May 13, 2022

Ricoh Pentax Japan ends mass production

Big changes are ahead for Ricoh Imaging in its Japanese home market as it continues to attempt to transition from a consumer camera maker to a high-end niche brand closer to Germany’s Leica. The company behind Pentax and Ricoh cameras has unveiled a new strategy that will take effect in April and will change the way its products are made and sold to the Japanese public.

A move to direct selling and greater customer involvement

Going forward, Ricoh believes it can no longer rely on mass production and mass market sales to survive in a shrinking camera market, especially given the relative niche of its products. Instead, it will move away from selling in retail stores and rely entirely on direct-to-customer sales, both via the Internet and through self-managed Ricoh Imaging stores.

As quoted in the company’s official announcement, Ricoh President and CEO Noboru Akahane commented (via machine translation):

“So far, we have done business while feeling our customers’ strong feelings for the PENTAX and GR brands. Although I want to meet this desire as much as possible, I feel that the conventional method based on mass production and sale is less accustomed to recent changes in the market environment. But the activity of people taking pictures, sharing them and having fun is pretty endless. We will tread new paths with our customers while politely responding to such diverse customer needs.

It’s not entirely clear whether the mention of Ricoh Imaging stores involves physical outlets in some major Japanese cities, or refers to online outlets like crowdfunding and auction sites that help companies to deliver directly to their customers. Either way, this implies that Pentaxians and Ricoh shooters will interact much more closely with Ricoh itself, rather than through a third-party retailer.

Sharper cameras to meet customer needs

A monochrome or astrophotography-specific variant of the Pentax K-3 Mark III would be pretty cool. Stan Horaczek

This closer relationship should not only help Ricoh better market its products to loyal customers, but also allow it to involve them more in its research and development processes. The objectives here seem to be twofold. First, Ricoh wants to better understand customer needs and create products that better meet them in the first place. Second, it seems to be actively looking for other niches in niches where Pentax can differentiate itself from the competition.

An example of the latter came during the company’s recent Pentax 2021 online meeting for Japanese customers. Ricoh recently suggested that it is currently considering making monochrome and astrophotography-focused variants of the Pentax K-3 III, among others.

Is the company likely to sell either of these versions in greater numbers than the standard versions, which themselves already sell in small volumes compared to Canon or Sony gear? Of course not, but finding those unanswered use cases and addressing their needs gives new customers new reasons to consider Ricoh products.

A more agile production process that allows more customization

The Ricoh GR series is a cult classic for street and candid photographers.
The Ricoh GR series is a cult classic for street and candid photographers. Dan Bracaglia

Ricoh’s statement also suggests the company is shifting to what Google translates as more “workshop-like” manufacturing. A better translation of this might perhaps be “artisanal”, as opposed to the more mass-produced products by bigger rivals. The implication is that Ricoh’s products will be produced on a smaller scale and with greater human involvement in the process, and perhaps even with the possibility of these products being customized to the buyer’s needs.

The company has already done something similar in the past. It was among the first to offer its cameras in a wide range of colors, and later even allowed customers to customize their cameras’ color schemes from hundreds of combinations. It has also regularly offered limited edition variants of its cameras over the years, some of which are quite unusual.

Perhaps a smaller, more convenient manufacturing process could make this easier and more common, giving Pentaxians cameras that better match their style and needs.

It’s been widely reported elsewhere that Ricoh Japan’s statement means it will forego mass production entirely, but we’re not convinced that’s accurate. It is important to note that everything discussed in this article is specific to the company’s plans for the Japanese market, for one thing. Ricoh Imaging America was quick to issue its own statement making it clear:

Statement from Ricoh Imaging Americas regarding the January 20, 2022 announcement of Ricoh Imaging Co., Ltd.

