A new golden age for quality

Ever notice when there’s a strong trend towards something, a counter trend pops up. The counter trend may not be as large but it’s real and clearly identifiable. Here are a few examples.

Vinyl records are starting to become popular as digital downloads are crushing CDs.

Film is making a comeback as smartphones are taking over low-end digital.

High end stores counter the low-cost discounters.

Finally, high quality consumer goods are replacing plastic, disposable goods.

Let’s talk about consumer goods. There is a tendency to think that things were always better in the past — the good old days, as people say. But is this true? Certainly today’s computers and mobile phones are better than any time in history. Despite the nostalgia for film, digital is better in most respects.

It’s not just the performance of these products, the newest products are physically better built than in the past . Apple has always made high quality, high design computers but the current glass and aluminum products are light years ahead of the plastic computers from the 80s and 90s. I have a prosumer Canon film SLR from the early 90s the EOS A2, it’s made of cheap plastic. The equivalent Canon 7D is water-resistant and made from robust magnesium.

You still think the old stuff is better? Look at the just announced Leica T, with its body machined out of a solid block of aluminum. There’s never been a camera built like this. Incidentally, the Apple MacBook Pros and the MacPro desktop are built in a similar way.

For a segment of the population, cheap, no matter how inexpensive is no longer desirable. Perhaps the age of mass production, to produce goods cheaper and cheaper, has finally hit rock bottom. People want quality.

Companies also realize that creating things cheaper is a death spiral. There is a limit to how inexpensive you can make something and there is no customer loyalty for cheaply made products — people just move on to the next company with lower prices.

I believe, we are moving into a golden age for quality. Better but more expensive products. Companies, however, will serve a smaller but more discriminating subset. Companies catering to the low-end, mass market might still survive but I don’t think they will flourish. This is not a rich or poor issue. Each person will decide what’s important for them and spend accordingly. I, for example, have a modest car and I don’t spend a lot on food but I spend a lot more money on cameras and electronics. Others might have designer clothes and dine out in fancy restaurants but choose to have modestly priced gadgets.

The age of one size fits all, cheaply made products is coming to an end. Good riddance.

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20 thoughts on “A new golden age for quality

  1. I don’t think the ’90s Canon A2 fit the model lineup position comparable to today’s 7D. I would say the ’90s 7D was the EOS 3 although the 3 didn’t come out until 1998. I think the A2 was more like the later 10-50D line.

  2. Hmm…while there are certainly many examples of quality products out there, I don’t see any sort of mass trend away from cheaper goods. There is now and always has been a segment of the population willing and able to pay for quality goods and services. While I haven’t done any research into economic and manufacturing trends to make any authoritative statements on the subjects, I’m not noticing the lines at the McDonalds drive-through getting any shorter and the parking lot at Walmart isn’t thinning out. Since we both maintain photography blogs, I’ll stick with that product market. The general population doesn’t care one bit about camera/image quality. My observations lead me to conclude they want cheap, convenient, one-button friendly, and instantaneous. Image quality doesn’t matter one bit. Getting a picture in social media immediately after taking it is all that matters. It’s all about immediacy and instant gratification. Pro-sumers, advanced hobbyists and pros are a different story – but now we’re talking niche markets. While I’d like to say “good riddance” with you…I don’t think the majority rule of cheap products is leaving us anytime soon.

    1. Yes, there will continue to be cheap mass produced products out there. I believe, that’s not where the money is going to be in the future. I too am no expert but look at the revenues of Walmat and McDonald’s. They are either growing slowly or shrinking.

      Like I said, each person will decide what’s important to them and spend accordingly. To a lot of people photography is not too important, and yes those people won’t buy expensive cameras. However a lot of people do buy expensive DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. It’s the hobbyists that drive the camera industry and not the Pros. There are not many photography pros out there compared to all of the hobbyists and the people with a vague dream of becoming a pro one day.

      Let’s look at the camera industry, in the mirrorless market, do you notice the manufacturers coming out with higher end cameras? That’s because the low end is not selling or the camera companies don’t make money on them.

      Look throughout the various industries, it is the commodity product companies that are having the tough time making money. The specialized, higher end or niche companies which cater to that more demanding consumer / hobbyists / or niches are the ones that seem to be doing well.

      1. I’m not savvy to corporate revenues of Walmart and McDonald’s. If they are at a plateau or shrinking I’m not sure if that is due a market shift toward higher quality goods or (more likely IMO) an effect of a slow economy where people in certain income brackets are buying less.

        Agreed that hobbyists drive the camera industry. As I said before though, this is still a niche in the global market that I thought you were referring to in your post. Sure, higher end stuff is coming out and the camera companies are desperate to convince you and I that we need it! I don’t see this as a result of the demand of hobbyists wanting higher quality products. Yeah, they will always take a new toy offered to them. However, I see the camera companies desperately trying to stay relevant. The low end cheap camera market is gone because of cell phones. They didn’t get abandoned as a result of people wanting quality products, they were replaced by an even cheaper product – a tiny camera jammed into a phone that is practically free with a 2 year contract.

