THE ARRIVAL ON home turf of online selling colossus Amazon has had the Australian retail industry in a tizz, particularly a number of specialist areas such as books, consumer electronics and photography. It’s too early to tell whether the sky will fall on our heads, but as far as camera buyers are concerned, I’m not so sure everybody is going to suddenly change the way they make their purchases.
OK, so Amazon has built a trusted brand because it delivers on its promises (there’s a lesson there for all retailers) and so the buying experience is always a positive one. And you can nearly always get what you want with the minimum of fuss which, to be fair, is true of many online sellers, including in photography. The key Australian players in this space – digi-DIRECT and Digital Camera Warehouse – have also created solid reputations by doing the same things. I’ve purchased from both and they’ve never disappointed. In one instance, I was called personally to be informed that my order would take slightly longer than promised to fulfil… sorry for the delay, but we’re onto it. Service.
Over the last few years the Australian market has matured to the point where the allure of buying from overseas-based online sellers has diminished, partly because the price differences are no longer attractive enough, but also because you can’t always be guaranteed you’ll get what you ordered. A concerted effort by the local industry to enforce the value of an Australian warranty has helped too. However, the maturity of Australian buyers – allied in some part with the maturity of the digital imaging technologies along with a reasonably healthy economy – means that they’ve largely moved beyond looking at price alone and want to make more informed decisions. We’re over the time of regular upgrades because the technology was changing so quickly… now a new digital camera is expected to (and certainly can) serve you a lot longer, so it’s once again important to make the right decisions. As a result, the face-to-face experience of a bricks-and-mortar (or, perhaps more accurately, a flesh-and-blood) camera store is regaining value.
It’s no accident that the major online players in this country now also have one or more real stores as well, or that their Websites all have chat facilities to deal with questions in a more personal way. Of course, the bigger on-street retailers also have online businesses so it’s becoming less and less about ‘us-and-them’ and more about giving consumers what they want… in whatever way they want. That said, while buyers may well be better informed than ever before, the hands-on demo conducted by a well-trained salesperson provides education, confirmation and, perhaps most importantly, validation. For many, this is increasingly worth the effort of actually going to a shop rather than sitting at home browsing online.
With physical space limitations, it can be hard for a high street camera store to stock everything, but then we’re not talking about an endless array of brands here as is the case in some industries, and everybody has been forced to be more creative about inventory. Even the relative ‘newcomers’ (such as Panasonic and Sony) are now well represented across the country, reducing the need to endure the trauma of entering a consumer electronics chain store.
There’s little doubt online selling has flourished because many in traditional retailing didn’t quite grasp the concept of service and this has still been slow to change, but the photography industry has put in quite a bit of effort here, and standards have undoubtedly lifted. If the specialist camera stores (and, indeed, the Australian-owned online sellers) deliver the service that buyers expect and want, then Amazon has less chance of destabilising (or devaluing) the market. Of course, we consumers have to play fair too, at least giving the locals a chance to prove themselves and showing some loyalty when they do.
A healthy and vibrant retail sector is in all our interests and, as the critical link between consumers and the distributors and manufacturers, it holds the key to the former’s satisfaction and the latter’s profitability. However it happens, service is the key.