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Interviews with Retailers: George Dobre of Astro-Sweden

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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 10:20   #1
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Interviews with Retailers: George Dobre of Astro-Sweden

Welcome to this, the fifth of 5 interviews: 2 from the USA, one from the UK and two from continental Europe.

Who am I?
My name is George Dobre and besides being a passionate birder, I am the Sports Optics Manager with Astro-Sweden, Scandinavia’s largest optics store.

My Background
I was born and raised in Romania, where I lived for half of my life, but somewhere down the road I was one of the few lucky guys in the world who managed to make a stunningly beautiful Swedish girl fall for him and wound up in one of the most exciting countries in terms of birding. My main interest is primarily in the arctic bird species, which also allows me to spend a lot of time in some of the world’s most amazing places such as the Öland, Lofoten Islands, Faeroe Islands, and Iceland etc. Amazing places that every birder should visit once in his/her life time.

My Shop
Astro-Sweden was started in 2008 by Christer Kjellner, a passionate astronomer, in his own barn in a fairly isolated place in the country-side. As the business progressed, a new vision was born, that of establishing Sweden’s largest optics store, a place where everything should be available and every optics lover would be able to satisfy his appetite for everything within binoculars, spotting scopes, telescopes and other areas of optics.

After several years in business, the store moved to a new, larger location, only 12 km from Sothern Sweden’s largest bird lake, Hornborgasjön, known for the yearly crane migration where up to 20.000 individuals pause and feed up on their way to Northern Sweden’s marsh lands.

Several years after, the store became the largest in Scandinavia in terms of the brands it carries and continues to grow due to our favourite, yet modified, astronomical saying: “The sky is NOT the limit”.

Our Customers and How We do Business
Our typical customers consist primarily of men between 30-70 years old. The female percentage is c.10% but increasing. The bigger changes we see during the last 4-5 years is a strong increase of younger customers. They are much more educated, have surfed the internet a lot before contacting us and have many more questions about everything before committing to purchase. This takes a lot of time and wears down the man-power but it’s worth the time and energy as they are much more sociable and if they are happy with the product and service, they will not hesitate to recommend the store to their friends and everybody else on forums, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube etc.

Regarding spotting scopes, one might say that every third owner of a binocular purchases a spotting scope as well. We intend to get to the point where every other binocular owner will see the need to use a spotting scope as well.

As we are a large optics store, people purchase stuff from us from all kinds of levels of society and regardless of their interest. We have birders, government agencies, nature lovers, mountain climbers, theatre and opera spectators, attendees at horse races, hunters, astronomers, reindeer herders, UFO and chemical trail hunters, surveillance companies, and perhaps even voyeurs (well, who am I to judge).

The knowledge level among the customers varies a lot so as well as the classical customer who comes in and says: “I want to buy a binocular, which one do you recommend?” we also have the ones who know more about binoculars than I do. The pattern seems however to be that of the customers being more and more knowledgeable about optics. When we try to find out about where they got the knowledge, in 7 to 8 cases out of 10 the answer would be: “By reading on a forum:”. So you guys, keep up the good work! It’s needed.

Price is one of the main issues customers ask about when purchasing the binoculars. The area between $120-200 is a very popular one and considering the fact that, during last years, many brands started delivering decent binoculars in this range, the buyers have realized that the potential is very high. The next level is the $500-700. After that we reach some kind of death zone, around the $1000-1400 mark, where the binoculars are very hard to sell. After jumping over this hurdle, the sales go up again when reaching the $2000 level and upwards where the quality oriented customers will show up. However, the only brands that are possible to sell at this level are three: Swarovski (by far the biggest), followed by Zeiss and Leica.

Other important questions that the Swedish customer will ask would be (starting with the most usual ones to the more unusual):

No. 1 What’s the warranty like and what does it cover?
No. 2 Can the binos be used with glasses (quite important question as a large number of people in Sweden wear glasses)?
No. 3 How much do they weigh?
No. 4 How wide is the field of view?
No. 5 What’s the focusing depth like?
No. 6 What’s the light transmission like?
No. 7 What’s the close focus?

One of our strongest aims is looking for the diamonds in rough, in other words, those products that are priced in a range where the sales can be high, the problems few, and the customer’s satisfaction maximal, but also educating the customers. We believe that we, as dealers, should not only focus on the sales but on the teaching part where we are to guide the buyer correctly towards the ultimate choice. This requires a lot of time, energy and patience, but makes also the job so rewarding and gives us an edge against internet stores with robots and poor knowledge who cannot explain the difference between a porro and a roof prism (and believe me, they are many like that).

