Gray Market Products: To Buy or Not to Buy?

Gray Market Products: To Buy or Not to Buy?

Gear is expensive, and saving a couple hundred dollars on brand new gear might be tempting, but sometimes, it costs more than you expect.

For the last couple of years, digital camera and lens markets rapidly grew, and each year, new products with better features keep triggering our G.A.S. Switching systems or investing in better gear costs lots of money for sure, especially for enthusiasts and amateurs who cannot compensate the cost with photography. Secondhand markets are an option for those who don’t want to pay big bucks, but they can be risky, and you have to be lucky to find gear that is both affordable and in good condition. Usually, you can save up to 40-50 percent when buying used gear. At this point, gray market come into play as an affordable option. Buyers can save up to 20-30 percent depending on the product and get the brand new version of the gear. Although it sounds great, it has some downsides.

What Is Gray Market?

First of all, gray market products are not counterfeit; they are the original products, imported without the consent of the authorized distributor. In the photo industry, products are usually imported directly from Hong Kong, China, or Japan and sold on eBay at a cheaper price. In other industries, such as watch companies, the goods are bought in bulk at a cheaper price from the local distributors; therefore, distributors can continue holding their distributor titles for another year. This is another version of gray market, but in the photo industry, it is unlikely for a local distributor to sell the items in bulk, so each “gray market” has its own ways to supply the goods.

Here is a sample image of serial number plates of gray market Canon camera vs authorized Canon reseller camera, published by Canon US

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages?

The only advantage of a gray market product is the cheaper price. You can even use the gear for long years without any problems a lot of the time. Even though there are reputable sellers online, you might struggle to get a replacement when you face an issue with your gear. Therefore, these sellers mostly do not specify the warranty conditions; instead, they usually state that they provide one-year in-house warranty. But if that warranty is comparable to the security of coverage you get from the manufacturer is not guaranteed.

In another scenario, when your gear is broken or has an issue based on its series, you cannot get a replacement from the authorized dealers. While some brands accept the gear and fix it, some charge you extra for using gray market products. For example, Sigma released a new policy about gray market products last year, and as of January 1, 2017, they started charging an extra $250 in addition to the parts and labor for the servicing of gray market Sigma products. It is likely the other brands may follow the same path in the near future.

Besides the lack of warranty and problems with authorized servicing, you may find non-genuine chargers and instruction manuals in different languages. And lastly, when you decide to sell your gear, be prepared to be offered less money due to its gray market status.

Have you ever bought a gray market product? Or would you consider buying one? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Lead image by StockSnap, used under Creative Commons.

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I live overseas in the ME and I buy grey market gear and also purchase mack diamond warranty. nikon here is incompetent and the lab that works with mack does repair for nikon here as well because they arent competent. not the best IMO but the only one decently competent. the lab gets parts from the nikon lab. ive had complete shutters aperture mechanisms and mirror assembly replaced on 3 pro bodies. I save money from buying importer prices and add a bit and get a 3 years all risk warranty. impact water damage. so for me I love grey market gear.

Burak Erzincanli's picture

that's one of the issues with dealers, each brand has different reputation in different countries when it comes to servicing

Motti Bembaron's picture

Nikon in Canada is equally incompetent. Left with one repair Canada, imagine.

Alvin Telan's picture

No no no, i swear by my life, Nikon Philippines is the most incompetent. If your item is under warranty or out, they have to send the item to Nikon Singapore bec there is no service center and let you wait for 1month or more. Reason why it's that long, bec they have to wait for other items they wont send only 1 item, they need to wait until it becomes 10 items or more. And if you pull out your item bec you decided to have it repaired somewhere else, they'll bill you for 'handling fee' which is already equal the amount of repair fee if you have it repaired by a technician.

Is there anything worst than that?

Burak Erzincanli's picture

the worst with Nikon warranty is the additional cost of rubber grip parts. When a Nikon camera is serviced, customer has to pay extra for brand new rubber grip parts, as the originals are removed when disassembling. They don't accept to re-glue the old ones.

