B&H sells gray market LF lenses... but don't overpay for them!

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

For the first time that Ive seen, B&H is listing gray market Nikon lenses (including large format) in its printed ads. This is good news, as the savings can be substantial, especially on the most expensive lenses (e.g., a 500mm 35mm lens costs $4299 gray, $5139 USA). The catch is that they may not tell you about the potential savings unless you mention it.

I found out about this on January 5, when I ordered a 120mm Nikkor large-format lens over the phone; the guy said (note the euphemisms for gray vs. USA) "If you want the B&H warranty, its $1120; if you want the Nikon warranty its $1130" (I had not ventured a price). I said, "Well, if its only 10 bucks extra Ill take the Nikon warranty" and placed the order, shipped 2nd Day Air.

Later that morning, I checked the new issue of Shutterbug and discovered that the B&H ad lists this lens for $1020 gray, $1120 USA, both of which prices are less than I was quoted over the phone. I called them immediately, pointing out that I would have chosen to save $100 if they had been honest with me; they said, Oops, did we give you the wrong prices?--must have been "a computer problem"(!) and told me that when the lens arrives I should "simply" send it back with a copy of the invoice and theyll send me a gray market version and "credit the difference." Unfortunately, by that time Ill have paid the cost of 2nd Day Air shipping to me (twice)--I need the lens yesterday--plus return shipping to them (once). Thats at least $50 total, plus Ill have lost a week without the lens I need, plus Im out in the field where its not so "simple" to find a place that will ship it for me.

After stewing over this for awhile, I decided I had no sensible alternative but to keep the lens, pay $100 more than I would have if theyd been honest with me, and curse them yet again. I got to wondering whether, if Id paid $1120 for the "B&H warranty" (gray) version that actually sells for $1020, they would have credited me $100 when I called them on it. (To be fair, I should note that when I called them back one more time and pointed out that Id been overcharged $10, they promised to credit my MasterCard for $10.)

Grrrr. Why arent there more alternatives to B&H? Ive gotten screwed by them more times than I can count, always in the $40-100 range (i.e., enough to infuriate me but too small to make it worth returning the problematic item). I know that many photo.netters (including Philg) dont have problems with B&H, and I agree that you can do well (pricewise) there BUT ONLY IF YOU WATCH EVERY SINGLE MOVE, which is why Im posting this: so other buyers can be better informed than I was. The folks at B&H seem to be masters at the art of slipping little things through and only admitting their "mistake" if you call them on it; otherwise the buyer will never find out. Of course, thats probably why theyre so profitable....

Caveat emptor, alas.

(P.S. If Henry Posner or anyone else at B&H ever monitors Photo.net, an explanation of the companys official policy on this would be much appreciated....)

Asked by Micah (MicahMarty@aol.com) on January 06, 1998.

-- Micah (MicahMarty@aol.com), January 06, 1998


Sorry you have had such bad experiences with B&H, Micah, however, I don't want folks to get the impression that everyone gets treated shabbily by them.

I have dealt with them on regular basis over the course of many years, and in placing what be must be well over a hundred orders with them I have encountered only one small glitch. And even then, a case where they short-shipped me five rolls of film, they accepted my claim without hesitation and shipped the missing film ASAP at their expense.

For me, B&H has proven to be the one place that _doesn't_ use all those devious little mail order tricks to get extra dollars out of my pocket. They have been remarkably good to me.

Gordon Vickrey krmhlz@earthlink.net

-- Gordon Vcikrey (krmhlz@earthlink.net), January 06, 1998.

Thanks for your input, Gordon, and yes, you're right--B&H is, or must be, doing quite a bit right. My orders from them are in the dozens, and although I've had several serious problems I do keep going back (more on that below).

I posted this identical thread in Photo.net, where it was promptly killed by the monitor of Photo.net (I presume because he's an ardent booster of B&H who thought my comments unfair--or perhaps merely boring!) but before that thread disappeared it had 7 or 8 interesting additions. Rather than pursuing a fruitless discussion of B&H's goodness and flaws--which wasn't my primary intent--I'll summarize for large-format users a couple of the relevant responses from Photo.net:

> A guy named Brad said that getting service from Nikon for gray market equipment is a nightmare; they really don't want to touch it. While large-format lenses aren't likely to have as many parts to go wrong as Brad's f5 camera, my suggestion of "caveat emptor" applies here as well: saving a hundred bucks up front may cost much more in the long term if your gray market item needs repair. If this is true, it certainly makes me feel better about buying a USA warranty lens!

> Two subsequent respondents to Brad said that they have had Nikon gray market stuff that needed repair and Nikon fixed it--but at significant expense. Both respondents said they'd buy "gray" again; they understand up front that they're taking a risk if something breaks, and they're prepared to pony up a bit extra at repair time.

> One respondent said he didn't like whiners who "need equipment yesterday." The truth is that not all such situations involve hobbyists eager to play with a new toy (mine certainly doesn't!); most "it needs to be done yesterday" situations involve two other key words: "client" and "deadline."

> Another respondent asked why I don't go somewhere else besides B&H. As I failed to make clear in my initial post, and as Gordon helped clarify, B&H does do a lot of things right and no one's forcing me to buy from them. However, there also aren't as many alternatives as it might seem:

--The two most obvious alternatives to B&H are Adorama and Camera World of Oregon. I've had many more problems with Adorama than B&H and thus refuse to buy there; Camera World of Oregon, which I patronize as often as possible, unfortunately doesn't stock large-format gear--only 35mm and MF.