Our Products & Sales

We stock a huge amount of binoculars and brands and the idea is that if it’s under the sun we want it. Here comes a list of the brands we carry: Athlon, Astro, Acuter, ATN, Bresser, Barr & Stroud, Bushnell, Burris, Canon, Carson, Celestron, C-More, Delta, Hawke, Helios, IOR, Kamakura, Kahles, Karl Kaps, Kowa, Leica, Leupold, Meade, Meopta, Minox, Nikon, Opticron, Orion, Pentax, Steiner, Swarovski, TS Optics, Ulfhednar, Vixen, Vanguard, Vortex, Welter, Yukon, Zeiss, However we avoid working with worthless brands that are overpriced beyond common sense or run by crooked owners who are not capable to provide us and our customers with a professional service.

Which do you sell most of: 8x or 10x?
Basically we cannot see any clear difference in terms of sales of 8x or 10x. It’s about 50/50 so I would rank 8x and 10x as both no. 1. We have witnessed lately an increase of 12x and even 15x which is rather interesting. The customers that seem to look for these magnifications are, among others, the reindeer owners who use the high mags to spot the flocks on the mountain sides but also birders who have realized that a 12x or a 15x could be a good friend to carry along when the spotting scope stays at home. So 12x would definitely be no. 3 while the no. 4 would be a split scenario between 7x and 15x. Percentage wise it would 85% made of 8x and 10x, 10% made of 12x and 5% made of 7x and 15x.

Which do you sell most of: 42mm or 30/32mm?
Definitely 42mm in which I would also include 40mm, 43mm, 44mm and 45mm. The overall percentage split would be about 60% made of 40-45mm, and the rest covered by 30-33mm.

However if we were to present the statistics with the gender in mind it would look much different as the female buyer is much more likely to purchase 30/32mm than the male buyer, to the extent where 50-60% of the binoculars purchased by ladies will be with this aperture. It will however differ between the professional female birder who will favour a 40-45mm while the amateur/newbie birder would go for a 30-33mm.

Regarding the male birder, the 30-33mm is hardly there at all as the 40-45mm binos consist of up to 80-85% of the models purchased, regardless of the status of the customer.

However, Sweden is a country which gets rather dark during the winter months which is why apertures such as 50mm and 56mm are quite popular among birders here, while in other countries, they are more sought by the hunting market.

As the optics quality on many binoculars has increased we have noticed a trend where compact binoculars (20/25mm and 30/33mm objectives) have gained ground, especially due to the models coming from premium brands such as the CL Pocket and CL Companion with Swarovski, Zeiss Terra ED and the new Victory Compact from Zeiss and also the well-known compacts from Leica, including both their Trinovid and Ultravid models. In addition there have also come some aggressive new comers such as Delta One 8x32 and 10x32 as well as Vortex Diamondback. These binoculars have strongly increased in sales regardless of the buyer’s profile and have almost annihilated the rest of the brands as to the extent where other brands, which used to be popular years ago have become impossible to sell. Among compact binoculars the best sellers are:

No. 1 Delta One, with their 8x and 10x32mm
No. 2 Swarovski CL Pocket 25mm closely followed by the
No. 3 Leica Trinovid and Ultravid both with 8x20/10x25mm, and
No. 4 Vortex Diamondback 8x and 10x32mm

What trends do you see in the models and brands that you sell?
Apart from the compact binoculars gaining ground we also see a growing interest for the digital night vision binoculars for both the tourists who travel in safaris but also birders who want to go all in for watching the night-active species. We also notice that there is a new category of customers arising who is way more flexible and not so loyal to the traditional brands but often not caring about the brand but looking at the quality, warranties, delivery speed and service.

This is why brands such as Vortex, Athlon and Delta (representing the new comers) and Minox and Swarovski (representing the traditional brands) have been gaining more and more ground.

We normally sell around 4500 binoculars per year and around 1500 spotting scopes. Our top selling 5 brands are:

Binoculars:
No. 1 Delta Optical
No. 2 Vortex
No. 3 Swarovski
No. 4 Helios and Leica
No. 5 Zeiss and Minox

The interesting thing is that the difference between No. 1 and No. 2 is enormous, where Delta Optical would sell about 10 to 1 in regards to Vortex despite a smaller range of models.