        How much profit are camera companies making after recouping their product development costs? Are they really realizing greater numbers today with higher end cameras that they sell fewer of than the crappy point n shoots of years past? Maybe they are, I don’t know. Mirrorless sales certainly are giving a boost right now. Salvation for struggling companies or prolonging life support – I can’t say. Do camera stores see a higher profit margin on the higher end goods? I have no insight into this either but I’d be skeptical. I seriously doubt retail profit margin on high end bodies is more than 10% or so. It’s those cheaper commodities – memory cards, printer ink, camera bags, various accessories that tend to carry the 40% or more margins.

        There is definitely a shift going on in the camera industry. The majority of people are content with cell phones in lieu of cheap compact cameras. The high end DSLR market is primarily catering to pros at this point. There is still that middle ground of hobbyists. Are the hobbyists beating on the doors of the camera companies demanding even better goods than the amazing cameras they already have? Or are the camera companies desperately throwing everything they can think of into new products to convince the hobbyists that they need an upgrade – a frenzied struggle to stay relevant and profitable? Either way, a lot of innovation is being made and those who can afford it will reap the benefits.

      2. As you know I was talking about things not only in the camera industry but in other areas too. Let’s talk non-cameras first. Back a while ago we had a choice of Levi’s, Lee and Wrangler jeans.., maybe Dickies. They were mass-produced and inexpensive. Now there are probably hundreds of jeans brands. Take True Religion jeans which run from $200 to $300 a pair. The price sounds crazy to some, but many people, I guess who likes jeans and want a certain brand appeal, buy them.

        Lululemon sells Yoga and fitness clothes that run nearly $100 for a pair of pants. I know cyclist hobbyists that spends hundreds maybe thousands to reduce the weight of their bicycles by 100s of grams. And how about all the people that like Harley’s? They spend $20K on their hobby? People, especially in the U.S. and other affluent countries are going to spend good money on things that are important to them.

        That point being that all of these are niches, like photography. There are thousands of niches where people are willing to pay more for better quality (or for more brand status)

        As for the camera industry, they were hit with a double whammy. Like the record industry, which had great sales from the transition from vinyl to CDs, the camera industry grew tremendously from the transition from film to digital. That transition is now complete so sales have stagnated. Now the low-end cameras are being disrupted by the smartphone “revolution”. This has killed the low-end and creeping into the mid-end, I believe.

        I think there is going to be a shake out in the camera industry. The camera companies will have to get smaller. They need to retreat to the high-end because nobody cares about the low-end anymore. I have know idea if the hobbyist will buy into what the camera companies are doing. However, I think in many respects, that’s their only course of action.

      3. This post popped into my head again over lunch today. I headed down to a nearby panini shop that I eat at from time to time. It’s a chain place but they have sandwiches I like that are at a bit healthier than typical fast food fare. Quality comes at a premium price and their lunches are probably a couple dollars more than a combo meal at the big M. A sign was on the door when I arrived – out of business. I had hoped it wouldn’t come to that but they had seemed slow during the lunch rush compared to the fast food joints. Really bummed me out. On the way back to the office I drove past a McDonalds. Drive through line was around the building. Sigh. They are serving up what most people want. Fast and cheap. Quality (or healthy) doesn’t matter so much. No, I didn’t stop there.

      4. The items you mentioned, apart from perhaps the current trendy brand names, are nothing new. There has always been a high dollar choice for the enthusiasts with the money and desire to buy it. I don’t believe there is any societal shift in buying practices going on – at least not a mass outcry for quality. Camera enthusiasts are doing what they’ve alway done, buying the best they can afford. Better cameras take better pictures, right? 😉

  3. Well said that man. Having bought enough “heck that’s a bargain” stuff and found I got what I paid for (tat) I’m starting to get the best I can afford.

    1. Yes, there will always be kit lenses and entry-level lenses but lens prices have been increasing too. Looks at the new Art line of lenses from Sigma. Fuji lenses for their X cameras are pretty pricey in general, but of good quality. The new lenses being introduced for Olympus and Panasonic are now the higher-end lenses.

  4. Maybe, maybe, since sensors quality has reached a plateau, it now make more sense for camera enthusiasts to invest in a good quality body, since you could reasonably keep that camera for a good 3-4 years, instead of 1-2.

    1. Perhaps. Sensors have plateaued somewhat but still getting better. The reality is that digital is better than film for most everything. There is no reason we can’t hold on to camera bodies a lot longer. Camera companies have tapped into the human desire to have the best of everything, even if the improvement is negligible. I’m certainly guilty of that.

      The reality is that most camera improvements these days have nothing to do with photography.

  5. As an electronic device, the Leica T-701 is likely to have a short life. Its metal body doesn’t make for better images or ease of use. Like a costly watch, it’s intended to appeal to buyers as an object of conspicuous consumption.

    1. Absolutely. It’s not about image quality. It’s about bragging rights. But wouldn’t you say many things in life, these days, are about conspicuous consumption? The fancy car, the big house, nice clothes?

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