• Local vs International - When to push the button

    International vs Local Ė When to push the buy button

    Just over a year back, I purchased a substantial amount of camera gear. Since then, like any hobby, Iíve acquired a frustrating large amount of accessories so I decided to document my trials and tribulations of working with local and overseas retailers along with online local and foreign online sellers.

    Quality of Service

    Given the competitive nature of the market, youíd expect the local retailers to be going out of their way on the service levels to try attract buyers. In complete contrast, I found the exact opposite to be true. The majority of the retailers I approached were arrogant and/or provided poor service. Worse still, the so-called specialist stores provided the worse levels of pre-sales service with the exception of some recent smaller operations Iíve been dealing. Maybe this is as a result of photography graduates working at a store that seem annoyed with the world because they havenít landed their Pulitzer winning job and now they feel the need to take it out on every customer that dares to have sufficient money to buy a pro lens for a hobby. Ultimately, the stores should be trying to look after their potential customer base the moment they walk into a store.

    The second surprise was the dismal nature of some of the local retailers with their online shopping presence. Sure theyíre local, but youíd expect them to at least offer something remotely acceptable for anyone who has a computer. Some provided no online shopping altogether or simply listed a couple of brands they sell, very few offered any pricing. When they did offer online pricing, some looked like they were designed when the Internet was first introduced. Again, itís not all, there are some small niche players who provided great online experiences, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

    Online retailers donít really have to provide service unless something goes wrong. Most people who buy their goods online do their research first and then buy. They need to provide a website thatís fast, easy to find the things you need and has fast delivery, the faster the better. Customers want the doorbell to ring the moment you click the buy button and you can never have service that is too fast. Online stores that provide second rate experiences tend to be short lived because forums and store reviews provide a means to evaluate the quality of service before you buy.

    When it comes to buying international, the choice of store generally depends on what youíre buying. For camera gear as an example, there are 4 or 5 stores that youíre guaranteed to get good pricing and fast shipping and those are the ones that the photographers tend to support for obvious reasons. These names come up time and time again when people ask about who to buy from. In some respects, itís sad reflection of local service that Iíve become accustomed to international shipping that is faster than local shipping although Iíll happily admit I now only support local stores that provide shipping times that meet my expectations.

    Overseas doesnít always mean fast though, if youíve purchased through some discount stores that sell generic iPhone accessories, you may have experienced the 3-month shipping via horseback and carrier pigeon.

    Pricing locally vs Overseas

    Pricing has been a mixed bag. For big-ticket items, Iíve noticed the price gaps have started to close and if your goods are over $1000 and subject to GST at customs, the price differential is actually quite small.

    When it comes to accessories, the exact opposite is true. This leads me to believe that a lot of the local retailers are cutting their pricing on bodies and lenses and then increasing the margins on the accessories. My camera and body had about a 10% difference when you took into account GST. My Nikon tele-converter cost half of the local retail and with that sort of price differential, I could afford to take the risk of one going faulty. The items that were substantially cheaper for me were any Nikon branded accessories, filters, tripods, ballheads etc.

    Why I bought my camera locally - Sometimes is more than just about price

    Looking and pricing of cameras and lenses, it became fairly clear, that although there could be a saving on the camera and lenses, I had to ask myself whether the risk was worth it with items that are more maintenance intensive or may have a bigger impact with warranties. In the end, I negotiated one of the retailers down based on the amount of items I was purchasing and the price difference wasn't substantial in the end.

    Pick your local retailer wisely

    The one thing that was very clear was that some of the so called "professional retailers" provided pricing that was well above the discount retailers so it's worth shopping around. It's also worth packaging things together. I got a big discount based on purchasing multiple items. Some retailers were not prepared to discount at all even if you were buying multiple items and I was simply told their web pricing was the lowest they're prepared to go. I respect that decision but I suspect they're also going to lose out on a lot of business because of it.

    The short and sweet is shop around and if you're buying multiple items, use it as leverage to get better discounts.

    Picking your online retailer wisely

    There are a couple of things to be aware of when considering online retailers. Just like brick and mortar local stores, you get good online retailers and back online retailers. There are a number of online shops that have built a reputation for good service so it's worth considering this before buying. In my experience, there are a couple of online retailers I have only and good experience with, these include DWI, E-Infinity, BH Photo, Adorama and Digital Rev. That said, most of them use FedEx or other express couriers so as an example, my set of Nikon 77mm filters were ordered on the evening of the 1st and arrived by lunchtime on the 4th which is great service by even local standards.

    On the other hand, my Benro Tripod was shipped from Hong Kong and took 14 work days to arrive which is the other end of the spectrum and not someone I'd recommend if you need something urgently. They were honest on EBay about delivery times so there was no expectation of an early arrival and they did offer expedited shipping at additional cost if required.

    It's also worth noting that you can still get good deals from local online retailers so it's not just overseas retailers that offer great deals, online without a brick and mortar store can still be local.

    Warning about shipping and taxes - some of the online retailers who ship from overseas currently get through loopholes by providing lower costs to customs. These days customs have their own price list they use to validate pricing so those days are gone. When looking at overseas based retailers, I'd add the cost of GST on the basis that you should be charged for it and compare it accordingly. If you don't get charged, you get lucky. That said, none of the items I shipped went over the $1000 threshold so I haven't had the issue, but it may prevent nasty surprises.

    Warning about online ratings - When considering online retailers, ignore any posters who have registered just to post positive or negative feedback, in most cases it's either a jealous local retailer or an unscrupulous online retailer trying to improve their reputation. Oddly enough, the former seems to be more popular than the latter. Whilst researching local retailers, on a single Mactalk thread I counted no less than 3 first time posters trying to knock the reputation of a reputable online store and yet all the regular posters seemed very happy with them. One of them had registered to post about a negative experience on a thread and then a couple of months later posted on a completely separate negative experience in another thread and those were his only two Mactalk posts. Suspicious isn't it? The short answer is look at the number of posts per user before you take into account the validity of feedback.

    Summary

    The important thing with any purchase is to shop around and negotiate. Local retailers can provide competitive pricing, but the one thing that is sorely lacking at a number of retailers I contacted is customer service. Realistically the one thing local retailers can offer over the overseas and web based counterparts is customer service and if they want to survive, they will need to change. Looking at why the Apple store (physical not online) does well, itís not because of price. If it came down to price, the Apple store would probably lose every time, but they provide a unique shopping experience that ensures the buyer is happy and feels a little bit special.
    In an industry where its impossible to compete on price, unless you can offer people a reason to use you, youíre likely to continue to lose business on price. I have some local retailers I use because I know the service is good, but I refuse to use a retailer who provides second-rate service for the simple reason of supporting local.
    What are your experiences with online and local retailers? Feel free to comment.
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