Smartphones drive compact cameras off the shelves

Smartphones increasingly drive compact cameras off the shelves as retailers diversify amid a shift in customer tastes

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 February, 2014, 2:26pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 February, 2014, 1:01am

When camera-shop owner Gordon Yuen Tien-yau found two years ago that his Samsung phone could take very high-quality photos, he decided to add smartphones to the cameras on his shelves.

"I have no plan to turn my 50-year-old camera shop into a telephone retailer. However, diversification and quickly changing product lines to match customers' tastes have been the key to success for my shop over half a century," Yuen told the South China Morning Post.

Last year, 10 per cent of sales at his company - A&A Audio & Video Centre, which for the past five decades has focused on selling high-end cameras from top brands such as Leica, Nikon and Canon - came from smartphones made by Samsung Electronics, Apple, Sony and Nokia.

Yuen said the biggest victims of the market evolution were digital compact cameras, which made up only about 20 per cent of sales at his shop last year, down from about 70 per cent in 2007.

Research firm IDC projected compact camera sales worldwide this year were likely to fall more than 40 per cent from last year to fewer than 59 million. Camera makers such as Panasonic, Fujifilm and Olympus all reported substantial drops in compact camera sales last year.

"This trend only happened in the past two years, when some smartphone makers such as Samsung, Sony and Nokia put a lot of effort to improve the phone's camera features," Yuen said.

"Before, pictures taken by mobile phones were of very poor quality, so I insisted on using my camera to take pictures. But now, I use my phone for that all the time as the quality of the pictures is good and I can share them with my friends via WhatsApp or other social networks."

A staff member at an electronics chain store, who asked not to be named, said sales at her shop showed a similar pattern.

"Many customers would prefer buying a smartphone that let them do everything from taking pictures, listening to music, watching movies, sending e-mails or using other internet functions," she said. "There are still some people who buy cameras, but they are interested in those that have more sophisticated features or a better lens."

Ben Li, a professional wedding photographer, does not think smartphones will replace cameras.

"I use smartphones to take pictures of my twin boys, too, as that is quick and easy, and I can put the pictures on Facebook easily," Li said.

"But for my work, I would use a digital single-lens reflex as these cameras can use different lenses to produce more professional-quality pictures than the smartphones."

Yuen agreed that high-end digital single-lens reflex cameras from big brands such as Leica, Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm and Olympus should maintain stable sales as professional or keen photographers would stick to them since their picture quality was still better than that of mobile phones.

"Camera makers are also hitting back by launching mirrorless cameras with a Wi-fi function. These cameras have a lighter body than a digital single-lens reflex, and they allow changing of lenses, too," he said. "The Wi-fi function on these cameras makes it easy to share pictures online, helping the camera makers fight their battle against the smartphones."

The trend of people using smartphones to take pictures coincided with the global financial crisis, hitting traditional camera shops in Britain and Europe hard, with some having to close down.

But Yuen said Hong Kong camera retailers were better off because mainland tourists liked to shop in the city. Mainlanders made up 98 per cent of customers at his shop in Macau and 65 per cent at the one in Pacific Place in Hong Kong last year.