A Shift in Strategy: What is Pentax's "Workshop-like" Model?

Some clarification and a look at the K-3 III "Jet Black Edition"

By wadge22 in Pentax Announcements on May 28, 2022
A Shift in Strategy: What is Pentax's "Workshop-like" Model?

On January 20th, 2022 Ricoh Japan made an announcement that it would restructure its camera business beginning in April. In English language coverage, this was generally reported as centering on a statement of abandoning mass production to focus on "workshop-like" or "studio-style" manufacturing methods. One day later, seemingly to calm speculation that this statement marked the end of Pentax camera production worldwide, Ricoh USA released a statement clarifying that the earlier announcement applied specifically to the Japanese market, and would not affect sales in North America.

In the months since this original announcement, Ricoh Japan published another statement regarding the changes. They also proceeded to follow through on the plans as originally stated, including a crowdfunding event for a special edition camera model, the Pentax K-3 Mark III 'Jet Black' Edition. This event concluded successfully on April 27th, showing that Pentax consumers need not fear the new direction the company is taking.

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Original Announcement

The first announcement was released by Ricoh Imaging Japan on January 20th, 2022. This statement declared that Ricoh Imaging would be reborn, and would now use digital methods and "workshop-like" manufacturing to better respond to the desires of Pentax and Ricoh GR consumers. Citing changes in the market environment, Ricoh declared it would need to update its methods of "mass production and mass sales" to respond to the needs of its customers. Two specific challenges were identified: strengthening relationships with the users of its products, and changing production and sales methods.

On the first point, Ricoh pledged to become closer and more attuned to the preferences of customers using digital methods. The plan to achieve this was stated to include direct communication and community-building events to build better relationships between the company and the photographers who use the products. Both online and offline methods were outlined, and both the Pentax and Ricoh GR brands are to be included in this new strategy.

The second point, "workshop-like" production and "digital" sales methods, received more coverage in English language articles (all of which, understandably, depended on machine translation of the original release; as indeed does this article) as the main thrust of the announcement. Many took this part of the statement to mean that Ricoh might be ending all mass production of consumer cameras.

However, this reading was mistaken, as the statement really was focused on the sales methods specifically for the Japanese market. The company's distribution, previously centered on major camera retailers, are to be shifted to the internet through Ricoh's own e-commerce site, as well as "directly managed malls in major marketplaces" online. Additionally, there will be new undertakings to engage with customers directly in order to deliver the types of products they are seeking.

Further Clarifications by Ricoh

Immediately following the somewhat confused and ominous reporting about the statement, Ricoh Imaging USA released a short clarification: the first statement was specific to the Japanese local market, and "Ricoh/Pentax will not change its distribution structure in North America, and the company has significant plans and goals for the North America market this year that will utilize mass production of its products."

Later, on March 1st 2022, Ricoh Japan released another statement expanding on its initial announcement. This statement reiterated the focus on direct and two-way communication with customers, and went a little further in describing the methods that would be used to see this goal achieved. Four main points discussed were: the opening of new online stores (direct from Ricoh's website, as well as on the Japanese market Amazon, Rakuten Ichiba, and PayPay sites), regular fan meetings and hands-on events online and in person, offering small quantity limited models through crowdfunding sites, and closing specific brick-and-mortar locations in Japan while planning for the opening of a new location at a later date.

Next, the first of the discussed customer contact events was held, an online YouTube Live meeting for "SLR lovers." This event was in Japanese, and was dedicated specifically to SLR cameras, both film and digital, including brands other than Pentax. The event featured surveys of users about what they like about the SLR format and film for those who shoot film, a fun competition aiming to determine the model with the most pleasing SLR shutter sound (the Nikon D700 won), and a discussion of the possibilities for future of the SLR. The recording of the meeting is available to view on YouTube, in Japanese. While the meeting did not lay out any particular details about what Pentax plans for the future, it was a good example of the kind of community engagement outlined in the Ricoh Japan statements.

