly) going to fall on deaf ears in Tokyo. You can wish for a Z8 or a R7 APS-C, but you might not get them. Indeed, you won't get them unless the brass in Japan decide that they can sell that product to more people than need it. Way more people than need it. 

Most of the new camera releases I'm aware of or expect in 2022 are back-loaded into the second half of the year. So it's going to take a while before we see any tactical or strategic movements from the camera companies, though discontinuing things might be a trend that picks up. 


My strategy if I were running a camera company would be towards more "soft bundles" (rebates on combined purchases) with a more limited product line that is more enhanced at the low end. You might notice, for example, that Apple started the M1 era at their low end. That's the kind of enhancement the camera industry needs, but probably won't get. All of the camera companies see that as cannibalizing their high-end product, which they believe is the thing that's saving them. I'll just say this: there's a difference between offense and defense. Most of the camera companies are playing defense at the moment. 

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