Spotting Scopes:
No. 1 Meade and Acuter
No. 2 Swarovski and Athlon
No. 3 Vortex and Zeiss
No. 4 Delta Optical
No. 5 Kowa

What are your 5 top-selling Binoculars?
No. 1 Delta Forest II 8x42.
These binoculars are the most sold products in our store, regardless of which other product we compare them with, absolutely demolishing any of the other competitors due to the amazing combination of low price (c. $200), one of the largest fields of view in the world, surprisingly good optics for the buck, very good light transmission for the price range and a comfortable eye box. The proverb says that if something is too good to be true it’s probably not true. Well, these binoculars definitely are the exception from that rule. In a large array of tests where they have been reviewed against binoculars placed in different price ranges, they landed on similar points with binoculars placed at five times the price.

No. 2 Delta Forest II 10x42 and 10x50
No. 3 Vortex Diamondback 8x42
No. 4 Swarovski CL Pocket 8x25
No. 5 Leica Trinovid 8x20

In regards to the alpha binoculars the ranking goes as follows:
No. 1 Swarovski EL 10x42
No. 2 Swarovski EL 8.5x42
No. 3 Swarovski SLC 8x42 and 10x42 – no real difference between the magnifications
No. 4 Swarovski EL 8x32 and 10x32 – no real difference between the magnifications
No. 5 Swarovski EL Range 10x42

In other words a crushing dominance by Swarovski. One might ask where Zeiss Victory SF, Leica Noctivid, Leica Ultravid HD-Plus and Nikon EDG have disappeared. Well, so do I. While Zeiss Victory SF and Leica Ultravid HD-Plus do sell once in a while, the Noctivid is non-existent among the buyers’ requests and the Nikon EDG is basically dead. I think our sales of EDG are at c.one every two years.

How come?
Well, there are certainly a lot of aspects to discuss but, in regards to Leica, their weak presence is mainly due to their very poor representation on the Swedish market. The brand has been represented by retarded distributors who have no stock, do no advertising, raise the prices beyond recognition and give good deals only to what one may call “their drinking buddies”. These guys usually run only hunting stores, have zero interest in promoting birding and thus binoculars, spotting scopes and digi-scoping equipment. What Leica endures in Sweden right now is despicable and painful to watch for a passionate birder like me who absolutely adores Leica as a brand. Why they stand by and watch this collapse without doing anything, is, for me impossible to understand. I hope the day will come, rather sooner than later, when Leica will rise again, back to the place where they belong to be on the Swedish market. The quality of the products is amazingly good and they deserve better.

The problems that Zeiss had with the first grey versions of SF as well as the fact that they manufacture binoculars in other countries than Germany, has led many Swedish customers to distrust the brand which is why, I think, the big sales of the SF models are still to wait for. Zeiss has also chosen to work with a larger array of dubious stores whose only policy is dumping the prices. This has, to some extent, devalued the brand, and has led to many stores avoiding to sell Zeiss due to not big enough margins of profit.

Nikon EDG is a puzzle. The binos are very good, the mechanical quality is impeccable, the service and support from Nikon is good and yet, nobody even asks for them. My guess is that it might have to do with poor exposure, poor margins for the dealers but also the fact that the brand still does not have the aura of the German and Austrian brands which the more conservative Swedish birders prefer. In other words…”You cannot place yourself on the same price level as Swarovski and expect to survive”. Anyone doing that, must be suicidal.

Swarovski, on the other hand, does everything right. They work only with a chosen numbers of professional dealers, give reasonable margins, have a very good stock, do not cheat the dealers on the contracts, have a very fast and professional service, do not manufacture products in Asia, advertise like crazy and, not the least, have an amazing array of products with a top quality.

Relationships with Our Suppliers
The trend that many suppliers have adopted lately is to stock as little as possible and dump as much stock as they possibly can on the dealer. Well, who would not like that? The problem is that this is very strenuous for many stores.

Some of the suppliers are notorious liars and their promises of deliveries are rarely kept (as a matter of fact, when they do keep it, I almost need to take an extra dose of my heart medication because of the shock of actually getting my items on time). The suppliers’ retardation in regards to stocks, makes us lose millions every year and it’s a continuously growing problem.

However, we do have exceptions from this rule where, again, companies like Delta Optical, Swarovski, Helios and Minox are very good to work with in terms of stocks while Zeiss varies a bit more with more obvious ups and downs. I should list the hall of shame here as well but I will leave it at this.

