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It's All Too Much
By Alvin Soon - on 15 Feb 2012, 11:40am

Have you walked into an electronics store and tried to buy a camera lately? It's madness. I review cameras for a living and even I can't make sense out of the incredible number of models available.

In fact, there are so many cameras being released in a year I have to keep a spreadsheet to track them all. Some of these models are so similar it's ridiculous; you could have two new cameras from the same manufacturer which are nearly identical but for screen size (or some other seemingly arbitrary difference, like 5x zoom instead of 7x). If a full-time camera reviewer can't even do it, I wonder how consumers keep up.

If you haven't been inside a store lately, here's some numbers for you. Digital compact cameras are usually released twice a year in a yearly cycle, for spring and autumn. For example, entry-level compact cameras may all be announced during spring and last for the year until the next spring. In January 2012 alone, Panasonic and Nikon have announced 12 new models each, Fujifilm has announced an astounding 26 models.

Is there a magical way for customers to get clearer on the products being offered by manufacturers, and even for manufacturers to turn an even neater profit? Maybe there is; and it's what the largest technology company in the world by revenue and profit does.

Apple announced their Q1 2012 results last month, an astronomical US$46.33 billion revenue with a net quarterly profit of US$13.06 billion, and 37 million iPhones, 15.43 million iPads, 5.2 million Macs, 15.4 million iPods sold. As amazing as those numbers are, it's even more remarkable when you take into account how few product lines Apple has in comparison with other hardware manufacturers. Their best-selling product, the iPhone, has only one current model per year. It's the same for their second best-selling product, the iPad.

Streamlining choice isn't the sole secret to Apple's success - but it certainly helps. Having less and clearly defined choices can make it easier for customers to buy. A study conducted in 1995 showed how having too much choice can actually prevent people from choosing.

Columbia professor Sheena Iyengar and her assistants set up a booth of jam samples in a market. Every few hours, they switched from offering 24 jams to only six jams. They discovered that when they offered 24 jams, more people stopped to try. But when they offered less jams, more people would buy; 30 percent of people who tasted from the six jams bought jam, and only three percent of those faced with 24 jams bought any.

What if a camera manufacturer only offered a core selection of cameras – say, an entry-level model, a mid-range model and a high-end model? Wouldn't that be easier for the customer to choose from than, say, fifteen compact camera models? And maybe, with fewer models to focus on, more resources could be devoted to making each product 'insanely great' instead of just simply a little different from its brethren?

I visited Nikon HQ in Tokyo last week, and when I asked why they launch so many compact cameras at a go (12 this time), I was given the same answer I've heard from other manufacturers. Basically that different models go to different countries, some models do well in some countries while others don't.

While that sounds like a reasonable answer, it also sounds like a chicken and egg situation. You could say that camera companies make so many models because of customer demand, or you could say that customers demand different models because the companies make so many. It's also a strategy that may be not be working at a time when compact cameras are facing competition from smartphone cameras. Sony has already come out and revealed that digital compact camera sales were down 20 percent last year across the entire industry.

The story is that when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he radically simplified the company's product lines. In his absence, Apple had released a bloated assortment of products, including digital cameras and printers. Jobs simply drew a cross with four segments, on top it had consumer and pro, on the sides it had desktop and portable. And that was all Apple was going to focus on making from then on. The result of that focus has since spoken for itself.

Alvin Soon

Alvin Soon / Deputy Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.