Each year hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to make purchases online. That’s especially the case when it comes to camera equipment. Back in the day, you would peruse the back pages of a popular photo magazine and call a 1-800 number. Now, you can buy camera gear using nothing more than your smartphone.
The ease by which you can buy an item can be problematic if the only thing you’re reading is the sale price. It can be tempting to immediately click on that button when you see the promise of hundreds of dollars in savings. However price alone shouldn’t be the only determining factor for you hitting the buy button.
When you purchase any photo product, you are not buying directly from the manufacturer, whether it’s Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm, Sony, etc. Instead, you are purchasing products that have imported into your respective country by an authorized importer. They often share the same brand name, but will often have an identifier the denotes the country they are in such as Nikon USA or Canon USA. In some countries, the name will be independent of brand because that importers handles products from various manufacturers. This means that they are the official distributor of that brand’s product in that country.
Along with importing the products, they serve as the conduit to stores and dealers who in turn sell their products to you. They market and promote the products with advertising, promotions and special events, while also providing service for products that are faulty or damaged. They are the entity that honors the warranty that came with the product that they imported into their country.
However, there are products that are not imported by these authorized importers. Instead, independent importers purchase camera equipment from other countries (frequently Asia) and resell them elsewhere. These products are most often exactly the same products that are sold by the authorized importer, but with a few key differences.
Warranty and Service
The first is that these products are not covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. The importer will honor warranties for products that they themselves imported. However, they are under no obligation to offer warranty service for products that were brought into the country by an independent importer. They can also decline to repair a product even if you are willing to pay for the service.
These products may be identified in their listings as gray market, direct import, or import model. What they all have in common is that they do not come with a warranty that will be honored by the authorized importer.
Now, these gray market products may come with what’s identified as a seller’s warranty or a warranty via the seller. However, this is not the same as a manufacturer’s warranty. Instead of sending the gear directly to the manufacturer for service, the purchaser sends the product back to the dealer who then likely sends the product to an independent repair center that they have under contract.
This doesn’t mean that these products are counterfeits or fakes. They are often the same products that you’d purchase from your local camera store. However, the difference primarily lies in the service that you may or may not receive when the product is in need of repair.
This also means that the gray market product is not eligible for rebates or special promotions, which are limited to only those products that have been made available for purchase from the authorized importer.
There are many people who have regularly purchased gray market products because of the savings they promise. And if the product never requires service, their choice saved them a lot of money. However, that’s not so easy to take when the authorized service center declines to repair your camera under warranty if at all.
I personally have never purchased gray market products, because I prefer to support the manufacturer who designed and manufactured the product that I’m using. I also prefer to know that my camera or lens is being serviced by technicians who have been trained by the manufacturer.
My experience at Nikon allowed me to see firsthand the exactness and professionalism of an excellent service center. Over my eight years there, I saw technicians perform miracles on equipment that I otherwise thought would be relegated for the dust heap. I gained a lot of respect for those technicians and gladly support them whenever I make a purchase.
However, I don’t dissuade anyone from making a different decision. As long as you understand the risks involved, it’s up to each individual to decide how and when to spend their money.
But as with anything, an informed consumer is a smart consumer regardless of what product or service you pay for.