A couple weeks ago, I noticed a co-worker of mine speaking to a customer about a camera repair. This person had purchased a major name-brand camera from a nationally well-known online retailer less than a year prior. We sell many of the same make and model of camera, and it’s a good one. The customer was clearly unhappy, and I soon found out why. He had previously brought the camera to us to send in for a repair that he expected would be covered under warranty. We filled out the paperwork and sent it in just as we do many times each week. Judging from the purchase receipt, there seemed to be no doubt that this repair would be taken care of at no charge. Sadly for the customer, the camera was held at the repair facility for nearly six weeks, before being returned to us with a note from the manufacturer stating that they refused to fix it.

Why? It seems the customer had unwittingly purchased a “gray market” camera.

In this case, gray market means that the camera was purchased and re-sold legally, but through a channel unauthorized and unintended by the manufacturer. Often, these goods are purchased in their country of origin, like Japan, by an import company, who in turn sells to retailers in a country like the United States where identical manufacturer-authorized models would sell at a higher price.

When a problem occurs with a gray market item, it’s common for the original manufacturer to deny warranty claims and even refuse to fix the camera under any circumstances. “But wait!” as they say in the infomercials, “That’s not all!” To add insult to injury, this purchaser was not attempting to score a huge discount on the camera. The buyer thought they were making a standard purchase of a name-brand camera from a nationally known dealer. Their only recourse now is to contact the retailer to see what they will be willing to do.

The customer left our store satisfied that we’d done all we could, but remained frustrated and disheartened knowing that there were still a number of hoops that had to be jumped through to get the problem solved. Given the reputation of this particular online retailer, odds are the customer will eventually be made whole; but the time invested and stress induced far outweigh any “convenience” experienced by purchasing a gray market camera online, even if it was at a discount.

How do you avoid falling into the gray market gray area? The following tips will help:

  1. Consider making large purchases locally, from retailers with a good reputation. Having an actual place to go and a real person to talk to when something goes wrong trumps negotiating online every time.
  2. If it’s a name-brand item, make certain the retailer is an authorized dealer. Most manufacturers will list authorized dealers on their website, searchable by location. If you’re not sure, check.
  3. Even if the retailer IS an authorized dealer, ask them if they sell gray market items. Some retailers are upfront about it and differentiate between gray market and authorized resale models, but others are not. If you have to ask and get a “sometimes” or “that depends” in response, walk. For big purchases, it’s not worth the risk. You could get stuck and not even know it. Oftentimes, there is no way for the consumer to recognize a gray market product just by looking at it.
  4. Specifically regarding cameras, if a local brick and mortar store or an online retailer is selling name brand cameras at a price far below their competition, again, walk. Most of the major camera manufacturers have enacted MAP (Minimum Advertised Price) policies on their cameras and lenses, and authorized dealers should be selling at similar prices to one another. Remember, if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

This is why we never sell gray market products at Pro Photo Supply. You can rest assured that any camera or lens you buy here was purchased through the correct, manufacturer-authorized channels and will carry a full USA warranty. Gray market may seem like a quick way to save a few bucks, but it can end up costing you in the long run.

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