Slavek Musilek's picture

I've purchased some gear couple of times from gray market sellers from Ireland ( Sigma Art lenses or Canon's L's ... , EOS 5DIII, 5Ds, X100F, .... ) so saved quite a bit of money, so taking a risk that I'd be facing a warranty or service issue with one piece was OK for me (for more than 20y I've not had a need to repair any of my cameras, lenses, and other stuff anyway .. )

Well, each goods is having its price, and each supplier his own pricing strategy ... keeping prices quite high for gear brings profit to producer, but on the other side opens gates for people to look for saving reasonable money ... I guess nobody will risk for 50Eur, but for 500 ... ?
And guys, to be honest to ourselves, even we love our gear, quite often called semi-pro or pro ... it is just piece of consumer electronics, plastics and mechanics ... with flavor of exclusivity created by marketing noise around to keep us eager to buy it for the price ...

Like people from europe, travelling frequently to US are buying Apple gear in US ... as the "price tag" is same ... just according to Apple 100USD=100Eur ... :) :) :)

So ... am I looking for purchasing new stuff over gray market again? Absolutelly ...

Burak Erzincanli's picture

thanks for your comment Slavek. As you know, some third-party lenses might have issues with extreme back/front focusing issues on some models, how do you deal with these kind of problems with your gray market purchases? Do they offer one-on-one replacement in Ireland?

Slavek Musilek's picture

Well, I’ve read a lot about significant focus issues with 3rd party lenses, but hsve never experienced that ...
so not sure if it is a real issueand frequent, or rather theotetical ... and what is a real % ... as people usually share bad experience and not positive ones ...

Aldo, out of all my friends photographersI know just onewho was facing this issue ( canon lens on canon body ... )

So, in summary ... when it comes, will be dealing with it .. until then,
i don’t care, and not being scared by posts from people that have read all from whole internet but have not been shooting much ...

Tony Tumminello's picture

I've considered it, but never ended up doing it. From what I've heard from other people, Canon is pretty decent at supporting gray market products while Nikon won't touch them, even if you want to pay out of pocket you'll be turned away by Nikon USA. I haven't heard about other people's experiences with other brands, but anyone considered buying gray market should do their homework and be aware of each company's policy and how screwed you might be if the worst happens and you need to send the equipment in.

be aware that the gear does come with a warranty from the store. they dont do the repairs but they do have TONS of contact with legit repair shops that get OEM parts. they have to if they sell so many grey market equipment. I wouldnt have any issue buying a grey market item in the US. like I said above, id get a mack diamond warranty as well.

I got bit doing this years ago. I was young and stupid and didn't know anything about grey market, just that the gear on Ebay was a lot cheaper. But then it usually is so that didn't strike me as strange. Anyway got a $8500 Sony camcroder off of there to shoot a feature. Quickly it started dropping back focus. Looked online and with that model it was a known defect.

I contacted Sony and they weren't having a bar of it. They'd never heard of a camera having back focus issues before and as this was not Australian stock they wouldn't touch it. Tried my luck with consumer affairs etc but no dice. Cost about $2k to replace the lens assembly.

Recently I waited for the sales at the shops and bought a D850 for a few hundred less than the grey mareteers on Ebay.

Burak Erzincanli's picture

That was unfortunate, but as you said, the authorized resellers in Australia often offers huge discounts and cashbacks on major brands.

Simon Patterson's picture

Huge discounts on camera gear is extremely rare in Australia. Often the "sale" prices in Australia are still well above the B&H prices, even after accounting for exchange rate conversion.

Simon Patterson's picture

Yeah? I've been waiting for the d3x to cost the same as a paperweight here in Australia for years, to no avail.

Fritz Asuro's picture

You would probably get a cheaper D800/e cheaper and it'll be technologically better that the D3x

Simon Patterson's picture

The d800/e is another DSLR that is getting quite long in the tooth but is nowhere near paperweight value. This paperweight theory is largely a myth - quality usually holds value, and both the d3x and d800 are quality cameras.

Burak Erzincanli's picture

I am still after a D5, even the mirrorless hype didn't change the prices

Simon Patterson's picture

It's been interesting to see the hoopla around mirrorless. Mirrorless is excellent technology but several commentators should be very embarrassed about their predictions of its short term impacts on the market.

Simon Patterson's picture

Most of my gear is grey market, I never regretted it. Companies that try to gouge a ridiculously high price out of me quickly lose my custom until they return to more reasonable pricing policies. Authorised resellers are not charities that need my voluntary extra donations, and nor do I owe them anything.

"Most of my gear is grey market, I never regretted it. "

same. but because my gear through a lot of weddings I have to get a better warranty so I get the mack. also squaretrade or leaf offer similar warranties. an all risk kind. water and impact damage.

