“It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”; the future is uncertain. The closure of Tall’s Camera, Keeble & Shuchat Photography and Showcase Photo & Video caused many to look for the fat lady signaling the demise of the photo retailer.
What they forgot was that the owners were all at retirement age without contingency plans in place. Paraphrasing Mark Twain, “The death of photo specialty is greatly exaggerated.” Changing? You bet. Dead? Far from it! Consider these trends/observations.
In 2010, everyone thought Alex and Jirair Christianian were crazy when they bought Wolf’s/Ritz stores, expanding from three to ten locations. With their existing Mike’s Camera management team, they brought the new stores online, using basically the Wolf’s/Ritz personnel. By all indications, Mike’s Camera chain is very successful, with engaged staff and enthusiastic customers. Check out their website and you’ll see constantly well-attended events and passionate community involvement.
Everyone, from counter personnel to regional managers, knows the company’s goals, understands their offerings to customers and is attuned to personal and store goals. It’s not rocket science. It’s two brothers, partners who utilize a common direction and a delegation of authority to accomplish tasks. Both also give back to their industry. Alex is secretary of PRO (Photographic Research Organization) and Jirair is a director of the Imaging Alliance.
Shortly after Jirair and Alex made their acquisition, the former owner of Berry’s Camera Shop (Dawn Berry) and her longtime former employee (Rene Aiken) joined forces and opened Camera Outfitters in Lafayette, Indiana, in 2013. They envisioned selling accessories and services to those who bought their cameras elsewhere. Today they’re a recognized camera store selling hardware as well as services. Their sales and profits have grown each year.
The most spectacular camera store building in the world may be Fort Worth Camera, owned by Jeff Masure. Within 15 years, the camera retailer grew from nothing to a custom-built modern facility, boasting approximately 10,000 square feet. It has a spectacular sales area, rentals, training classroom and gallery. The new store, opened in March, attracts applauding customers, enthusiastic employees and ecstatic vendors. In May it will host the 3rd Annual Foto Fest, holding more than 30 customer events spread over six days. The Fort Worth team continues to set new benchmarks in customer engagement.
Who Are the Future Photo Retail Success Stories?
Who are the future, successful photo specialty retailers? Consider the husband and wife team of Charlie Harper and Karen Brooks Harper, formerly of Fort Worth. He is a photographer and retail salesperson who worked at Bass Pro Shops, Best Buy and Forth Worth Camera. She’s an accomplished journalist and social media consultant. The couple relocated back to their hometown to open Corpus Christi Camera from the ground up in the third quarter of this year. They’ve been consulting with existing leaders in the physical and online worlds, learning how to generate customers and grow community. They may become the trendsetting, customer-driven mecca for photographers in their new location.
Now let’s meet Brian Broughton, owner of the Camera Exchange in Waterford, Michigan. He started in the industry in 1969, selling in Adray’s, an appliance and electronics retailer. Broughton was a sales rep for top photographic manufacturers. Around 2010, he started selling a few pieces of used equipment through eBay and Amazon and opened a physical location in 2016, branching into profitable accessories.
Sharing new personalities and successful approaches to photo retail success wouldn’t be complete without referring to Joe Dumic, DIR’s 2016 Dealer of the Year. Dumic went from a German tourist in 2009 to Dealer of the Year in 2016. He looked at other retailers and then stepped out of the box. You can’t argue with success.
On the manufacturer side, Sony has abandoned their retail stores and their Sony Style direct-to-consumer website so they can give greater support to their retail partners. This enables those retailers to focus on their own websites and online sales. Meanwhile, two major competitors that instead market online, direct to consumers, appear to have lost some market share to Sony. Is this cause/effect or coincidence? Too soon to tell.
Nurturing Pros, Hobbyists and Enthusiasts
A marketplace shift just as impactful as film to digital is the abandonment of the casual photographer. The mass-market customer has deserted camera manufacturers and migrated to phone cameras. Pros, hobbyists and enthusiasts appear to be the main camera store customers and the only sizable market for camera manufacturers. Many of these customers prefer the brick-and-mortar photographic community. Catering to them is a common thread among successful retailers.
Is the industry tougher than ever? Absolutely. Could realistic sales tax policies and intelligent vendor rebates help more stores survive and thrive? Sure. The fat lady is always in the wings. Successful retailers focus on the customer who values what they sell. That will keep the fat lady away from the microphone.
Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Digital Imaging Reporter. Bill McCurry would love to hear from you with questions, comments and also ideas for future columns. Please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 609-688-1169.