The announcement made by Ricoh Imaging Co., Ltd. January 20, 2022 regarding a revamped approach to manufacturing and distributing Ricoh’s digital cameras was specific to the local market in Japan only. “Ricoh/Pentax will not change its distribution structure in North America, and the company has significant plans and goals for the North American market this year that will utilize mass production of its products,” said Kazumichi Eguchi, president of Ricoh Imaging Americas Corporation. “Customers in North America can continue to purchase Ricoh and Pentax cameras through our authorized resellers and directly through our website.”

It is more likely that “shop-style” manufacturing will complement mass production

The Pentax K3 Mark III is the only DSLR released in 2021.
The Pentax K3 Mark III was the only DSLR to hit the market in 2021. Ricoh/Pentax

The fact that mass production of products will continue for the US market simply does not match the assertion by some outlets that there will be no more mass-produced products sold in Ricoh’s home market. After all, its cameras have changed little globally, beyond changes to the product bundle to account for regional variations. If a product is mass-produced for certain markets, it wouldn’t make sense to spend more money to hand-craft essentially the same products for the Japanese market.

Our reading of this is that mass production will continue, but will be *supplemented* with additional, more handcrafted production of products for customers in the Japanese market. Additionally, the company could allow some customization of otherwise mass-produced products, as it has done in the past with its unusual limited-edition models. But to completely stop mass production for the Japanese market? It just doesn’t make sense when considered alongside Ricoh Imaging Americas’ statement.

We think it’s a smart strategy, although it will also need some luck

Some publications were also quick to describe this as Pentax’s death knell, which is a drumbeat we’ve been hearing on and off for a few decades now. And we have to admit that when we first heard the news ourselves, our initial reaction was a mixture of surprise and concern until the necessary context was provided. But realistically, we think Ricoh is moving Pentax in the right direction here, even if its long-term success is far from guaranteed.

The brand’s fate is already sealed vis-a-vis the mirrorless vs. DSLR battle, after all. Its first mirrorless offerings were clearly misjudged, as were those of several of its rivals. But where those companies followed up their mirrorless duds with a second attempt, Ricoh instead doubled down on DSLRs. If he backtracked and went mirrorless now, he would simply end up as the smallest, easiest fish to swallow in an already well-stocked pond.

As the only brand still investing money in developing newer and better DSLRs, it may be in a much smaller pond, but it effectively has it all to itself. Rivals have already discontinued their DSLR offerings or made it clear that their days are numbered, especially at the high end.

Sound familiar? Leica has taken a similar route before

Leica M-10P camera
Can Ricoh carve out a place like Leica? Time will tell us. Leica

This is actually a variation of the Leica strategy. The German brand, once considered out of breath at the start of the digital photography revolution, has nevertheless managed to carve out a place at the high end of the market.

That said, even when things looked bleakest, the Leica brand was still treated with respect by photographers and deep-pocketed collectors, who had long been willing to pay above the odds for that vaunted red dot. The Pentax brand, at least right now, lacks that cachet even though the brand certainly has its ardent Pentaxian supporters. (Your humble author is counted among them, by the way, having been a K-mount shooter myself for the past decade-plus.)

But reputations can certainly solidify over time. Solid offerings like the K-1 II and K-3 III help cement its reputation with photographers who still favor DSLRs. And once Canon and Nikon finally move on from their current DSLR flagships, Pentax will likely be the only game in town if you want a new high-end DSLR.

However, with laser-focused specialization in market niches and smaller production runs, costs tend to increase because you don’t have the economies of scale available for more widely distributed products. As Leica users have already discovered, this tends to lead to much higher costs. As Pentax continues its momentum, it must find ways to both keep the increases to a minimum and justify them to its customers with ever better products.

Cutting out the middlemen is a strategy that could certainly help in Ricoh’s stronger markets, with more of the sale price going to its bottom line. And better tailoring its offerings to customer needs and perhaps even your own specific, individual tastes could also help.

We can only hope it works, because as fans of a dynamic and competitive camera market – and a wide choice of products that cover everyone’s needs – we want to see Ricoh and Pentax survive for the decades to come.