Purchasing camera gear can be a frustrating experience. Camera companies and big outlets highlight the importance of buying from authorized channels due to service, support and warranty issues, whereas many Internet-based websites and some small photography shops offer gray market products at very appealing prices, sometimes with significant enough discounts to make photographers seriously consider them. And then there are regional pricing differences. When a product is launched, manufacturers point out product’s MSRP, which can vary greatly between different markets. In this article, I want to bring out the issues I see with gray market products, as well as issues related to inconsistent product pricing, which can make the shopping experience rather frustrating.
Table of Contents
What is a Gray Market Product?
Simply put, a gray market product is a product that is imported and sold by any party other than the manufacturer. Most of the time, gray market products are no different compared to their retail counterparts – they are genuine products made by the same manufacturer, only packaged and intended for other markets. Therefore, they might contain product manuals in other languages, or perhaps have chargers and accessories that only work in a specific country. However, there are also cases where gray market products are completely fake, where refurbished products are resold as “new”, or even used / returned products are repackaged and resold as new at a lower gray market price. There is no way for the manufacturer to be able to fully control the import of its products to the markets where it already has direct distribution channels, so there are certainly risks associated with buying gray market products.
Manufacturers do not like gray market products competing with properly imported retail versions of the same product for a number of reasons. First, gray market products are often cheaper than their retail counterparts, sometimes by a huge margin. This is a big problem for the manufacturer, because its own product sold by unauthorized parties competes in terms of price with the properly imported retail version that is sold at the same MSRP (Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price) across all resellers. Whereas the MSRP can be tightly controlled by the manufacturer through its channels, the price of gray market products fluctuates all the time for different reasons, one of which is currency exchange rates. Basically, when exchange rates are favorable, gray market products are sold for less. In comparison, manufacturers often compensate for favorable differences in exchange rates by providing limited time bundles, promotions and rebates. Other than that, the price of properly imported retail product typically stays the same. Second, as I have already stated, the manufacturer cannot guarantee that the gray market product works as intended, because the product or its accessories (such as chargers and batteries) could have been modified, replaced or adapted to be compatible, so the importer could be opening up boxes and replacing adapters, batteries, product manuals, warranty cards, etc. And lastly, the product itself could have been modified or sold in a condition other than new and there is no way for the manufacturer to guarantee that it is a genuine product. That’s why there is a “gray market” label attached to these products, as you might not know for sure what you are getting. It is not quite black market, but it is not a manufacturer-backed retail product either – it is somewhere in between.
Why Gray Market Products are Cheaper
You might be wondering why the MSRP of a properly imported product by the manufacturer is higher compared to gray market pricing. Keep in mind that the price of a product is comprised of a number of different costs such as the cost of manufacturing, transportation, distribution, marketing efforts and import fees. In addition, there are many other costs and risks that have to be taken into account as well when pricing out a product, such as product support, returns / exchanges, recalls and warranty repair work through authorized service centers. These can be very costly for the manufacturer due to high labor costs, training, extra parts, etc. and these costs can vary greatly by region / country. Even warranties can differ, with some countries offering longer extended warranties, while limiting others to much shorter warranty periods. Because of all this, some countries might have lower costs compared to others, making them favorable for the purpose of buying and reselling in different countries.
For example, a lot of gray market Nikon and Canon cameras imported into the United States by third parties typically come from Asia. Since cameras are priced lower in that region due to lower transportation, distribution, support and warranty costs, buying and importing expensive camera gear can be a profitable business. When a gray market product is priced significantly lower than its properly imported counterpart, it creates a strong market demand in countries such as the USA. And with the rise of popularity of Internet-based shops and auction sites, selling such products has become easier than ever, which is why the gray market has only been flourishing in the recent years. As a result, companies such as Nikon and Canon end up dumping a large number of camera gear to the Asian market, understanding that perhaps a large portion of camera gear gets exported by non-authorized parties. It is a double-edged sword for camera manufacturers – on one hand, they sell a boatload of cameras in those markets, often exceeding their sales forecast goals, and on the other hand, they end up with a lot of gray market products directly competing with their own.
