When photographer Bill Fitzpatrick went shopping for a new Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II lens recently, he figured he’d have little trouble finding one. The lens had been on the market for nearly two years and he assumed one of the big online photo retailers would have it, maybe even for a competitive price. Not so.
“I went to B&H Photo but it was out of stock. I looked around some other places and damned if it wasn’t the same thing everywhere,” Fitzpatrick said. “I was really surprised.”
As any photographer who’s recently tried to find new camera gear knows, Fitzpatrick’s case is not unique. In the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that killed over 10,000 people in Japan in March and wreaked havoc in the country’s industrial north, camera stores and online retailers worldwide are facing severe gear shortages with products chronically out of stock due to disruptions in the production and supply flow.
For further evidence, check out web sites such as NowInStock.net, which tracks the availability of popular products. Click the links for the Canon 5D Mark II or Nikon D700, two cameras that have been around since 2008, and you’ll likely see them out of stock at many of the country’s major retailers including B&H, Adorama, Calumet and even Amazon.
There has also been a dearth of camera introductions in recent months. While this is due, in part, to the ebb and flow of product cycles – spring is typically a lean time for gear releases – retailers we spoke with told PDN that manufacturers had informed them some camera announcements had been delayed because of the ongoing crisis in Japan.
In fact, Nikon’s headquarters in Japan said at least one of its Coolpix point-and-shoot models, the S4100, would not be introduced as planned in certain parts of the world because of the quake. (The company later said the S4100 and another Coolpix model, the 6100, will continue to ship in the U.S. and the rest of “the Americas.”)
While not being able to buy a particular camera or lens might sound like a minor nuisance compared to the massive loss of life and destruction of property in Japan from the earthquake/tsunami, the problems facing the camera industry affects both Japan’s economic recovery and millions of jobs worldwide.
How badly camera and lens factories in Sendai and northern Japan – the region most affected by the disaster – have been impacted is hard to gauge. Nikon, Canon, Olympus, Pentax and others have not exactly been forthcoming with how much damage they’ve suffered both in the short and long term. (For a good breakdown on how the earthquake and tsunami affected the Japan Photo Industry immediately after the disaster, check out this article by Mason Resnick of the Adorama Learning Center.)
Though some have predicted consumer electronics giant Sony might gain ground on Canon and Nikon because the factory that produces its digital SLRs wasn’t as hard hit as its rivals, Sony’s overall situation is much more dire. Because of damage to its factories in northern Japan, Sony warned on Monday it might be reporting a $3.2 billion loss in the just-ended fiscal year.
According to manufacturers and photo industry experts we spoke with, the biggest problem in getting camera gear production back to pre-quake levels have been the rolling blackouts that have turned Japan’s electrical grid into a game of checkers.
“When you have people who need to ramp up production, you can’t just turn on an (imaging) chip fabricator and then turn it off again,” said Gary Pageau of PMA, a photo industry trade group. “It just doesn’t work that way.”
When we contacted Canon USA for a comment for this story, the company said while its plants are back on line, the power rationing in Japan was slowing production.
“As of the end of April, all Canon factories in northern Japan are again fully operational, however, production at some factories have not returned to pre-quake levels due to the availability of necessary parts from our suppliers as well as restricted use of electricity,” the company told PDN in a statement.
As alluded to in that account from Canon, problems with supplies for specific camera parts have also stymied manufacturing. That same is true for Nikon, which, like Canon, depends on parts for its cameras from subcontractors, some of which sustained serious damage during the earthquake and tsunami.
“That shows the fragility of ‘just-in-time’ inventory,” Pageau said. “If you have a guy who makes a certain component, such as a lens barrel, and that’s the only place you can get that part and they go under, your product goes under.”
In an interview with Reuters published last week, Canon Inc CEO Fujio Mitari said the company expected production to return to normal by the end of June.
“As those involved in parts production have been giving it their best, we expect supplies to arrive sooner than we had predicted,” Mitarai told Reuters.
Nikon also struck an optimistic tone when contacted by PDN.
“Nikon is actively working to maximize production during this challenging time,” Nikon said in a statement. “As previously announced, availability of the Nikon COOLPIX S4100 and S6100 in the Americas will not be impacted and sales of these products will only be discontinued in some markets. Nikon Inc currently plans to release new products as scheduled.”
Things were not looking as rosy at camera stores across the Untied States though. Nick Gilson, a sales/social media coordinator at the Utah-based pictureline camera store, said supply numbers have dropped significantly since the quake, and more so in recent weeks.
“We used to get well over 100 of the Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 lens a month from Nikon and last month we got just ten,” Gilson said. “It’s between ten and twenty percent of normal on certain products.”
He added that supply of Canon products has also dropped off significantly. “I haven’t seen a Canon 7D in more than a month. The 5D Mark IIs are really hard to get too and that camera has been out for a really long time.”
Despite the supply problems, pictureline has made it a policy not to raise prices on gear since neither Nikon nor Canon has increased their prices. This no-gouging approach has helped business, Gilson said. “We’re actually kind of up,” he noted. “I think the reason is people recognize how quickly they have to act on cameras when they come in. It has increased the urgency so we end up selling everything that comes in instead of having them sitting on the shelves.”
“I could’ve survived without it but the last thing I want to do is go out and shoot something and have my equipment fail me,” he said.
Rick Neibel, a photographer who works for an advertising agency in the Midwest, said he found a Nikon D3s at Calumet just after the quake but hasn’t seen one available since.
“Our needing a camera is insignificant compared to what those people (in Japan) were going through,” Neibel said. “But it did show that if you wanted a camera, you had to get it at the right time. At the same time, you’re nervous for Nikon because they, obviously, have a time table for new competitive products and you hope they can get rolling again.”
Increased Demand, Diminished Supply
Other retailers contacted by PDN expressed remorse at the situation and said they were trying to accommodate customers despite the shortages.
“Our hearts go out to the families of this disaster,” said Ahron Schachter, director of Strategic Planning at Adorama. “Product shortages have affected every aspect of commerce.”
Joel Meisels, a social media marketing liaison for Adorama, said the situation has gotten worse recently as customers start to understand the longer-term impact of the earthquake.
“We’ve got hundreds of back orders, hundreds, it’s crazy,” he said. “Demand is going crazy but there’s no supply. But this is Mother Nature. It’s out of your control.”
When contacted by PDN, someone with direct knowledge of the situation at B&H Photo gave us the following statement:
“We are looking forward to steady improvements in a difficult situation. We have experienced some shortages and delayed deliveries of a variety of products but during the past week or two have seen the situation improve. We understand customer frustration and recognize this issue has an impact on our relationship with our customers just as it has on our suppliers’ relationship with us.”
Pageau said PMA decided to move its annual photo trade show in Las Vegas from September 2011 to next year, in part, because of the ongoing crisis in Japan.
“When you’re going to have an event that was designed to be a holiday kickoff to raise awareness of the photo industry going into the fourth quarter and there’s a possibility of there not being photo products that people want to see, it affects your plans,” he said. “But this is a tragedy all around. The amount of damage in Japan is stunning. I don’t think it’s a crusher of the industry but it’s certainly a huge disruption beyond the human scale and everything else.”