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If it Sounds too Good to be True ... is it?

Not all internet retailers who offer low prices are on the up and up. Some are, but some resort to a variety of tricks you probably should be aware of. Paying attention to site such as Reseller Ratings will generally alert you if a deal offered by a retailer really is too good to be true. But a little advance knowledge of some of the common gambits never hurts.

With Prices This Low I Must be Insane!
There used to be a late night television commercial in the Northeastern United States where the store owner did the voice over in an exaggerated maniacal persona, proudly proclaiming that with prices so low "they're practically insa-a-a-a-ane!" It was a gimmick of course, but it did generate a lot of attention, which is exactly what the store was after. The truth was, with few exceptions their prices really weren't that great, but the ads brought people in the door. People just assumed all the prices were good so they bought without doing any comparison shopping. The owner was eventually convicted of fraud.

There may be a store out there somewhere run by someone who truly is insane, selling things for less than they are worth, but if there is they won't be around long. They'd go out of business if they truly were losing money on every sale, so don't count on finding such deals. It would be easier to win the lottery.

Volume, Volume, Volume
One legitimate way that some online stores have such low prices is that they do a lot of business and have low overhead. Lacking a brick and mortar storefront (or doing internet sales far in excess of those generated by whatever walk-in storefront they may have), a lot of online retailers simply have lower operating costs than traditional stores. If you know what you want, you can take advantage of this and save some money. But if you would rather actually handle what you are considering buying and appreciate the advice from friendly salespeople face-to-face, recognize that such services don't come free. If you shop at your local camera dealer, buy there. Don't take advantage of their helpful pre-sales support only to then buy what you decide on somewhere else online. In the final analysis, that's simply rude. Local camera store owners aren't insane either and would go out of business if everyone did that to them.

Gray Market
For those of us in the United States, manufacturers generally hold a tight rein on official import channels. The same is probably true in other parts of the world to one degree or another, but here at least many manufacturers more than frown on the practice of what is known as "gray market" imports — goods brought into the country by sources other than the licensed importer. There's really nothing wrong or illegal about gray market imports. The manufacturers don't like them simply because they deprive the licensed importer of their cut. In this day and age though, importing camera or anything else from other countries isn't difficult and the days of the import monopoly are fading.

True gray market goods are the identical products as official imports but sometimes have different model numbers or other subtle differences. A few stores selling gray market get them from countries that speak a different language than where they intend to sell them so they Xerox the English instruction manual and include it rather than the one you wouldn't be able to read anyway. This is somewhat annoying but is uncommon. Larger stores such as B&H Photo that sell gray market don't do this in my experience.

Warranties for gray market products can be problematic in some cases but many dealers will substitute their own equivalent warranty. Even if they don't, not everything will eventually need repairs so it is entirely plausible to take the money you save from several gray market items to pay for the repairs to one item that does end up needing to be fixed. I tend to stick with official US imports for digital camera bodies and vibration reduction lenses since they are fairly complex pieces of equipment but have no hesitation buying gray market for other camera gear. This is something though that each of us needs to decide what they are comfortable with.

Loss Leaders
Some stores (both online and traditional) will heavily advertise a cheap price on something and make up for any loss on it by padding their prices for everything else. This is basically the tactic fast food restaurants employ when they ask if you'd like fries with your burger. They make little on the sandwich but the fries and soda are almost pure profit items. Most dealers compete fiercely on camera and lens prices but make up the difference on batteries, filters, and other add-ons. This isn't a too much of a problem for the careful shopper but some buyers can be tricked into paying more than they need to this way.

Bait and Switch
Some stores go one step further by advertising something they have no plans to actually deliver on. The low advertised price becomes the hook that pulls you in, but by the time you close the sale they've pulled a bait and switch. Perhaps they'll tell you you could buy the camera you ordered, but there's another one (with a surprisingly higher price) that is much better. Or perhaps they'll tell you that yes, the camera is the advertised price, but if you want to the accessories that are normally included in the box it'll cost you extra. Some stores offer cheap prices on the products they sell but charge exorbitant prices for shipping and try to insist you pay for extended warranties or other high profit items. The true bottom feeders are constantly scheming for new ways to trick you into spending money you hadn't planned on so if the dealer talks like a used car salesman, be wary. Not that all used car salesman pull such tricks either mind you.

You're not alone though. Most companies engaging in such questionable practices make a habit of it or at least do so often enough that the experiences of others can guide you. Which leads me back to sites such as Reseller Ratings. There are reputable online dealers out there offering great prices but there are also bad ones looking to pull a fast one at your expense. So be careful, but don't be fearful. Just do your homework before buying.

Date posted: October 12, 2008


Copyright © 2008 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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