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Editorial, Jan 19, 2012: Good signs for specialists

In this issue, respected retailer Alan Small has favoured us with an opinion piece in which he argues that if the prevailing trading conditions over the past few years haven’t killed you yet, they’ve made you stronger and in better condition to take advantage of what he detects as a pendulum swing back to the specialist.

I like his thinking on this swing of the pendulum notion. Australians and, I suspect, New Zealanders have stopped spending indiscriminately on ‘one of everything’, but last time I looked it was still very much a consumer society. We may, however, be more considered and careful in our purchases in 2012. We may even be willing to spend a bit more on the things we really want rather than just snapping up the latest model of everything. If that’s the case, we discriminating consumers are going to need some help, guidance, expert advice, and somehwere to come back to if we encounter a problem or two.

Technological change may also aid this re-emergence of the specialist. It would appear that the mass market demand for compact cameras is on borrowed time, with the Apple 4S and other smartphones beginning to present as viable alternatives to dedicated snapshooting cameras. If demand for compacts falls off, interest in the photographic category from larger CE retailers will follow. Harvey Norman is already re-configuring store space away from electronic gadgets and computers and giving it to home furnishings and the like.

The ‘treachery’ of highly-supported customers like Harvey Norman and JB in going grey may also cause distributors to ask a few questions about their priorities in the marketplace, and reconsider the value of retailers who value loyalty, and can do more than sell big on small prices.

But it will be a different marketplace. Maybe something like it used to be before the onslaught of digital technology – but critically without volumes of D&P as a financial foundation.

There has been a school of thought that says the days of the photo specialist are coming to an end. As absurd as it may seem, the leader of this school heads up Fujifilm. ‘With friends like that…’ one might think! But I for one don’t buy it. Not because of any deep insights into retailing or marketing or photo technology, but because I’m a 2012 consumer myself: If I was in the market for a new bike, I’d go to a specialist bike shop for the range and advice and after-sales service. If I were buying a new musical instrument, I would likewise go to a specialist rather than take my chances on eBay. So what’s the difference when I’m buying a new DSLR or tripod or filter kit, or ordering an enlargement I want just right?

The challenge for photo retailers, in my opinion, is to excite their customers about picture-taking, so that the new DSLR lens is more desirable than that bike or guitar or whatever else people are cautiously considering acquiring.

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