NEW YORK - As the still-worrisome economy continues to keep discretionary purchases of digital cameras down while the U.S. household penetration rate approaches the 80 percent mark, camera manufacturers are leaning more and more on interchangeablelens models to drive growth and profitability.
This year a combination of enthusiasm for the features of d-SLR cameras and new mirrorless interchangeablelens hybrids continues to entice average point-and-shoot users bitten by the photo bug.
According to estimates from IDC Research, the imaging industry should move about 2.6 million digital SLRs in the U.S. this year. Th at’s up 8.3 percent from 2.4 million in 2009, at a time when point-and-shoot camera sales are running down.
Elliot Peck, Canon U.S.A. consumer imaging senior VP, whose company ranks No. 1 in d-SLR market share, said unit sales have been “outstanding” yet dollar growth has been even more impressive, “with higher-end cameras, and cameras with HD video capabilities, attracting attention in the marketplace.”
“From January 2009 to April 2010, we’ve seen the value in terms of dollars grow almost 30 percent,” Peck observed. “It’s a healthy market in all of its segments.”
A significant factor in the category’s growth this year are mirrorless models, which have started to register meaningful sales in Micro Four Thirds models from Panasonic and Olympus, and should become even more popular as models with larger APS-sized sensors roll out from Sony and Samsung.
In fact, IDC imaging analyst Chris Chute estimated the mirrorless interchangeable- lens segment will account for 9 percent of overall interchangeablelens camera sales by the end of the year.
Liz Cutting, imaging analyst at The NPD Group, said retail sell-through of mirrorless models accounted for a more conservative 3.4 percent of sales through April of this year, but that was prior to Sony and Samsung shipping their introductions, and at a seasonally weaker portion of the year.
Mirrorless models, analysts and vendors said, should have stronger appeal with women and some men looking for a functional product that is easier to use and carry than a full-sized d-SLR.
Darin Pepple, Panasonic imaging senior product manager, said that since Panasonic introduced the first mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera in its G series, new competitive challengers including Olympus, Samsung and Sony have “heightened awareness” to the overall category, raising demand for all of the boats in the harbor.
The compact mirrorless versions appeal to “a wide range of customers looking for traditional d-SLR functionality, but who want to shed the weight and seek automated point-and-shoot-like features,” Pepple said.
Mark Weir, Sony digital imaging technology manager, said that the company’s NEX series of mirrorless interchangeable- lens cameras just started rolling out in the U.S., after seeing strong early sales among photo enthusiasts in the Japanese market.
“The form factor and the new technology seem to have made for big interest in Japan,” Weir said. “We’ve also had strong demand here, on the basis of preorders.”
An unusual feature in the new line is the ability to record 3D still images through the panorama sweep mode. The feature is receiving a lot of attention through the buzz generated over new 3D TVs, including Sony’s Bravia 3D LED TV line that , a long with other 3D TVs, will playback the images for viewing through special active-shutter glasses designed for the new sets.
Weir said he thinks purchases of the NEX cameras for the 3D capability “will to a degree track the popularity of 3D TVs,” a trend the company is anxious to have work in its favor.
As in the past, the interchangeablelens segment as a whole is seeing new growth among repeat camera purchasers who enjoyed their first digital pointand- shoot experience so much they wanted to make the step up to the harder stuff .
A large portion of this new business is being generated by more aggressively priced models at the entry range, offering fully automatic features, higher resolution sensors, and manual as well as fully automatic capabilities.
“Today’s typical d-SLR customers are those that have used a film SLR and understand the enhanced performance and capabilities of SLR photography, as well as point-and-shoot camera phone users who want to take their photography to the next level,” said David Lee, Nikon’s senior VP. “Now that d-SLR’s record HD video, an innovation Nikon was first to introduce with our D90, there is a lso greater interest from amateur videographers, as well as those participating in sharing content through social media.”
Indeed, many consumer interchangeable- lens models now offer HD video recording (60 percent by NPD research), evenly split between 720p and 1080p in addition to advanced still-image photography.
This combination of high-quality photo taking with digital video capability is playing well with families, NPD has found.
“We have seen a shift from basically older early adopter males (55 and up) to more people with children present in the home. Certainly, the HD video inclusion has a good deal to do with that,” Cutting said.
But while she still sees the demographics skewing toward younger males (or dads) with moms shying away from big-ticket purchases in the down economy, Canon’s Peck said his company is zeroing in on the ladies.
“The female demographic is one of the fastest-growing segments for entrylevel d-SLRs,” said Peck. “The woman is the memory keeper in the home, and now that cameras have become easier to use, more compact and have added HD video, women make up a big part of the business.”
In traditional d-SLRs, Canon and Nikon continue to rule the roost, with sales of both brands combined representing 90 percent of detachable-lens camera unit share at the end of April 2010 vs. 85 percent for the same time last year, Cutting said. The two brands also command 91 percent of the dollar volume, up 1 percent from last year.
As for the average selling price of a detachable lens camera, Cutting said pricing has defied gravity, overall, this year going from $839 to $911 year to date (YTD) in April 2010.
This has been influenced by newer and better features being introduced and unusually strong price cutting in 2009 to counter the impact of the economic downturn.
“We should remember that last year Circuit [City] was pushing prices down as it was liquidating — if we go back to year-to-date April 2008, we were at $955,” Cutting observed.
The average price of a detachable lens camera priced at $1,200 and higher moved from $1,972 to $2,222 YTD from April 2009 to April 2010.
The average price for models $1,000 and lower moved from $581 to $638 from April 2009 to April 2010, year to date, Cutting said, “but even if we go back to April 2008, which was $619, we are higher this year.”