With most suppliers we have good payment terms such as 30 days, 45 days and even 90 days, which we see as a must, but we also have suppliers who treat us like hookers treat their Johns and ask for payment in advance, which is quite humiliating for a company of our size. The better credits we get the more items we purchase and any supplier who has still not gotten this should probably contemplate doing something else for a job in the future. Long credits lead to faster, larger and more frequent purchases. It’s basic knowledge.

Point of Sale Support from Brands
In terms of point of sales material, we do get quite a lot of support from many of our suppliers but a special remark needs to be made in regards to Swarovski, Delta, Vortex, Leica, Steiner, Zeiss and Kahles who have been most diligent in providing us with such materials from everything such as display units, T-shirts, hats, catalogues, freebies, pictures, banners or videos.

Warranty Support
In terms of warranties, companies like Vortex and Athlon are fantastic to work with, due to their VIP and Gold warranties but also Delta and Swarovski who, despite not having the same warranties, are very fast and easy to work with and communication is impeccable. In the case of the latter two ones, it is also due to us rarely having warranty issues at all.

Trading Challenges

Oh, where should I start?

Over-taxation is an issue that hinders us from importing larger quantities from, e.g. US. As an example…if a binocular costs $100 from the American supplier, the shipping cost would land on c. $30. So I need to pay the supplier $130? No, because the supplier wants his bank costs covered which adds at least an extra 3% on the price, so $133 is the price to pay. When the bino hits the Swedish customs, a 5% custom fee is applied on the price of the binoculars, the shipping and the bank fees, which brings the price up to c. $140. Then a 25% VAT tax is applied on the price of the binoculars, the shipment, the bank wire fee and the custom fee bringing the price up to $175, and I did not even ad our profit on this, which if I played with the thought and made it 10% (which is obviously very bad) the bino will cost the Swedish customer, basically, double the price compared to the American. This is a big hurdle for us and makes it even more difficult to expand with more brands.

Then there is the unreliability of the suppliers with regard to stocks, delivery times and honest delivery terms.

Add to this the currency devaluation of the Swedish krona against the dollar and the euro has increased the prices a lot threatening to reduce the sales.

And don’t forget the black market made up of private customers who sell grey imported products without paying taxes and VAT.
Plus increasing freight charges during the last 2-3 years have also added on the cost of the products.

But please don’t cry for me .

On our part the challenge is to continue to be professional, treat every customer with respect and patience, be able to have big stocks and continue to follow our vision, no matter what and keep right priorities in mind.

Thanks! From George:
As an off the topic remark, I read the interview with Doug at Camera Land. Really cool! Me and Doug go a long way back and I would like to use this interview to thank him for all the support he gave me in the beginning of my career. When I needed help Doug was always there to help whether it was with products or with advice and I owe him a lot. As I said to him once “If you and I end up in jail Doug, I will protect you in the shower”. Looking forward to meeting you soon!

Thanks! From Troubador:
A big thank you to George for taking the time to give Birdforum members an insight into optics retailing. George’s details are given below:

George Dobre

www.astrosweden.se

Astro Sweden
Axvallagatan 16
53237 Skara, Sweden
Tel: +46511798102
Mobile: +46705567887
[email protected]

Last edited by Troubador : Monday 1st October 2018 at 10:32.
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 10:49   #2
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A huge thanks to George and Lee for an extremely informative and totally honest interview! ////Peter
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 11:06   #3
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Thank you Peter. It was a pleasure working with George.
Lee
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 13:04   #4
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The business side of optics is a topic I don't ordinarily care about or find interesting, but Troubsey has put together a nice interview series here which I actually found enjoyable to read. I really liked George's interview since he was so forthcoming with inside info and his experiences. Interesting George and Doug are friends and hope they never go to jail. Jan's past is fascinating as well. I'm sure I spoke to Ben when he was at Eagle
Optics and I have dealt with Doug direct and Jan has been helpful with answering questions in email.
All good guys !

If the dealers interviewed are reading this, I'd like to know which binocular each prefers or uses regularly for their hobby.
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 13:35   #5
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Very enjoyable reading!
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 14:10   #6
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If the dealers interviewed are reading this, I'd like to know which binocular each prefers or uses regularly for their hobby.
Jan's personal binos are MeoStar B1 8x32, which he describes as 'beautiful'.
This is also a personal favourite of Gijs van Ginkel.

Lee
And thanks for your kind words GiGi.
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 14:11   #7
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Very enjoyable reading!
Thanks John, much appreciated.

