The immense 70,000-square-foot B&H SuperStore at 420 9th Avenue at 34th Street in New York City is the largest single-location imaging retail establishment in the USA, and the second largest in the world—only Yodobashi Camera in downtown Tokyo is bigger.
Because of its unparalleled success in establishing itself as the international go-to store for photo enthusiasts and pros, B&H has earned the reputation as the 900-pound gorilla of U.S. photo specialty retailers. And while other retailers complain about how hard it is to compete with such a behemoth, B&H prices are nevertheless widely used as the “standard discount prices” against which all others are compared.
How did a once modest-sized camera store first established 40 years ago on Warren Street in New York’s financial district manage to morph exponentially over the years and attain such an exalted status? For the details of that fascinating and heartfelt backstory, please read the accompanying Strategy Session column by Jerry Grossman in this issue.
However, to cut to the chase, the reason that B&H has been able to set a standard for the industry is that its founders and principals have hewed to the simple straightforward philosophy of giving their customers a satisfying and predictable buying experience, treating them with honesty and respect, and delivering the merchandise reliably and at attractive prices. As Henry Posner—a 20-year tenured manager at B&H and head of social media—said, “Our goal is to make the customer glad he reached out to us, whether that’s at one of the counters of our retail store, on the phone or online.”
While the spectacular B&H brick-and-mortar store has become a destination location (not to mention an unforgettable experience) for visitors from all over the world, the company now does a significant portion of its business via online orders at bhphotovideo.com. In fact, online orders now account for about 50% of the company’s total revenues. While mail order and telephone orders have long been a mainstay of the business, B&H has aggressively embraced the e-tail business model while never losing sight of its core values of having a full line of products in stock and delivering them efficiently at competitive prices.
Another great asset that enables the company to compete very effectively in the e-tail space is having a well-trained, knowledgeable and dedicated staff. As longtime B&H honcho Steve Schwartz noted, “You can always talk with an informed, intelligent salesperson at B&H, and the breadth and depth of their knowledge is impressive. We pay salaries rather than commissions so our salespeople are not desperately trying to sell you something. Indeed, we’ll even tell you if you don’t need it, which is a good way of making customers for life. We also have a 30-day return policy that covers online purchases as well as phone and in-store transactions, because customer satisfaction is our primary goal.”
One of the most popular forms of customer interaction that cuts across retail and e-tail lines is Live Chat. It’s booming; there are 45 people at B&H who go online and talk to customers in real time, as well as more than 110 people on the phones and handling Internet order submissions. It may be electronic and computerized, but it’s all based on the vision of the founders, Bertha and Herman Schreiber and Sam Goldstein, who built the company: Take an order and deliver it efficiently at the advertised price. That’s the way it was before the Internet and that’s still the way it is now, when orders are e-mailed in from Chile, Australia and Singapore, as well as the entire U.S. and Canada. The ability to ask questions and receive accurate, unbiased information is just one factor that sets B&H apart from many of its competitors. As Henry Posner succinctly put it, “We don’t make sales, we make customers!”
To get a clearer picture of B&H’s e-tail operation, we interviewed Yulia Dykman, who works in the web department creating informational write-ups for the more than 300,000 SKUs currently listed at the B&H website.
“We strive for clarity and consistency, sticking strictly to fact-based descriptions devoid of superlatives. This allows prospective buyers to compare products and choose the ones that actually meet their wants and needs. We realize that positioning ourselves as the source of information gives our company an edge over many competitors, but it also entails the responsibility of being truthful, accurate and unbiased at all times,” said Dykman. “We are also firmly committed to being nice, to having pleasant and friendly interactions that result in positive customer experiences. Over 90% of the customers who reach out to us know what they want, but those who don’t also deserve our guidance based on accurate information, not just a sales pitch. And those who have complaints need to have their situation resolved in an equitable manner that ends up getting them what they want.”
Yulia Dykman is certainly a charming and articulate spokesperson for B&H, but it’s significant that she received two months of intensive training at B&H’s in-store classes to absorb the company’s consumer-focused ethos and e-tail strategy.
One of the pillar’s of B&H’s e-tail philosophy is that the customer should have the same positive buying experience whether it’s in the store, on the phone or online, and that the B&H people they interact with must know the products and know the industry well enough to provide customers with meaningful choices. This requires fast-driven unique answers to specific questions, and unique individual conversations on all media, rather than canned answers and cookie-cutter sales pitches. In short, what makes B&H unique as a retailer and as an e-tailer is that it provides a genuine source of nonjudgmental, fact-based advice and guidance, and that it’s accessible—with someone you can always speak to directly during business hours.
As Henry Posner said, “I’m a company executive, but you can find my name and e-mail address all over the Internet, particularly in the numerous photo-related forums I frequent. I do take calls and respond to dozens of e-mails. This is a real place staffed by real people, and to some extent that makes us unusual in the e-tail space.
“Our first task is to listen to our customers, or as one of our folks put it, we actually try to understand you so we can give you what you want. To do that, you have to listen to the whole question before you talk—something we try to instill in all our employees. We constantly ask ourselves, ‘What about the customer? What does the customer want? What would be easier for the customer?’ It’s our obsession, and it’s even enshrined in the survey form we send to our customers: ‘Did we listen, answer your question and provide useful information?’ When customers complain or are unhappy, we ask ourselves, ‘Why was the customer unhappy? Do we need to do something differently? How can we prevent negative experiences and avoid making the same mistakes?’
“That’s why our new hires are expected to spend time in the store,” Posner explained. “Our Internet or e-tail experience is essentially an extension of the in-store experience. And that’s why the people involved in our e-tail operation have had direct one-on-one experience behind the counter helping customers, which is the core of our business. There’s simply no substitute for developing the ability to have clear, declarative, focused, interpersonal interactions. Similarly, when we send people e-mails or do live online chats, we write for clarity and concision. So while the website is seemingly simple, there’s a lot that goes into it behind the scenes. Content is king of the website, but it must be clear and concise.”
“At B&H, we’ve come a long way, but we started with a focus,” added Steve Schwartz. “We envisioned an operation that was consumer-centric and gave people the friendly forthright buying experience they wanted. We took a long time to evolve this business into the giant enterprise it is today. At the end of the day, we’ve done well by doing good, and I would do the same if we started out today.”
“As long as you have a tablet or smartphone, we are there for you, and we deliver the same satisfying experience in our brick-and-mortar or e-tail store,” said Posner. “As for the actual physical store is concerned, we operate in the most expensive retail environment on the planet, but we’re very successful because we’ve created a unique world-class experience—a cool destination store that’s like no other photo retailer in the world.
“You can stop by and eat our candy (it’s world famous and people even hold forth on Twitter and Facebook about their favorite flavors),” Posner added. “We see e-tail as just another way of delivering an outstanding, accepting, friendly and engaging but objective retail experience. Many marketing mavens have tried to figure out the secret of our success, but the real secret is that there is none.”
Whether at their comprehensive website, via their mobile apps, their call centers or at their SuperStore, B&H is committed to providing an exemplary experience for customers worldwide—before and after purchases. Fair and competitive pricing, a deep and varied inventory delivered efficiently, unbiased and truthful information, a friendly and dedicated staff, and accessibility par excellence—these are all the reasons B&H Photo – Video is Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2014 E-tailer of the Year.