Now if you are wondering how big of a difference there is in price between a gray market and a properly imported product by the manufacturer, let’s take a look at a couple of examples. The Nikon D750 is priced at $1,996.95 at B&H Photo Video (authorized Nikon seller) – that’s the current MSRP of the camera. If one were to look at places such as eBay.com where it is possible to buy a gray version of the same camera, it is easy to come across much more appealing prices. For example, one of the highly rated sellers of the camera on eBay offers the D750 at just $1,359.99 – that’s a whopping 32% discount, or $637 difference in pricing between the two. Currently, Nikon USA is running an end of the year promotion on this particular camera model, giving an instant rebate of $200, so the price difference is much smaller at $437, but still, even then it is still 25% lower – a large enough incentive for a potential customer to go for a gray market deal. The same can be seen on products from other manufacturers. The Canon 5D Mark IV normally retails for $3,599 at B&H Photo Video (currently on a $200 rebate), but one can easily find a gray market version for around $2900 – a nice $400 to $600 difference.
Gray Market vs Manufacturer Import Differences
Interestingly, camera manufacturers also sometimes sell their products to third parties while being fully aware of the fact that they will most likely end up in foreign markets. That’s understandable, because they can dump a large number of cameras to gray market buyers, move inventory and meet sales forecasts. At the same time, manufacturers surely do not want any of their dealers to be angry about other sellers undercutting them either, which is why prices are dictated at MSRP level, and gray market products are treated completely differently when it comes to support, warranty and service. In fact, manufacturers such as Nikon and Canon clearly state that they will provide zero support and warranty on any gray market products. That’s because a rather significant part of the product price (arguably the difference between gray market price and the properly imported product price) in fact lies in providing such support and warranty services through various service centers, as well as salaries of all marketing and sales efforts in that region.
Now when it comes to the product itself, there is no difference between a gray market camera and a manufacturer-imported camera. Both are made in the same factory, both went through the same manufacturer QA processes and tolerances. The only difference is the targeted market. Because of this, there can be differences in included manuals and accessories, as previously stated. However, since there is no direct involvement of the manufacturer or its distribution partners in the gray market product sales, nothing could technically stop a seller from selling a fake product as a “gray market” in the same price category.
Below are some of the reasons why Nikon USA strongly advocates against buying gray market products:
- No Warranty: Gray Market products may contain a limited warranty from the seller, but they are not covered by a Nikon USA warranty.
- Non-genuine accessories: May include counterfeit or third party accessories that could damage Nikon equipment.
- Fake software: The software included often is either copied or counterfeit.
- Wrong power cord: May include an incorrect power cord or adapter not designated for use in the USA.
- Not eligible for repair service: Not eligible for Nikon USA repair service, even if you want to pay for it.
- Missing user manuals: User manuals are often missing, incomplete or photocopied, and they may even be in a foreign language.
- May not be as expected: Since Gray Market products were not designed for sale in the USA, they may not meet your expectations.
- Not eligible for rebates: Gray Market products are not eligible for Nikon USA promotions or instant rebates.
Canon has similar wording on their gray market warning page.
While a lot of the above is certainly true, there are a few statements here that rarely ever happen. Accessories are typically a non-issue, since there are practically no differences there across various regions. Fake software should not be an issue either. Not only because most of the provided software can be obtained for free anyway, but also because the same basic viewing and conversion software would most likely be distributed in all markets (there are exceptions, such as when a product is bundled with a third party commercial software license). The same goes for missing manuals – one can easily download a full manual in PDF format from the same manufacturer for free.
