APS at Six Years-Over Hyped or Underwhelming?
by Jerry O'Neill
It's fair to say the Advanced Photo System is a success, yet
many people consider it a failure.
How so? Through unfortunate over-promising. When manufacturers make over enthusiastic predictions about the future of a brand-new product, even a considerable success can look like a dud!
When APS was intro'd back in early 1996, some of the participating companies said things like "the most significant new consumer product introduction in 30 years" and predicted that APS would capture 80 percent of new camera sales by the year 2000.
Oops. Make that more like 15 percent. Still, that's 1 of every 7 camera sales, not a bad performance. If those extravagant predictions hadn't been made back in '96, introducing a new film and camera format that accounts for 15 percent of the market would be viewed as a real accomplishment. If the television industry could sell HDTV sets today at the rate of 1 out of every 7 sets, they'd be ecstatic.
But whether it's the echoes of over-promising or other factors, folks in the photo industry are really divided in their feelings about APS-all the way from "I think APS has got a future" to "It never gained the market share that Kodak and others hoped for."
I'm sure you remember all the headaches APS had, early on. There were even problems and delays in carrying out such basic tasks as providing retailers with an adequate supply of cameras and film, and creating effective advertising that clearly showed consumers why they should buy the new cameras.
Another sales hurdle was camera styling. For the first generation of APS cameras, it didn't help that most of them looked an awful lot like 35mm models and many were practically as big. Canon's handsome ELPH was a rare exception, an APS camera that had tremendous consumer appeal because of its easily pocketable size and its snazzy, upscale styling. It didn't take too long before most other manufacturers had at least one sorta ELPH-like model in their line-ups.
Or how about the three-format pricing dilemma? Looking back, it sure seems that could have been avoided. Somehow we didn't realize how important it is to consumers to know in advance how much they'll have to pay for D&P orders. Even though most retailers make it a point to post prices for 35mm processing, we let APS pricing be a "come back and I'll tell you" situation. Early in APS history there were lots of conversations like this: "How much will that be?" asked Jane Snapshooter as she left off her film. "Well, that depends how many panorama photos you took, and how many 4x7s," replied the counter clerk-NOT the answer Jane was looking for! Eventually most retailers decided flat pricing for APS D&P was workable, but it took a lot of time and anguish to get there.
And then there were unforeseen problems from outside pressures, especially the very fast evolution of digital cameras. One minute they were specialty items, expensive tools that only pro photographers bought, and the next minute they were good-quality picture-takers priced within the reach of many consumers. So now APS cameras have competition from both 35mm and digital.
And how are sales of APS cameras holding up?-since that's a clue to future sales of APS film and processing. Looking at a couple of recent sales inserts pulled at random from Sunday newspapers, Sears was advertising six cameras-two camcorders, two digital, and two 35mm. And though Best Buy had a pageful of cameras, there wasn't a single APS model. Not very encouraging for APS.
Fish Where the Fish Are
Mark Schneider, chief technology officer for Kodak's Consumer Imaging division, told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle that consumers give APS a high rating. He said they like cameras that fit into a shirt pocket, the goof-proof loading, the index prints (though 35mm can also have them), the multiple print sizes, and the way the negatives are stored. Looking toward the future, Kodak sees APS as a likely bridge between silver halide photography and digital photography. One already existing example of this is Kodak's Advantix Preview camera, with a camera-back LCD screen that shows users each picture, much like a digital camera. And at 30 Minute Photos Etc. in Irvine, California, they created a promotion "APS is now digital," and said hundreds of picture-takers ordered digital images on Kodak Picture CDs from their APS film.
But market analyst Ulysses Yannas, who follows Kodak for Buckman, Buckman and Reid, thinks Kodak might be better off without APS. He told the Democrat & Chronicle that within Kodak, if there is an area ripe for reductions, it is the "struggling" Advanced Photo System, which is growing much more slowly than anticipated. However, management consultant Peter Palermo, who was president of Kodak's consumer photography business while APS was being developed, disagrees: "I think APS has got a future. I think it's a function of the degree to which it is promoted and allowed to compete successfully." He feels APS could be a viable alternative in developing countries where 35mm hasn't already become established as the standard.
Fuji Photo Film U.S.A. is "still confident in APS," company spokesman Tom Shay told PTN, having announced new APS products at PMA, including a new teen-appeal APS camera in brilliant colors. Fuji feels APS has its own place in the market, like 35mm and digital. Shay added, "As a company we pride ourselves on having a full line and offering the consumer a choice, which gives the retailer a way to serve all consumers."