Online Shopping Review
15 April 2015
Are you considering buying cameras, lenses or accessories online? Camera Club recently purchased photographic equipment from these 5 South African online retailers and we have published our findings for your benefit.
To ensure that we compared apples with apples we paid for each order in the same manner (by EFT) and the goods were shipped to a province outside of where each store is located.
There are other online photographic stores in South Africa in addition to the 5 in this review, so why didn't we include them in the review? Simply because of our budget constraints. We shopped around and chose these 5 stores because they offered the best prices for the items we were looking for within the budget we had allocated ourselves.
This is a review of our experiences when ordering photographic equipment from these online stores. This is not a review of any other products or services provided by these retailers.
When shopping online you want an online store that carries a wide range of products at competitive prices. All 5 online stores have a good range of photographic equipment that can meet most of your photographic needs, from compact point-and-shoot cameras to pro DSLR cameras and lenses, as well as various accessories such as camera bags and flashes.
It is only when you start looking for less common items that you may struggle to find what you are looking for on some of the online stores. One store does have it all though: Whether you are looking for extension tubes, robotic camera mounts, underwater housings or card readers, Orms Direct is likely to have it. The other stores also carry a wide range of products, but we found that Orms Direct's photographic equipment range was the most comprehensive.
The product pricing across all of the online stores is competitive with no one store being the cheapest or the most expensive across the board. Foto Discount World generally had the best prices for cameras and lenses but the worst prices in some other areas (e.g. camera bags). Studio22 was generally the most expensive for the products we evaluated, although the particular item we ordered from Studio22 was the cheapest across all of the online stores. Overall we were able to find good deals on all of the online stores, so it is worthwhile to shop around if price is important to you.
When placing your order, remember to take the cost of shipping into account too:
It's no good having a wide range of products if your customers cannot easily find the product or information that they are looking for. Fortunately we found that all of the online stores that we evaluated were informative and easy to use, although when considering the overall online experience we found that Orms Direct stands above the rest. The Orms Direct website is well thought out and the information you need always seems to be where you expect it to be thanks to the sensible product category groupings and well laid out product pages.
When it comes to product information, and in particular product images, Orms Direct and Outdoorphoto have the edge over the other online stores. Product images are particularly important when shopping for items such as camera bags. Orms Direct and Outdoorphoto provide several images for their camera bag products, showing front view, rear view, and importantly the inside layout. Cameraland provides multiple images for some of their products, but not all of them. The other online stores display only a single picture of an exterior view of the product, and we had to Google the product to find additional images.
All of the online stores have a search feature, but we found that Foto Discount World's search function was not quite as good as the others as it did not always show items in the search results that could be found listed on the website. The Foto Discount World search results page also displays non-photographic products (hi-fi, TV, household appliances, etc.) and these cannot be filtered out.
All of the online stores allow you to sort the product lists (by name, by price, etc.) but if you change the default sorting then only Orms Direct's and Cameraland's websites remember your preference as you browse the store. We found this to be a useful feature and a point of minor frustration with the other online stores.
We have two additional gripes with the usability of Foto Discount World's online store. Firstly the dropdown Photography menu is too long and its layout is not very user-friendly. Secondly the grouping of the product categories is too broad. DSLR lenses, for example, are grouped by brand only, whereas the other online stores group the lenses into categories such as macro or telephoto.
Ordering Process and Feedback
The ordering processes for Orms Direct and Outdoorphoto were extremely slick and efficient, with Cameraland not far behind.
When placing an order we received immediate confirmation by email from all of the online stores.
Orms Direct's and Outdoorphoto's processes were problem-free and we received excellent feedback on the status of each order. Despite paying by EFT (which generally requires waiting for funds to clear in the recipient's bank account) we received the goods less than 48 hours after the orders had been placed. Out of the ordinary requests, such as changing the shipping address after placing the order, were handled smoothly by both of these suppliers. Outdoorphoto in particular went out of their way to liaise with the courier on our behalf regarding a new shipping address.
Cameraland's order process was smooth overall and we received the goods within 3 days of placing the order. We experienced one minor glitch whereby we were promised an email with a link to track our order, but that email didn't arrive. Only when we queried if we could change the shipping address were we told that the goods had already shipped.
One should note that with Foto Discount World you are ordering something that is not necessarily held in stock, although at the time of adding the item to your cart you may not be aware of this. Many people will not have read the terms & conditions and therefore may not have seen this notice on their terms & conditions page: "This is an online shop. Most of the items on the website we have to order from the suppliers and all stock are not kept in our shops." (sic) When placing an order with Foto Discount World, their online store page states that "your order wont (sic) be shipped until the funds have cleared in our account" but it does not state on that page that the product still needs to be sourced from their supplier. (The other online stores provide helpful hints next to each product, such as "in stock", "on back order", etc.) Once the order had been placed, Foto Discount World did keep us updated on the order status by way of regular email feedback. The goods were received 1 week after placing the order.
Studio22's feedback was very poor and the goods took by far the longest to reach us. We placed the "order" on a Thursday, but a quote is required before the order can be paid for. The quote only arrived the following day (Friday) and we paid for it on the same day and emailed through proof of payment. We did not receive any confirmation or acknowledgement of our email or payment on that day (Friday) or the next working day (Monday), which was disappointing considering that our order totalled several thousand Rand. On Tuesday, the 4th working day from placing the order, we emailed Studio22 to find out if they had received our payment. We heard nothing back that day, and only on the following day (Wednesday), nearly a week after placing the order on their website, did we receive an email confirming that our payment had been received and that we would receive the goods by Friday. Unfortunately we did not receive the goods on the Friday promised, or even on the following Monday. By the time we received the goods nearly 2 weeks had elapsed since we had placed the order, with very little feedback along the way. This was a disappointing experience and not what we expected based on Studio22's professional looking website.
All 5 of these online stores are closely matched when considering their product ranges and pricing, which makes the key differentiating factor the shopping experience. Based on this our default choice would be Orms Direct due to a practically flawless shopping experience from start to finish.
But that doesn't tell the whole story. The truth is, if we were shopping around for the best prices or searching for a particular item, we would visit all of these online suppliers again. In many cases Foto Discount World's prices are the best and worth waiting a few extra days for your goods to arrive. Our biggest disappointment overall was the lack of feedback and long delay experienced with Studio22, and if they could improve on those aspects of their service then we would be hard pressed to choose between any of these online photographic suppliers.