‘Unprecedented’ supply chain issues have exposed flaws in photo retailer e-stores, as many don’t accurately reflect stock levels, leading to unexpectedly long waits for customers after making a purchase.
Two Inside Imaging readers – professional photographers – explained how a poor online shopping experience left them feeling deceived. Both recommended fellow customers directly contact retailers and double-check that specific stock is available rather than go by what the online store says, particularly for left-field niche products.
After hearing from the first reader in February, who bought a Manfrotto tripod last August and was kept waiting until ultimately requesting a refund, Inside Imaging made some initial enquiries but held off covering the story after considering the two years of hardship faced by the local photo industry.
But the second reader, Melbourne photographer James Osborne, relayed a similar experience and was concerned that retailers will hurt their relationships with loyal customers. During a vigorous online search for a local retailer stocking a variety of high-end light stands, he contacted six sales reps to confirm the stated online availability and hit a dead end each time. This was despite being able to add the light stands he was seeking into the shopping cart, and proceeding to the final stage of check out to buy the items.
These aren’t isolated incidents. Photo retailers tend to list stock as available despite lengthy waits. A litany of fresh negative reviews paint similar experiences to James, highlighting that a pattern is emerging which is doing neither retailers nor customers any good.
‘All the retailers need to provide are lead times to be a little more up front and transparent with people,’ James told Inside Imaging. ‘It will save them time as well, because they won’t have to constantly be in contact with people answering these queries and issuing refunds.’
‘Our website does not show any stock levels at all, but is to be considered an indication of products that we can supply. It is always recommended to contact the store to confirm stock availability before ordering, and I would recommend this for any photographic store as most are in the same situation as us.’
Supply chain crisis
The e-commerce flaw is a knock-on effect of the ongoing global supply chain disruption, caused by several factors. This includes a worldwide parts shortages for components like semiconductors; Covid-19 travel restrictions and lockdowns, with major manufacturing hubs in China continuing to shut down; high levels of Covid infection impacting the overall workforce; and an international and domestic shipping and freighting supply shortage, accompanied by soaring costs.
Some of these factors overlap, as explained by Martin Ditmann, operations manager at Tecart, a Melbourne-based professional lighting distributor and manufacturer.
‘Certain factories have faced high illness rates and lockdowns in their cities,’ he told Inside Imaging. ‘For example, we’ve got an order made and ready to go from a particular factory, but we can’t actually ship it out because their city is locked down. Even if the factory is fine, their parts suppliers might not be. One of our divisions, Selecon, manufactures professional gallery lighting, and the lead time for LED chips and metalwork is months, whereas previously it was a fraction of that.
‘Freight has become much slower and more unstable. Our professional film customers often need things very quickly. Now even airfreight can take four weeks! And seafreight can sit at a port for months.’
These supply chain disruptions are obviously not exclusive to Tecart and professional lighting manufacturers. Last year Inside Imaging reported several delays for major new camera and lens releases, and at the end of 2020 covered the rising costs of air and sea freight due to a container shortage.
‘There are significant issues regarding supply of all categories of stock from all importers currently,’ Alex Meagher from Borges Imaging in Melbourne told Inside Imaging. ‘This is both due to production delays and parts shortages, and also due to issues around the state of international freight at this time.
‘There is unfortunately no accurate predictability around which products are facing delays at any given time, as it seems as soon as one shortage comes right, another arises. There is no sign that these issues will be rectified any time soon as Covid, natural disasters and now the Ukraine war continue to cause supply chain disruptions all around the world.’
Despite most nations easing Covid-related restrictions, the current Shanghai lockdown, housing one of the busiest shipping container ports, has illustrated the fragility of the supply chain uncertainty.
Another somewhat surprising factor is a demand increase for certain products. Martin observed that demand has ‘soared’ for C stands. This was corroborated by Matthew Harper, managing director for Vitec Imaging Distribution – which handles brands like Manfrotto, Avenger, Joby, and LowePro. He expects delays for some products to last until Spring.
‘We are experiencing significant stock delays across our brands with unprecedented demand levels and a shortage of raw materials contributing to the delays,’ he told Inside Imaging. ‘In particular our professional Lighting and Video products, such as products from our Avenger brand, are experiencing the longest delays. We have been scaling up our manufacturing capabilities over the last 18 months to satisfy the increased demand levels but we forecast delays to continue until Q3 of 2022.’
