The Hottest Thing Since The Flashbulb

The guests at Diane and L.J. Palazesi's wedding in Boston earlier this year found a surprise on each table: a disposable camera. Afraid the professional photographer would miss those spontaneous moments that define a wedding, the bride and groom bought a dozen of the $11 cameras and invited guests to take candid snaps. Several hours and hundreds of flashes later, guests simply dumped the cameras in a bag to be shipped off to the developer. "We got a lot of really fun pictures," says Diane. "It was a great idea."

Fun. Cheap. Easy to use. That potent combination has turned the disposable camera--basically a roll of film with a cheap plastic case and lens--into the hottest thing in photography. Sales in the U.S. zoomed 50% last year, with no sign of leveling off (chart). Projected sales for 1992 are 22 million units in the U.S., or about $200 million at retail. "I could see sales tripling or even quadrupling within three years," says Joel B. Streeter, camera buyer at Kmart Corp., which is so enthusiastic that it has granted disposables coveted space at its checkout counters. To make sure the enthusiasm doesn't wane, Eastman Kodak Co., with about 65% of the U.S. market for disposables, and Fuji Photo Film USA Inc., with about 25%, are rolling out niche products for everything from underwater photography to close-ups of baby.

It's a pleasant surprise for the amateur film business in the U.S., where retail sales have stayed flat since 1989 at 750 million rolls, or about $2.1 billion a year. "It's been a real shot in the arm," says Rod H. King, senior marketing manager at Fuji Photo.

When Fuji pioneered disposable cameras in Japan in 1986, few in the film business expected them to click. After all, most people already had cameras. And disposables were slow to catch on in the U.S., where they were introduced by Kodak in late 1987.

But as the public grew more familiar with the product, the disposable started to sell itself by filling needs that regular cameras can't. One giant need: being there when your fancy Minolta or Canon isn't. Peter M. Palermo, general manager of Kodak's consumer imaging division, figures about half of purchases are made by people who left their regular cameras at home. Buying a new camera would be extravagant; an $8 to $12 disposable is cheap by comparison, even with the added cost of processing. "Don't think of it as a camera, think of it as convenient film," says John J. Ruf, a partner at New England Consulting Group in Westport, Conn.

Film marketers also figure that at least half the photos taken with disposables wouldn't have been shot otherwise, as buyers keep finding new uses for the devices. Wedding snaps like the Palazesis' are a hot growth area. Truck drivers now use disposables to record accident scenes. The cameras also appeal to teens and senior citizens who find regular cameras either daunting to use or too pricey to buy. As for quality, disposables are still no match for expensive 35 mm cameras. But since they use 35 mm film, they produce better-quality photos than those old Instamatics.

SOMETHING FISHY. Now, Kodak and Fuji are mixing different film speeds, lenses, and accessories to tailor disposables to almost any need. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon? Disposables can take panoramic, wide-angle shots. Snorkling? Focus on that flounder with an underwater disposable. Sports fans are another target: Kodak now markets a telephoto version with ultrafast 1600 asa film for the stadium set. The company sold 4,000 of these through a special vendor at last year's Super Bowl. Kodak planners are looking at a model equipped with a short focal-length lens and fast film requiring less light to capture an image. They figure parents would like this disposable to take snapshots of their babies without the disturbing flash.

There's room for even more market segmentation. Just look at camera-happy Japan, where disposables now capture more than 10% of the film market, vs. 3% in the U.S. In one Japanese catalog aimed at young women, Kodak sells a package of five pastel-colored cameras for $70, including a version with a fish-eye lens and another with a foggy lens to create a rosy, romantic glow. For the film industry, disposables are about the only product around that's even remotely rosy.

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