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Zooming In on the Right Lens Not So Easy Online

October 26, 2000|JENNIFER LOWE | Jennifer Lowe is deputy food editor of The Times.

With a trip to scenic New Mexico looming, it was time to shelve my 20-year-old Nikon camera and buy something new.

My father, who regularly upgrades his electronic gear, sold me his 2-year-old Nikon N-70 camera. But I needed to come up with a new lens.

I figured the Internet would be the place to shop for a Nikon lens because it seems geared to all things electronic and technical. Well, I wound up with a Nikon lens all right--at a good price--just two days after ordering it.

But I waded through at least 15 sites, most of which I'd never heard of. When buying something technical, it's nice to know the source if there's a problem. Most of the sites also had itsy-bitsy print, making me long for a magnifying glass. And things got so bad that phone calls were required several times for more information, which resulted once in a dreaded sales pitch. On top of it all, my dad had joined the fray.

I started out by naively typing "camera lenses" in Yahoo's shopping area and got 5,676 hits in 126 stores, including Costco. I had in mind one of those bargain-driven camera stores on the back streets of New York that smelled like film. I narrowed the search to "Nikon lenses" and still got 68 stores.

Discount Warehouse, ElectronicsEMall,,, Wolf Camera--I scanned them all. Nikon binoculars and sunglasses would show up, but few, if any, camera lenses. had a Nikon 70-210 zoom lens for $284, but search as I might, I couldn't find the site's shipping policies, and I didn't want a lens arriving by barge sandwiched among bananas. Samy's Camera, the big L.A. camera retailer, had the Nikon 70-210 for $289.99. I found the shipping charges on Samy's site only after reaching its help page and clicking on its checkout button. It charged $20 to ship one lens.


Now signing his e-mail "Camera Man," my father e-mailed sites for me to check, then insisted I call Nikon customer service for recommendations. A representative ([800] 645-6687) told me the 80-200 zoom was a better lens but was being discontinued. The newer lens was the Nikon 75-240. "New" caught my attention and I decided this was the lens I wanted. Ironically, I couldn't find any online addresses for retailers on

Another e-mail from Dad:, which has a store just afew miles from him in Portland, Ore., had the 75-240 lens for $30 less on its site than in its store. The scent of a deal was in the air. I checked the other sites he sent-- efficiently brought up eight Nikon lenses, including a 70-300 "G" series lens, but there was no explanation for the "G." An on-screen "live help" didn't seem to be working, and when I called its store, a recording said it was closed Saturdays.

Another site, was out of my league, with lenses as high as $8,000; I couldn't find my weenie lens.

Back at Cameraworld, I couldn't find shipping charges, either. "We will attempt to put you through," a recording said when I called its toll-free customer service phone number. The attempt was successful, and I was told the charges would be about $10.

I decided to give the local outfit, Samy's, one more stab since I hadn't gotten its price on the Nikon 75-240 lens. Call if you can't find what you want, the site said. I did and got "John." My lens, he said, was out of stock. Oh, I said, hoping for validation, it must be hot. Well, no, he said, it's "a piece of junk." And then he added that for less money I could get a quality piece of glass by buying a Nikon knock-off lens by Tokina or Tamron--as he was about to buy.

Are they cheaper in the store? I asked halfheartedly, thinking I could go look at them.

No. He said that whereas only locals see the store prices, the world sees the Web prices, and it must compete internationally. Either brand would have been fine. And I probably could have gotten a decent price on a couple of sites.

At, it took but a minute or two to order the Nikon 75-210 4.5-5.6D for $149.99, plus a $10.99 filter, tax-free.

Because it was now less than a week before my trip, I had the lens shipped for $9.85 to my father, who got it in two days. He would bring it to New Mexico. Oh, didn't I say he would be meeting me there? I'm sure he'd want to be the first to try out my new lens.


The Skinny

* Shopping for: Nikon camera lens

* Sites visited:,,,,,,,

* The good: Jumping from one site to another to compare prices, rather than making phone calls or going in person. Prices on two Web sites were considerably cheaper than at the stores.

* The bad: Not finding shipping charges quickly. Sorting out subtle differences among lenses was a headache--and I had to make extra calls to get the correct information.

* Bottom line: Know what you want before you shop because the sites themselves are not much help for novices.

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