When we reported on the 2021 supply chain issues, it was also observed by CR Kennedy director, Clem Kennedy, that demand remained strong.
‘…If this is a problem across the board, perhaps the first online shop to tell me upfront about wait times is going to have a customer for life. It’s a better relationship than “take my money first and break it to me gently afterward”. It’s a bit of a bug for me.’
The online shopping conundrum
The result? Longer lead times for certain products. Martin observed a worst case scenario is lead times upwards of six months, and potentially up to a year. And further delays are often added to existing orders. It’s frustratingly unpredictable.
Prior to the supply chain crisis, back order lead times were manageable. Switched-on distributors safeguarded themselves by retaining excess inventory and ordering well in advance. But it’s now so tricky that even undertaking precautionary measures can’t guarantee a fail-safe outcome.
This has caused a big headache for specialist retailers which display their distributors’ entire catalogue in the e-store, and make orders as per a customer’s request. This is done partly to stay relevant in an furiously competitive international online marketplace that includes overseas powerhouses like B&H, Adorama, and Amazon – megastores with massive warehousing.
‘Our website has thousands of products listed – approximately 3500 total products. The vast majority of these items are not kept in regular stock but can be ordered at any given time,’ explains Alex from Borges Imaging. ‘Our website does not show any stock levels at all, but is to be considered an indication of products that we can supply. It is always recommended to contact the store to confirm stock availability before ordering, and I would recommend this for any photographic store as most are in the same situation as us.
‘We can quickly confirm stock availability with most of our suppliers and also can usually arrange for products to be direct shipped to customers from the suppliers’ warehouses to save on turnaround time. We endeavour to inform customers of issues regarding stock availability at the earliest opportunity.’
Alex is correct that it’s a wider photo industry problem. James Osborne cited similar experiences with DigiDirect, Georges Cameras, Tecart, and ProTog. It’s likely many other respected retailers are in the same boat.
‘I think it’s an endemic problem, and retailers should be upfront with people about their lead times for items,’ James said. ‘Maybe there is a way to frame that positively, because obviously if you say it’s out of stock you might lose a customer to another retailer. But if I have to suddenly wait 10 weeks, that’s going to piss me off.
‘But if this is a problem across the board, perhaps the first online shop to tell me upfront about wait times is going to have a customer for life. It’s a better relationship than “take my money first and break it to me gently afterward”. It’s a bit of a bug for me.’
A critical factor is that many retailers don’t have e-commerce software that automatically reflects like stock levels. While this comes off as slightly outdated, Alex highlights how there is an added layer of complexity when ”stock is not available in store but is available at our suppliers’.
‘Unfortunately it is unrealistic for a smaller photographic retailer such as ourselves to consider an active inventory system on our website, as the outlay cost to set this up plus ongoing cost vs the ever shrinking profit margins on photographic products are at odds.’
And up until now this system worked and benefitted all retailers. Smaller specialist retailers without the luxury of warehousing are able to display a huge online catalogue resulting in more sales. And this keeps the money flowing through the local photo industry and pulls customer eyeballs away from big international sellers. It’s often cheaper and quicker to buy locally, and supporting local business is a virtue in itself.
So up until now it was a case of the old mantra, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Now, well – it may not be completely broken – but it’s looking slightly antiquated.
Georges Cameras, which has a reputation as one of Sydney’s best, is currently investing in a new e-commerce platform.
‘Unfortunately our current website does not communicate with our Point Of Sales (POS) which reflects our live stock levels of over 20,000 Stock Keeping Units (SKUs),’ said Georges Cameras director, Michael Seymour. ‘Other players in our industry are in a similar situation. The good news is we are in the process of building a new website which will not only communicate with our new POS but also our suppliers inventory too. This will result in live, transparent information and make all our lives a lot easier.’
James is sympathetic to the retailers, but can’t shake off a sense he hasn’t been dealt with transparently. He feels at the very least, retailers should take steps to highlight Borge Imaging’s point that customers should make direct contact about availability.
There are some simple and cost-effective methods to reduce the point of friction, such as having a pop-up appear during checkout directing customers to make direct contact for lead times amid the supply shortages, or provide a notice during checkout that ‘this item is only available upon request.’