We recently received a query from a reader in the process of buying a digital camera from our advertising pages. His question: What’s the difference between “U.S.” merchandise and “Gray” merchandise apart from the price? Which should he buy?

First, so-called “gray” merchandise comes into this country through third parties, not through the authorized distributor. For example, a dealer in Europe has more cameras than he can use so he ships it to a dealer in the United States who then resells the cameras to various retailers around the country. Differences in exchange rates and the willingness to make special deals permits selling these cameras at below the distributor’s cost.

Learn about Pop Photo’s Checkrated Retailer Program and how it can help you in your buying decisions.

Thus, virtually all of the “unbeatable” bargains you see advertised are gray market. The items are identical with standard “U.S.” merchandise although in some cases, model designations have been changed to identify the two different sources. More importantly, gray market items don’t carry a warranty from the American distributor so that service — if required — can be an expensive problem. Also, “gray” items generally are not eligible for manufacturer’s rebates or other special offers.

Too often, gray market items are the “bait” for a dealer working a “bait and switch” scheme. Our shoppers have found that when they order a gray market item, they are often told that the product is either out of stock or backordered but the U.S. version is on hand for immediate delivery. Another ploy which, fortunately, is less common today, is the assertion that the product covered comes with lettering and numbers in Swahili while the instruction book is in Chinese. Also, the gray market camera comes with a lens made of plastic while the mount is bamboo. All of the above claims are false.

Our advice to the reader was to go with the U.S. model even with the difference in price. The deciding factor is that the manufacturer is there to provide any help the user might need. There’s nothing like the ability to call on an American service department when you have questions or problems.

The price difference is usually a small percentage of the price — generally about ten percent or less.

We also advise our readers to remember that old adage: “If a price is too good to be true, it usually is.” In today’s highly competitive market, no photo retailer can afford to advertise prices that are far out of line. As part of your pre-purchase homework, check prices for the item you plan to buy. Most dealers sell at prices that are very close to each other. If you find that five dealers list the item for $199 and two dealers list it for $169, the lower price suggests a danger signal. We know because our Checkated shoppers are instructed to try to purchase the “bargains” at the advertised prices. You’d be surprised to learn how unsuccessful they are.

Bottom line: Check before you decide, check again before you order and don’t look for the amazing bargains. And if you have questions or just want to discuss anything having to do with our Checkrated program, call Harold Martin at 212 – 767 – 6048. If I’m not available, leave a message and we’ll get back to you.

Our advice to our reader was to stick with a U.S. version of the camera he is considering.

— Harold Martin manages Pop Photo’s Checkrated Program of approved retailers. For more on the dangers of buying gray market goods, see Real or Fake? (September, 2007) or John Owens’s editorial.