--For a 35mm user, there are hundreds of places that sell Nikon. Unfortunately (and this is a major bummer), Nikon will not let dealers carry their large-format lenses unless they carry the whole Nikon line, including 35mm. This knocks out of contention some of the best smaller, user-friendly dealers like F-Stops Here and Darkroom Innovations, for whom it would be pointless (and impossibly expensive) to carry Nikon 35mm stuff.

--Two respondents recommended Calumet. I like Calumet and have bought tons of stuff from them (including 2 LF cameras). However, their prices can either be very competitive or fairly exorbitant, depending on the line. With 35mm, they compete with NY mail-order houses. For Nikon LF lenses, however, their prices are 20-30 percent higher than NY--on top of which I must pay almost 9 percent in sales tax because I live in a state where they have a store. So I can't justify buying Nikon LF from Calumet. But I do like them and recommend them for many things.

>For all of these reasons, there aren't as many viable alternatives to B&H as it might at first seem, especially for certain items (like Nikon LF lenses, my next one of which will probably be bought from--you guessed it--B&H!). I think my point should have been expressed not as "B&H is no good" but that "It's cool that B&H is now advertising gray market Nikon, but know what you're getting into."


I didn't expect to go on this long, but hope some of this information is useful to participants in this excellent large-format home-page. Thanks for staying tuned, and again, thanks to Gordon for noting that B&H is not the fire-breathing dragon I made them out to be in my frustrated first post....

-- Micah (MicahMarty@aol.com), January 07, 1998.

I don't think grey market items are new for B&H. A little over two years ago, I bought a Nikon large format lens from them (over the counter, not mail order). Initially, they quoted me a price for a grey lens; when I asked about a Nikon-imported lens, I was told that it would be the same price, but they weren't sure if they had one in stock. In fact they did, so I wound up geting the "official" version for the same price. Incidentally, that price was significantly less than I had been quoted by Calumet.

Over the years, I've bought a fair amount of gear from B&H, and have generally been satisfied. I don't know of any store with lower prices--Adorama seems to have exactly the same prices on most items.

I may start buying more from Adorama, but only for the sake of convenience--since B&H moved, they're no longer only a few blocks from my office.

-- Rob Rothman (rrothman@riag.com), January 08, 1998.

I really had to laugh as I read these posts. I too have purchased dozens of times from B&H, Adorama, and Calumet. Only once from Camera World of Oregon. I agree with the opinions stated.

Calumet is very good. Their sales people are usually extremely professional and always polite. They will go out of their way to answer questions, send brochures, etc. Their prices are generally higher on most items. But I've never had a bad experience buying from Calumet.

For the most part, B&H is generally good, and getting better. Adorama is about the same, though their sales people need some more work in developing...how shall we say it?...their interpersonal skills. I think we could all agree that "service with a smile" has never been their strength. Over the years these places have probably been forced to realize that it's not profitable (or good PR) to treat customers like dirt. And their business practices have not always been beyond reproach either. Over the years, these sharpies have tried to gouge me a bunch of times, in a number of different ways.

I remember when their favorite trick was trying to charge customers for "extras" that already came in the factory sealed boxes. Other times, it involved the old bait-and-switch scam, advertising certain items at absurdly low prices, only to be told they were out of stock, it was a typo, or some other lame excuse. I suppose we could all trade war stories about our many dealings with the New York camera discount houses.

And please, don't get me started on Abe's of Maine, or Beach Camera, or any one of a number of other establishments. Stay away from these guys!

But when you think about it, B&H has just about everything photographic you can think of, and at prices that nobody can match. Same for Adorama, if you can stand the attitude. And let's face it, we only buy from these places to save money. Hell, if we wanted to pay list price, we'd all be buying from Del's.

Still, there are a few very simple things people should know when ordering from these places:

1. Always know exactly what you want. Don't even think of calling these places to chat about the finer points of Nikon vs. Canon, or whether the Sironar-S is sharper in the corners than the Apo Symmar, or the esoteric qualities of one film over another. When dealing with either B&H or Adorama, one's chances of getting screwed seem to be inversely proportional to one's lack of knowledge.

2. Always order from a printed ad. It's not hard to find one. It seems these days that just about every photo magazine devotes the last hundred pages or so exclusively to the B&H and Adorama ads. If they ever quote you a higher price, tell them their current ad says different. They'll always back down.

3. Be assertive! For some strange reason, if you're rude and short with them, they will actually treat you with more respect. It's kind of like living in New York.

Happy shopping!

-- Sergio Ortega (s.ortega@worldnet.att.net), March 30, 1998.

Actually my last two experiences with Calumet have been very negative (both shipped to the wrong address) and not at all resolved to my satisfaction. I can't see paying their prices and then waiting 10 days to more than a month for the items ordered.

-- John Lehman (ffjal@aurora.alaska.edu), April 02, 1998.

I've had no problem to speak of with Calumet. When I told them that there was a problem with the Cadet, they issued a full refund INCLUDING the shipping charge (and they paid for the return shipping). Their sales people are always friendly and informative unlike some other places where all they want to know is what you want to order. Are there cheaper places of course.

-- Stuart Goldstein (satgre@worldnet.att.net), April 03, 1998.

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