Lee
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 14:27   #8
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Jan's personal binos are MeoStar B1 8x32, which he describes as 'beautiful'.
This is also a personal favourite of Gijs van Ginkel.

Lee
And thanks for your kind words GiGi.
George's favorite binos are Swaro SV 10x42.
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 14:47   #9
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Another fascinating read. Thank you George and Troubador!
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 14:47   #10
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Nice to see you taking the initiative, Lee, to provide insights that would probably be beyond the scope of individual members.
Thanks,

John
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 15:41   #11
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The business side of optics is a topic I don't ordinarily care about or find interesting, but Troubsey has put together a nice interview series here which I actually found enjoyable to read. I really liked George's interview since he was so forthcoming with inside info and his experiences. Interesting George and Doug are friends and hope they never go to jail. Jan's past is fascinating as well. I'm sure I spoke to Ben when he was at Eagle
Optics and I have dealt with Doug direct and Jan has been helpful with answering questions in email.
All good guys !

If the dealers interviewed are reading this, I'd like to know which binocular each prefers or uses regularly for their hobby.

I have, since 2008, used a Swarovski Swarovision 10x42 which, believe it or not, was purchased with Doug at Cameraland at the time. I back that one up with an older version of Swarovski Habicht 10x25 and a Kowa Prominar 883 spotting scope.
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 16:13   #12
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Thanks Lee and George.

I would be interested in knowing which binoculars horse racing enthusiasts use.
But it may be that Sweden has Nordic (Roman) chariot type racing rather than British horse racing.

Also would the Visionking 5x25 be worth selling if it had better quality control?

We used to have 45% purchase tax and personal income tax rates up to 98%, maybe higher.
But nothing to equal Sweden's 105% personal tax rate, possibly more.
I think some people used to pay for their work rather than receive payment to reduce tax.

In such Alice in Wonderland economies, one cannot expect an easy business environment.
Obviously smuggling increases in such situations.

I thought that Swedish prisons were like holiday vacations (:
I almost ended up in one after photographing Drakens coming in to land.

Thanks again.
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 16:48   #13
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Nice to see you taking the initiative, Lee, to provide insights that would probably be beyond the scope of individual members.
Thanks,

John
Thanks John, all credit to the dealers for taking the time to provide the answers!

Lee
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 16:49   #14
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Thanks Lee and George.

Thanks again.
You are most welcome.

Lee
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Old Monday 1st October 2018, 19:07   #15
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I have, since 2008, used a Swarovski Swarovision 10x42 which, believe it or not, was purchased with Doug at Cameraland at the time. I back that one up with an older version of Swarovski Habicht 10x25 and a Kowa Prominar 883 spotting scope.
Sounds like a good lineup there
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Old Tuesday 2nd October 2018, 21:03   #16
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George,
Great reading your interview.
I would advise the European members here to put George as your Go To place. He's a great guy, very knowledgeable and honest.

I do feel your pain George. Sometimes with your VAT, bank fees, shipping delays and clearing customs it can be very frustrating to the point of wondering if it's all worth it. Then you hook a first timer up with some great glass and their reaction makes it all clear.

“If you and I end up in jail Doug, I will protect you in the shower”. I've got your back as well.

Hope to see you at the show in January
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Old Sunday 14th October 2018, 04:22   #17
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Lee and George, that was a very pleasant and enlightening read, thanks to both of you.

Andy W.
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Old Sunday 14th October 2018, 07:25   #18
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Glad you enjoyed it Andy.

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Old Monday 15th October 2018, 18:29   #19
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Lee and George, that was a very pleasant and enlightening read, thanks to both of you.

Andy W.
You got it Sir! Glad it could enrich your day.
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Old Monday 15th October 2018, 18:37   #20
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Thanks Lee and George.

I would be interested in knowing which binoculars horse racing enthusiasts use.
But it may be that Sweden has Nordic (Roman) chariot type racing rather than British horse racing.

Also would the Visionking 5x25 be worth selling if it had better quality control?

Thanks again.
Visionking is none existant in Sweden and a magnification like a 5x25 is an absolute no seller here.
Our store is actually situated only a mile away from one of Swedens biggest and most well known race track, Axevalla. It is basically roman chariot races we talk about.
It is hard to see a clear pattern in terms of which binos the attendees use but the one we seem to sell the most is called Astro Fix Focus 7x50 due to the price, the auto focus and porro prism type.
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