Gray Market Product Buyer Confusion
One of the biggest issues with gray market vs authorized products is that it confuses a lot of potential buyers. People are used to shopping for the best deal and when they see pictures of cameras and lenses that look genuine and there are descriptions such as “Brand New”, “USA Seller Warranty”, etc., they do not feel they are doing anything wrong by buying it from a small camera shop or from an online auction. They don’t understand that the product is priced lower for a good reason being a gray market import – they think they just found themselves a sweet deal. Gray market products also created upselling opportunities, where a poorly educated customer is tricked by pushy salesmen into believing that the product they bought was incomplete and that they need to pay extra to get its full functionality, or pay extra for accessories such as batteries and chargers. Those who are unaware of gray market vs properly imported product differences learn the hard way that they have no place to go in case their expensive camera gear needs to be serviced. If they are lucky, they might be able to find qualified technicians in third party camera repair shops that might be able to service their equipment.
Gray Market Products and Their Impact on Service Centers
One main reason why it is a good idea to buy the properly imported version of the product instead of gray market is the potential for poor customer experience when dealing with service centers. If everyone buys gray market and the manufacturer has a hard time selling imported gear through its distribution channels, there is going to be little to no financial support for the existence of national and regional service centers that can handle issues when they arise. Service centers handle a lot of work – everything from warranty repair and customer support all the way to product recalls and exchanges. By buying or encouraging others to buy gray market products, we literally cut service center budgets, which in turn could end up in staff reductions or insufficiently trained personnel, resulting in poor service experience.
Should You Buy Gray Market Products?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying a gray market product. It is not illegal and if it saves you a lot of your hard earned money and you are fully aware of all the risks and lack of warranty and service options, then by all means go for it. However, as stated above, keep in mind that by buying gray market products you are also cutting financial support of the manufacturer-provided service centers. Once resources are cut and support is reduced, it is hard to bring those back. And if the manufacturer ever chooses to outsource its support and service to a third party, that’s pretty much the end of good customer experience. Consider some of the newer players on the market who started out by outsourcing their service centers to a third party and listen to some of the customer experiences to see why it is important to have proper and fully functional service centers. In short, if you want to have a peace of mind when it comes to service and warranty work, and if you want to support your camera manufacturer, you should not buy gray market products.
Personally, I have purchased gray market products only twice. The first was an inexpensive Nikon 1.7x teleconverter that I purchased to pair up with my telephoto lens for birding. Unlike lenses and cameras, teleconverters are simple by design, so I assessed the likelihood of the teleconverter needing to be serviced in the future before buying the product. The only chance of needing service would be if I were to drop it, which I would have to pay to get repaired anyway. I chose to go gray market, because if anything happened to the teleconverter, I would most likely replace it with a new one. The second gray market product that I purchased was a Nikon D750, which I bought to pair up with my other D750 (purchased via authorized seller) for recording video projects. I had a limited budget for the second video camera, so when I saw that a gray market version was available for $800 less than the retail version, I went for it. For me, it was too big of a price gap between the two to justify spending so much money on warranty and service that I did not need or care about for occasional video work. Other than these two, I have never gone the gray market route.
Regional Pricing Differences
One of the biggest frustrations of potential buyers is the big variances in pricing between different regions. When a product is announced, we get complaints all the time from our readers and I can fully understand their frustration with such pricing disparities. Let’s take a look at a real example. The recently announced Nikon D850 is priced at $3,299 MSRP in the USA. The same camera is priced at €3,749 in some of the European countries like Italy, which is roughly equivalent to $4,380 in USD. In the UK, the same camera is sold for £3,499 MSRP, which is about $4,590 in USD. In Australia, the Nikon D850 is priced at $5,299 AUD, which translates to about $4,045 USD. In almost every case, the price difference is very significant – from $750 to $1300.