It seems every time I read an article disavowing the purchase of gray market equipment it is written by a professional whose livelihood is dependent on having their gear working day in and day out. If paying my mortgage was dependent on reliable gear I would not give gray market a second glance. They also have the advantage of being able to write off the cost of their equipment.
However, for all us amateurs out there the risk of ending up with defunct gear is outweighed by the savings. Nowadays every time I purchase a piece of electronic equipment somebody is trying to sell me an extended warranty. If I added up the cost of all these warranties I have declined over the years, I could buy myself a top of the line computer/camera/toaster. I have yet to have anything fail.
All of this to say that, if one is watching the bucks but wants to expand their hobby at the same time then gray market offers an alternative.

michaeljin's picture

I never purchase gray market gear, but it's one of those things I do consider from time to time since I've never once ever in my life used the warranty on a single good be it a camera or a broom... It also seems like manufacturer warranties never cover the types of damage that actually matter, either (eg. water damage).

Buying grey usually means avoiding VAT and perhaps customs (which is much less significant financially in most parts of the world) in Europe. It's the VAT that causes the price difference between the US and the UK. Theoretically you should pay the VAT on purchases on America when you return. Then the prices would be identical.
I am going to guess that not one single f-stopper will feel that there is a morality issue here. But buying grey means not paying taxes and encouraging the growth of sneaky on-line dealers rather than reputable expensive camera shops. Saving a grand on a brand new super expensive bit of kit goes a long way to easing my conscience! But it is the only question truly worthy of a debate.
The other question is, however, the only one likely to be argued over. Is the financial savings worth the risk of not having some form of "insurance" against product failure? Each person has to make that personal call themself. I buy secondhand almost exclusively. Some won't touch anything but brand new from their favourite shop. The choice is yours. I don't know if there is anything more to say.

Fritz Asuro's picture

Most of the time I see it more a "which type of warranty do you want, manufacturer's or local store?"

I know the case might be different there in USA, but for me, I always get my camera from a store I trust. I got mixed bag of equipment and really didn't bother if it's from authorized resellers or not.
I did have a gray market Nikon D300s with a dead pixel on the screen. I just walked back to the store the next day and they replaced it with a new one with no fuss.

here is your warranty, when i buy a camera and sell it on after 1 week. the camera has no warranty, you cant pass the remaining warranty on. the camera is with its serial number registered with its original buyer, something you cant change. gray market has its place for those who cant effort a 4k camera. remember that photographers are having a hard time actually making money in photography especially when they start.

Bill Wells's picture

If you buy a grey market camera and save 500-750 dollars.

Then it breaks, it is going to cost to fix it. Maybe even 500-750 (doubt it would be this much), but wouldn't you still be even?

What if it doesn't have issues, like the majority don't, wouldn't you be happy?

the magic word "if" the price difference is bigger then 500-750 dollars, its about 1000 last time i checked (yesterday). i never had a camera break on me, it always worked and they always get fixed. however i wont buy a lens on the gray market. oh btw, a sony A7r-3 body is about 2k euro, not the 3299 it cost at the retailer.

The prices are kept high in retail stores.

Nikon D850 white market official retail store prices
in the US 3299 dollars (B&H) which is 2854 euro against todays rate
in europe its 3699 euro (was 3799) that is 4274 dollars against todays rate.

explain to me why there is a 975 dollar price difference ?
compared to the gray market the price is even bigger explain that.
that price is so big that i could fly to new york, buy at B&H and have an extended weekend in New York for that money.

same camera, same brand, same model crazy price difference.

so yes i would be happy to safe about 1617 dollars (shipping included) on that gray market camera.

I buy all of my gear from gray market suppliers. My experience is that these are well run businesses that rely on good online reviews and are focused on providing excellent customer service - unlike the authorized re-sellers who can afford to behave more like a monopoly.

i have seen gray market suppliers with 65000+ reviews at a rating of 99.9% good. and again, credit card and a 1 year insurance against break/theft etc on top of that so its good. did you ever notice that all authorized re-sellers have the same price and there is no competition on price ? manufacturers cant dictate retail price only suggested retail price,. dictating prices is against the EU consumer law.

In the US, authorized dealers can be subject to the pricing enforced by manufactures. Reportedly, if a dealer has a more stock of a given product than it can move, they may sell them close to cost to unauthorized dealers who then undercut the manufacture’s required pricing. But, these items were intended for the US market and do have serial numbers.

Would so-called “white box” sales where the body and the lens from a kit are sold separately also be considered gray market?

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