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Is enough too much?
End of the Rangefinder Renaissance?
The past four years have been the biggest years in 35mm rangefinders since 1960-61. Between 1998 and 2002, we have seen:
Reading some dealer comments and digesting the fact that there are only two Cosina products released at PMA (a 35/1.2 and some unspecified body), coupled with Leica's resurrection of the M6 (a new MP), tends to make me wonder about this market segment even more. Other than this, PMA was devoid of any significant new RF products.
In particular, I have wondered what the effect of Cosina's large number of product introductions over the last three years has been on the rangefinder market in general. In particular, I am curious as to whether Cosina single-handedly burned out the market.
1. How has pricing changed?
As far as I can tell, Cosina has opened a new budget category in the rangefinder world. Looking at the historic price points, it looks like the price point of the Cosina line is aimed at the bargain shooter, and we are not talking about mild discounts - the price point is aimed squarely at the price-point of Soviet equipment in the late 1990s, not the Leica market or even the market Canon occupied in the late 1950s and early 1960s (which was at that time low-price).
Let's take a look at the 28/3.5, which is a product Canon released in 1957. Cosina released a similarly-constructed Cosina product in 2001. We can safely use Canon for comparison, since Canon was the "bargain" producer in the 1950s, the original rangefinder heyday.
Take another example: the 50/1.5 superspeed lens, long considered a premium item in the rangefinder world.
To be fair, I don't know what Canons sold at when (and if) they were discounted in the 1950s. I don't imagine that they were discounted nearly as much as Cosina lenses are now.
2. How Does Cosina Sell For So Little?
The first question this raises, especially where some lenses share similar construction methods, is how the Cosina offering can be so cheap. In the 1950s in Japan, labor was relatively cheap. That is not the case now, where most mass optical production has moved to China, Thailand and Vietnam, where labor costs are commensurate with where labor costs were 50 years ago in Japan (relatively speaking). From what I have been able to surmise, Cosina has been able to save money via the following through some remarkable production engineering:
Then there is, of course, the question of dumping product. I'll leave that to the economists and the lawyers. Suffice to say that plenty of manufacturers create "halo products" and loss-leaders to lend prestige to their other lines. Think of this: before the revived Voigtlander line, Cosina was not generally thought of as a high-end manufacturer of 35mm products.
3. What is the Size of the Rangefinder Market?
Short answer: a lot smaller than it ever was.
It's funny when you think about it. In terms of the Leica world, there are something like 12,000 Leica Ms made a year. Hexar RF production appears to be about half that (my latest body, acquired a month ago from Konica NJ, had a serial number translating 10,631 after two years of production). From what I have heard, Konica can break even on a complex body like the Hexar RF in as few as 1,000 units, and on a lens with a die-cast barrel in 800 units.
The irony of this is that the high-end market could actually post more sales than the market segment that Cosina is in. If a lens run with sophisticated tooling can be profitable in 800 units, then it is entirely possible that if stamped brass parts are used for economic reasons, an entire run at Cosina may be as few as 500. As one former distributor of Cosina products old me, if you sold "several hundred" of a product on a continent, it would be remarkable.
Consider the following:
Consider that the Canon P sold 86,000 copies in a two-year run. The Canon 7 sold 100,000 in a similar period. Rangefinders simply don't have the place they used to.
Despite the fact that there are claims out there that Cosina is doing a huge volume in rangefinders, I would be very surprised if sales numbers for their bodies (in the aggregate) approached 10,000 units. Because few dealers stock the Cosina line, and because most sales seem to be occurring over (and as a result of conversations on) the Internet, it is entirely possible that the majority of Cosina users are represented on the various newsgroups (which comprise a couple of thousand people, even including common members).
The tooling methods that Cosina uses (especially declining to invest in high-volume die-casting tooling and making its RF bodies largely from SLR parts) seem to suggest that Cosina does not view the RF market as work sinking a huge amount of capital into. And who could blame them?
Demographics are a further complication. I suspect that as the number of living Leica users declines, more and more used product will find its way into the marketplace, possibly suppressing new sales.
4. Does Cosina Affect New Leica Sales?
I believe that the answer to this question is yes, but not in the way you might imagine. From my observations of various Leica-worship societies, there are three major categories of buyers:
I don't think that Cosina is eating Leica's lunch in Category 1. From what I have been able to observe, it is making a strong showing in Categories 2 and 3.
Back in the day, from what I am told (by my source, who worked an East cost pro shop when there was no such thing as a D1x):
Today, a lot of used equipment is passing through Ebay. This means that dealers have less money to stock new Leica gear (which is something of a loser in terms of profitability - as is and was any equipment)). This, in turn, is probably having an effect on Leica's projected order quanitities, from which it sizes its manufacturing runs. Smaller runs make lenses more and more expensive. The move of used equipment to Ebay would have this effect whether or not Cosina started selling these products.
The entry of Cosina — selling products that meet the 80/20 rule with Leica's current products — makes older Leica products worth less on sites such as Ebay. An old Summicron 35 fetches less money now than it did three years ago, having at least a theoretical impact on the seller's ability to upgrade to a newer Leica product. The effect of Cosina's Leica-related product blitz (which can best be described as making one of everything within a 3-year period) raises the specter of creating this effect over a large number of products. But the other relevant factors are many:
It's hard to separate these factors in such a way that Cosina's market impact can be measured.
Cosina make a lot of neat stuff. Whether Cosina enteres a particular market is of course its choice, and Leica is by no means entitled to a monopoly. Be this as it may, users should be wary of claims that Cosina somehow saved the rangefinder.
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