If you are wondering why the same product is priced so differently in different markets, you should take into account a few important points. First, there are major differences in import fees and taxes between different countries. Second, the size of the market and its relative upkeep for service centers and employee salaries also add up quickly. Third, some countries require higher levels of warranty coverage than others, which also raises the long term costs for the manufacturer. And lastly, other government-enforced regulations and employee benefits also add to the mix, increasing the cost of camera distribution partners in those markets. That’s why there are such large pricing differences between different markets.
While it might be tempting to travel to another country in order to purchase cheaper camera gear, whatever you bring with you could automatically be considered gray market import by the manufacturer’s service centers in your country and they could refuse to perform service on it. That’s understandable, as you would be bypassing the upkeep of all those infrastructures put in place by the manufacturer and its regional distribution partners. Why would they help someone who is refusing to pay their salaries? Check out Robert Andersen’s excellent article on why you should buy from authorized dealers for more information on this (and don’t forget to read the comments section as well).
At the same time, considering that we live in a global economy today, the idea of a gray market product sounds ridiculous to many, including myself. Why can’t I go on a vacation to another country, buy camera gear there and then come back and be able to get support and warranty for it? Why shouldn’t I be able to get support and warranty if my camera breaks down in a different country, or perhaps I move to another country to live? Why should it matter which country the camera was purchased in the first place, provided that it is genuine and it was bought from an authorized seller? Perhaps it is time for manufacturers to reconsider their regional pricing strategies, gray market imports and service centers and come up with a way to make it simpler and easier for their customers to buy their products, on a global level.
Do you buy gray market camera gear? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!
I’ve bought a few grey market Len’s and had no problems and the shops are Very willing to take them in as park ex and make a tidy profit for themselves and they never advertise them being grey imports..
This is a very enlightening topic. I dropped my Canon 1DX mark ll with 24-70mm f2.8 version one lens. I had to send my camera back to Canon for repair. This service was impeccable. Around 10 days turn around. Canon’s service and support are second to none in my opinion. After getting my camera back I attached the lens and realized the lens was damaged. I called Canon to set up a repair. After talking to them they told me they no longer support the older version. I’ve baby all my camera gear by property storing, cleaning and keeping it out of the elements. The equipment from Canon is well made but not designed to bounce off sidewalks. I’ve recently retired and cannot go out any spend a lot of money replacing older equipment so it can be serviced. As I read the article posted here about how the gray market works because manufacturers dump maybe over stocked equipment to meet sales goals. The average consumer doesn’t know about the gray market. I was looking to replace my damaged 24-70 lens. As the article here said I found a Canon 24-70 f2.8 ll brand new online for around $1360.00. The ad said imported. That send up a red flagged and I started googling that. I had read about gray market years ago and actually forgot that. If Canon unloads their equipment in any country knowing it could wind up in the hands of innocent consumers they have the obligation to repair it. Canon should be required to mark the equipment in a sway so consumers understand what they are buying. I feel Cannon should support the higher end products such as the L type lens. The prices for their new equipment continue to climb as everything else does. I don’t mind paying more if I know I can get this equipment repaired later on down the road. I am a hobbyist photographer and may go and shoot photos for a while and may be six months until I go again. This equipment last a long time especially if not used everyday. Today’s economy you cannot fault not blame people trying to save as much money as they can. As I said Canon has an obligation to repair their products if they do not educate gray market products because you cannot look at the product to tell where it was bought especially if sold used where warranty isn’t an issue. Canon should mark gray mark products or service them even at an inflated cost.