Thankfully, these statements and events lent a little clarity to the new strategy, revealing one where continued mass production and sales of the current camera models would be augmented by the addition of special limited models, and aided by additional customer contact methods. Changes to the way the cameras are retailed are also a big part of the plan for the Japanese market, shifting much more to online sales as opposed to a large presence in physical locations, something which is not new to Pentax consumers outside of Japan.

K-3 III Jet Black Crowdfunding Event

Following through on the crowdfunded limited edition model concept that reflects the "workshop-like" manufacturing aspect of the new brand strategy, Pentax announced in late March that it would offer its first special camera model, the Pentax K-3 Mark III 'Jet Black' Limited Edition. This camera would be released through the Japanese crowdfunding site Ubgoe. This camera model is one of the six potential future special models discussed and voted on by participants in an online event in November 2021. The limited edition model features all of the same specs and capabilities as the regular K-3 III, but with a special black-on-black color scheme with all of the lettering and accents blacked out to create a very striking completely dark camera. A matching HD DA 20-40mm Limited lens, also completely black, was included in the package, with the lens and camera only available together.

This limited edition package carried a price of ¥300,000 (around US$2,500) for the camera and lens combo, with a maximum number of participants set at 232. A special limited edition all black hotshoe cover was also offered as a second option for those not able to shell out for the camera and lens, priced at ¥4,500 (roughly $45), and limited to 2000. These items were only available by preordering through the crowdfunding event, and only available to buyers in the Japanese market. It was made clear that, regardless of the achievement of the target amount, the orders would be filled.

The crowdfunding period took place from March 25th through April 27th, and appears at this point to have been a resounding success! 113 people preordered the camera/lens combo, and 251 bought the hotshoe cover, with 348 total participants and a total of ¥35,393,385 raised (approximately $275,000). Considering that the stated target for the project was ¥10,000,000 this is a very positive result of 353% achievement. The limited edition items will be delivered beginning at the end of July 2022.

Signs of Following the Plan

The positive response to and participation in the first limited edition crowdfunding event should be seen as a good sign for the plan laid out by Ricoh Imaging for the Pentax brand. Workshop-like manufacturing, as it appears to be shaping up, is not at all a step backwards from the mass production of widely available consumer cameras. Rather, this model will be in addition to the standard model, which continues without issue. The K-3 Mark III Jet Black was available to very dedicated Japanese market users through the special crowdfunding event, but the regular K-3 III in black or silver is still selling in stores all around the world as before (and in fact, has recently showed up at an impressive new discount).

Ricoh has since teased (in an online survey) the next potential special models: a monochrome only K-3 Mark III, and an astrophotography dedicated K-70. Both models would feature special sensors that limit their everyday capabilities, but promise higher image quality for their specialized uses. It is important to note that neither of these possible models is definitely going to come to pass, but it is promising to see the next phases discussed so soon, and no doubt the favorable outcome of the first crowdfunding event contributed to this.

Another promising sign of the follow-through on the new strategy, is that Pentax has scheduled 11 "SLR Experience" events in various locations in Japan from mid-May through September. These events will offer the chance for registrants to borrow Pentax cameras and lenses free for 4 hours. This is an example of the in-person, face-to-face contact with users that was outlined in the announcements.

A Vision of Pentax's future

It has been clear for some time that the consumer camera market is changing, presenting a challenge to camera manufacturers. This is particularly true for SLR cameras, which at times can seem to be eclipsed by the hype of newer mirrorless offerings and even high-end smartphones. Ricoh and Pentax, however, have re-committed that their future will be tied to the SLR, and have laid out clear messaging about their plan to stay relevant in the changing market environment. They foresee cultivating a closer relationship with the users of their particular products, and maintaining an ability to provide specific niche products that user bases, even small ones, desire and are willing to purchase. All of these signs point in one direction: Ricoh has a positive vision for how the Pentax and Ricoh GR brands will move into the future, and is actively pursuing its plans to realize that vision.

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