There was a time when Canon was doing well, the odds were the photo industry was buoyant. However that relationship is gradually being de-coupled, and a look at Canon’s first quarter results for 2019 would indicate that, for the rest of the photographic ‘ecosystem’, that’s actually a good thing.
Canon’s Imaging Unit has reported a 23 percent fall in camera sales compared to Jan-March 2018, leading to a 81.6 percent fall in profit – from US$230 million to just $42 million. Reflecting its fundamental pessimism about the camera business, Canon is predicting global interchangeable lens camera sales to fall by 17 percent this year – a more negative prediction than that of the Japanese camera manufacturers’ association, CIPA.
Canon was camera market leader for well over a decade, but if you based industry health on Canon’s financials today you would assume the camera business was going to hell in a hand basket. In the last 12 months, Canon has been losing its much-prized market leadership – and seems bereft of plans to win it back.
In its 2018 financial year (April 2018 – March 2019) Sony’s Imaging Products & Solutions business unit (cameras and lenses, but excluding image sensors) had sales of 670 billion yen – up 2 percent on 2017, and about 10 percent up in operating profit. Canon camera and lens sales in its 2018 financial year were just 595 billion yen – down 14.6 percent on 2017. It’s predicting just on 500 billion yen in sales for 2019 – that’s a huge fall in one year and creates a yawning chasm between Sony and Canon. This is a profound change in the camera market – ‘Canikon’ no longer describes anything.
While it hasn’t issued any press releases to announce it, Sony is now the market leader in cameras, as we flagged in an earlier article.
Gloom and doom at Canon
On the other hand, Canon is in big trouble in its camera business. It concedes that DSLR sales are contracting faster than it ever anticipated: ‘The habit of capturing images with smartphones with improved cameras has become a part of daily lives of consumers. As a result, the market for entry-level DSLRs is contracting at a pace that exceeds the outlook we had at the beginning of the year.’ (Keep in mind the beginning of the year was a bit over three months ago!)
So it’s smartphones wot done it, according to Canon CEO Fujio Mitarai, ‘…we expect the market contraction to continue for another two to three years, due to the rise of the smartphones.’ In January he said the market for interchangeable lens cameras could drop by 50 percent in the next two years.
Canon acknowledges that there are growing segments in the camera business, they just aren’t the segments in which Canon has been a major player – mirrorless cameras, and in particular full frame mirrorless. So if it weren’t in denial, Canon would concede its distress is not all to do with smartphones, but also due to competitors making better strategic decisions (mirrorless, full-frame) and offering superior technology (check out DxOMark’s poor ratings for Canon image sensors and and lenses): ‘Mirrorless cameras, known for being small and lightweight, are increasing their presence in the market. Amid this situation, we will steadily shift our focus from DSLR to mirrorless cameras with the aim of maintaining our overwhelming competitiveness, which we have built upon DSLRs.’ ‘…From a profit perspective, in the full-frame sensor category where particularly high growth continues, even among mirrorless models, we will work to improve our product mix, actively expanding sales of both R System products.’
But is it too late? Canon only has a couple of bodies and a few very expensive lenses in play in this segment. The R and RP haven’t been as well-reviewed as competing new cameras from Nikon, Panasonic and Olympus. Its great strengths as stated are in DSLR and, in the enthusiast market in particular, APS-C format DSLR. It admits to a large build-up of inventory of ‘due to a slow down in sales of mainly DSLRs’ – which it might have a hard time clearing given falling demand. There’s a big cash-back campaign going on in the US market right now.
There’s a gloomy, almost defeatist tone to the Canon commentary accompanying the First Quarter results: Smartphones are killing us…accelerated market contraction for DSLRs…overall market contraction well into the future…significant decline in sales and profits…bummer upon bummer.
It’s almost as if Canon is telling investors, ‘Look, we’ll do our best, but we haven’t got a great deal of confidence in the camera business. But anyhow, if it doesn’t work out, we do have a Plan B:
‘…there is a portion of the market that will certainly remain, in particular segments serving the needs of professionals and advanced amateurs. Therefore, in order to defend our top market share position, we will sustain our maximum business efforts.
‘At the same time, we are taking measures to shift our business focus toward B2B, expanding our business sphere to automotive and industry use.’
Doesn’t inspire confidence, does it?
– Keith Shipton