Good to know that there ARE non-authorized dealers capable of fixing Nikon cameras in the event one purchases a grey market Nikon camera. I just bought a used Nikon D850 from a private customer who didn’t know about US/Grey market items and was going to return it to him for a full refund when I found out his D850 WAS grey market as it had been purchased from Abe’s of Maine and not Adorama where he thought it was originally purchased. Poor guy paid full price for a gray market D850 in 2018 at a price of $3,300!!! Not even a discount. Don’t even know if that included a warranty from Abe’s as nothing on the receipt states anything about a warranty. He called Abe’s of Maine and found out where they get their cameras repaired under warranties they provide/sell. We both called that repair shop and they can fix Nikon D850s no problem if repair is ever needed. I told the owner that it was my understanding that Nikon will NOT sell parts to non-authorized dealers. He told me that he had a ‘source’ and not to worry about it. Therefore I am keeping the camera because it 1) came with less than 1,000 actuations (too much camera for seller and therefore hardly used) 2) I put it through all functions and everything works perfectly and 3) I know I CAN get it fixed if need be and finally 4) I paid $2,400 including shipping for the camera/battery/charger + $300 worth of memory cards as well as a few other accessories.
Gregory, how would one contact this unnamed repair shop in the event that service is required? I recently bought a new D850 from an Amazon store on Amazon. Paid $1749 plus tax. The seller assured me that it was a U.S. version, even sent me a photo of the box serial number. Indeed it was a U.S. version and everything was packaged as new which included the warranty card. The box, camera, and warranty card serial numbers matched. Zero shutter actuations on the camera. I immediately registered it and included Amazon as the source (which is a certified Nikon retailer). When I called to confirm my registration the Nikon representative explained that IF it was purchased from an Amazon store (vs directly from Amazon) Nikon considers it to be gray market, and not only would it NOT be covered by the warranty stated on the included card, Nikon would not service it, even at the owner’s expense. He did make a point of saying that this would be the case only if Nikon service KNOWS that it was purchased from an Amazon store, and not directly from Amazon.
Though it makes sense that the manufacturers will not provide support for gray market devices, HOW do they rationalize prohibiting their dealers from EXPORTING camera gear to another country???
For example, camera dealers such as B&H and Adorama will not sell Canon gear to Canadian customers!!
I buy gray market Nikon camera’s without reservation. Currently I have a D500 and a D850. As a professional photographer, my equipment gets sometimes rougher than normal handling, and they shoot every day of the week, literally thousands of clicks/week. I’m totally happy with my gray market cameras. Frankly, I think anyone who listens to all this bunk about gray market cameras, simply can’t think on their own. Here’s what I think everyone needs to consider:
If you call Nikon and ask them if your camera is gray market, they will tell you that they don’t know. NIKON DOESN’T KNOW. think about that. These camera’s roll off the assembly line right next to the one that Nikon USA will import. The only difference is who is importing it. The camera’s are identical. Anyone who says differently doesn’t understand that NIKON DOESN’T KNOW. Then, there’s this nonsensical claim that Nikon won’t work on them. First, obviously you won’t get warrantly work, because you don’t get a warranty card. BUT it’s a ONE YEAR limited warranty. In all of my life I’ve never had a camera go down in the first year. In fact, I’ve never had a camera that just failed. That’s the only thing your warranty covers. If you put 7 million clicks on it and it needs a new shutter, the bill is on you. So, essentially, the warranty is completely worthless to 99 % of the buyers. SECONDLY, let me refer you to my earlier remark: NIKON DOESN’T KNOW if the camera came with a warranty or not (they only know if you registered it for warranty purposes) and THEY DON’T KNOW if its a gray market camera. So, using your little bitty brain……if you take your camera to the Nikon shop for repair, how can they decide NOT to work on your camera? Because if NIKON DOESN’T KNOW, then NEITHER DO THE NIKON USA REPAIR CENTERS. All this bunk on the internet, like there’s secret markings on the box, or a hidden tag in the battery compartment, or whatever, simply support the need for NIKON USA to keep everyone scared to death of anything they didn’t get some cash from. I bought my first Canon in Thailand while I was in the Marine Corps in 1968 because it was a GREAT price. Never heard of gray market back then, but that is what they would call it now. And I call all the hoopla B.S.
