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The Dark Side of Gray

The Internet is a wonderful resource for audio pros, offering immediate access to product information via downloadable brochures, troubleshooting FAQs

The Internet is a wonderful resource for audio pros, offering immediate access to product information via downloadable brochures, troubleshooting FAQs and even user manuals. Take your search a step further and you’ll find software updates, drivers, schematics and newsgroups, where experienced users offer advice on what to buy and hints on getting the most from your gear. In terms of information exchange, these are the good old days.

At the same time, Internet shopping is a modern marvel. Besides the convenience of turning to or to find the latest books, DVDs and music releases, sites such as Ebay bring the world’s biggest garage sale to your fingertips, whether you’re looking for Elvis EPs or repro cards for an MCI JH-24 multitrack.

Besides the occasional bout of Internet fraud — typically credit card abuse — Internet retailing is well accepted by most consumers. However, one area of Net commerce that has become increasingly problematic is the importing of gray-market goods. Unlike black-market retailing, where products are smuggled, stolen or counterfeit, gray-market merchandise is defined as items manufactured abroad and imported without the consent of the trademark holder.

Gray-market gear is common in the electronics, computer and photographic industries, yet for consumers surfing for great prices, it can be difficult to tell a legitimate, authorized dealer from a gray marketeer — and sellers of such merchandise typically don’t go out of their way to advertise this fact.

So who cares, especially when shoppers are looking for the best price? The dark side of a gray-market bargain may be that the product you bought was not built to U.S. standards (such as UL approval), or might have originally been manufactured for a different voltage or line frequency, and has been modified by some unknown person to operate on domestic current. Also, equipment made for use in Japan — where the AC standard is 100 volts — may operate for a while at the U.S. standard 117 VAC, but over-voltage will certainly lead to a shorter lifespan for many products. Granted, the AC problem is less common these days, particularly with the proliferation of devices equipped with switching power supplies, which will operate at any line voltage, or wall wart adapters that are easily substituted to match local power requirements.

Assuming fairness ever entered the mindset of a bargain-seeking consumer, the unfortunate aspect of gray-market retailing is that such sellers compete with legitimate importers, who often are the ones paying for the ancillary services we all need, such as printing brochures and catalogs, maintaining informational Websites, technical support (e-mail and/or phone), and sponsoring tradeshow displays, clinics and seminars.

More directly troublesome to users is the reality that gray-market goods rarely carry the U.S. manufacturer’s warranty, so obtaining guaranteed service may entail the cumbersome process of shipping the product back to the country of origin for repair. If you’re a pro and depend on a product, then you should know that the first-class perks of loaners and fast service turnaround are not going to materialize with your gray-market bargain.

Caveat emptor.