Cameras are Like Grocery Store Checkout Lines

We’re back into a period of active (multiple) camera launches. As I’ve documented for some time, each new camera will be met with at least some chorus of “I’m switching.” Sometimes the chorus has lots of members and is loud, sometimes it’s just a small vocal trio or smaller group that’s not so loud. But there’s always at least one such singer.

I’m reminded of some long-ago research about grocery store checkout lines. The question that was attempting to be answered was whether it paid off to jump to what you perceived to be a better line (shorter, faster). The answer was: not really. Statistically, moving between lines tends to wash out, partly because the standard deviation of each checkout time is so high. The chances that moving to the perceived faster line results in your getting out of the store faster actually are far lower than you might think they are. The same is true for your perception that one camera maker is moving faster than another: it’s an illusion with lots of standard deviation.

We think the grass is greener on the other side, but it's usually just Astroturf.

Humans are impatient herd animals, basically. Your brand didn’t announce a new camera with Feature X or Performance Y, but a rival did, so jump, baby, jump. Oh, look, someone else is jumping, maybe I should, too.

As I’ve written before, the camera makers are simply in a game of leap frog. Some frogs leap faster, further, or more often than others, but any given point in time, we can point to a frog and pretend that it’s the best one to have. Until another frog jumps. 

Panasonic was the jumping frog at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Only that frog mostly just jumped to where some other frogs already were. Thus, the chorus is pretty quiet today. CP+ in Japan comes at the end of February, and I’m already seeing multiple dates being disclosed to the press for CP+-related camera announcements. So more frogs will be jumping soon. 

Meanwhile, at the checkout line you just moved to, the person in front of you had an item that didn’t scan right and for which no price was entered. The cashier has just turned on the Call Manager light. Meanwhile, the person you were behind in the other line just finished their checkout. Or the jumping camera you yourself just leaped turns out to have bugs or performance footnotes.

Don’t be an impatient herd animal. 

Compile a list of needs (not wants), set a budget, and give your brand a realistic amount of time to meet your needs and budget. For consumer cameras that time should be no less than 24 months from last update, and for top-end cameras, no less than 48 months. Given engineering schedule foibles, I myself would add 12 months to those, as issues do come up that slow the frog from jumping. 

If your brand times out on you, you can consider switching. But I’m betting that a few months after you do, the frog you were waiting to jump suddenly jumps, and maybe right past your current frog. 

Frogs, groceries, cameras, herd, yeah, it’s one of those too-many-ideas-wandering-around-Thom’s-brain-without-an-escort day. Still, I’ve been consistently on message over the years: get enamored with a new product from another brand at your own expense.  

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