— Definitely a Marine “…using your little bitty brain……”
I recently called Nikon service center to tell me if a 2018 Nikon D850 camera I wanted to purchase from a private party was grey or not based on serial number. They said they could not; however, they did tell me that the camera was never registered with them. They told me I would have to send it to them in order to determine if grey or not. Ironically, when I wanted to purchase a used Nikon D800 from Ebay and called the service center (back in 2014) they WERE able to tell me over the phone that it WAS a US model when I gave them the serial number. I wonder if that’s because they could see in their computers that it was registered and in the US? My guess if it’s not registered it automatically becomes a grey market item in their eyes and therefore will refuse to repair it.
Stan, I recently bought a new D850 from an Amazon store on Amazon. Paid $1749 plus tax. The seller assured me that it was a U.S. version, even sent me a photo of the box serial number. Indeed it was a U.S. version and everything was packaged as new which included the warranty card. The box, camera, and warranty card serial numbers matched. Zero shutter actuations on the camera. I immediately registered it and included Amazon as the source (which is a certified Nikon retailer). When I called to confirm my registration the Nikon representative explained that if it was purchased from an Amazon store (vs directly from Amazon) Nikon considers it to be gray market, and not only would it NOT be covered by the warranty stated on the included warranty card, Nikon would not service it, even at the owner’s expense. He did make a point of saying that this would be the case only if Nikon service KNOWS that it was purchased from an Amazon store, and not directly from Amazon.
The part you’re missing is that Nikon allocates products to regional markets via serial numbered lots. For example, D850s with a serial number of 37XXXXX would be allocated to the Japanese market. So with the serial number, they know. The guy you get on the phone when you call them may not have access to the database, but the guy processing your service return will.
Has anyone bought an “international version” camera from Walmart?
They have some unbelievable deals.
I’m just worried.
Thanks …..great article…..I have been buying camera gear since the late 60’s when I was in the US Air Force ….I have never bought a Gray Market camera but I will admit I have been tempted with the lower prices….
By the way…..how did that Gray market D750 work out for you?
Have a Nikon D750, damaged after dropping. Not under warranty any more so I understand I will pay to fix it, assuming it can be fixed. No obvious physical damage but the F– message. Contacted Nikon, gave them the serial number and a description of the problem and they said, “send it in”. But once they got it they said they REFUSE to work on it, based on the serial number, even though I will pay for the repair. And they are shipping it back. So maybe 3 weeks lost and $40 to ship it. Saying it is gray market is the reason they won’t work on it. Purchased as used / refurbished from a reputable large Canadian shop through ebay. The seller in Toronto can work on it. So, hopefully I can find another repair option. It will just be more of a hassle. Does Nikon not understand that they and Cannon are not the only game in town? Really turns me off to the brand, though I have loved the camera.
Thank you for this in-depth report. As a news reporter, I purchased a Nikon camera recently and found the prices were all the same from the authorized re-sellers. I knew something was up. So I did like most and did an internet search for the camera I was looking for. Interestingly enough, Walmart came up with the lowest price. BUT, if you look carefully, it was it is from a third-party seller.
I emailed Walmart via the media contact on their website. I said I noticed they are on Nikon’s authorized reseller, but the third party was not. I asked them if they are backing their third-party resellers if there is an issue with the product. Not surprisingly I did not get a reply.
What I did find interesting was that the third-party reseller was offering a two-year extended warranty, with lots of accessories for way less.
Has anyone purchased a camera from Walmart via the third-party reseller? What was your experience?
Please let me know the price, if you have
stock that matches or is close to what I have
EOS 7D Mark II Body Kit with EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6
IS USM Lens
20.2 Megapixel CMOS (APS-C) sensor and ISO 100–
16000 (expandable to H1: 25600, H2: 51200) for
reduced noise at high ISOs and high performance
Dual DIGIC 6 Image Processors for outstanding
image quality and processing speed.
70-300mm f/4-5.6 Lens Construction: 15 elements
in 10 groups Filter Size: 58mm
Hope to read or hear from you soon as you find