Strategy Session: As Times Change, So Does Unique Photo

Strategy Session: As Times Change, So Does Unique Photo

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In what can best be characterized as a challenging time for the photo retail business, Unique Photo is the perfect picture of optimism. And it’s not because they know something the rest of us have yet to discover. It’s because they’re not afraid to change the conversation.

It is the company’s confident enthusiasm and business savvy that has led us to name Unique Photo as Digital Imaging Reporter’s Dealer of the Year for 2013.

Unique Photo’s name has a strange legacy steeped in frozen food. Harriet and Bernard Sweetwood were well into running and growing their wholesale camera business when they opened a companion company to sell food. They developed a food recipe they called Unique Pure Foods, which morphed into Foods Americana. When that didn’t work out, they ended up selling that name to Birds Eye (they still use it), and Unique Pure Foods turned into Unique Photo.

“We’ve had the opportunity to change the name, but it’s such a great name, why would we change it?” explained Matt Sweetwood, Harriet and Bernard’s son and Unique’s ebullient president. “It’s so distinctive.”

If there is one word to describe Unique Photo today, it would be, well, unique. They’ve been faced with the challenge of reinventing themselves so many times, and with each challenge came a new way of doing business.

“My dad’s first big sale was to Macy’s,” Sweetwood said. “It was 1947, just after the war, and because cameras were made of metal and film was made of silver, they were on allocation and production was minimal. At that time, most of the photo supplies were sold in drugstores, and Macy’s had a need for cameras but it wasn’t on the allocation list.”

So Bernard went to the buyer at Macy’s and offered to help. “My dad asked if he would buy cameras from him if he could get them. When the buyer said yes, dad asked for a purchase order, went back to a drugstore he worked for in Sheepshead Bay and said ‘order me cameras and I’ll sell them.’ He then went into a bank, presented the PO from Macy’s, and they lent him money. He got the cameras, packed them in his car and brought them to Macy’s; they cut him a check and he paid back the bank.” And with Bernard Sweetwood’s first camera deal, a burgeoning wholesale business was born.

The Sweetwoods did some wholesale business for a while and then opened up Hoboken Camera Center on June 4, 1954. They ran a terrific store until it literally blew up one day (something about a gas leak). They followed this by going into department stores and opening up camera departments within the stores. That approach blossomed into 30 stores, but that model collapsed, and the Sweetwoods had enough of retail. It was time to reinvent themselves. Again.

“They opened a facility in Kearney, New Jersey, and that’s how Unique came into business,” explained Matt Sweetwood. “They wholesaled for many years to small stores and pharmacies; everyone bought their cameras and film from them. When my brother Jonathan and I entered the business in the 1980s, we saw a new opportunity—and a growing market.”

They realized that film was primarily sold in pharmacies and camera stores, but no one was offering full service, especially to professionals. So, the Sweetwoods decided to convert their business from BtoB into BtoC, and they began targeting professionals as their customers. They sold film by the pallet. “We became Kodak, Ilford and Fujifilm’s largest professional dealers in the country. We were also Polaroid’s largest customer; we sold more Polaroid film than any company on Earth,” Sweetwood said.

The company hit its peak in the early 2000s, and then film took a dive. “The prediction for film was that it would take 10 years to fall off, but it happened much more quickly,” said Sweetwood. “So around 2007 we were in trouble, but we saw the handwriting on the wall.” It was time for another reinvention.

“We saw camera stores closing all over New Jersey, and we tried to figure out what they were doing wrong. The days when customers made three trips into the store to process one roll of film were over. I knew about the competition from the big guys in the city and, of course, from Amazon. But we knew we could create value at retail that they couldn’t.

“The trick with digital cameras was that no one knew how to use them. Consumers were confused, so if we created a knowledge-based model—education, community and content—it would be the draw to have them come back to the store. If we combined that with customer service, a nice store that looks like Tiffany’s, incredible technical support and always in-stock merchandise, we would be on our way. But the real key was to teach our customers photography,” continued Sweetwood.

“The concept behind education is that you change the relationship your students have with you from a sales relationship to a mentor-student relationship,” he explained. “When you have that, you have a different kind of trust level with that customer, and they see you as a source for knowledge—and that leads to sales.”

Sweetwood’s Unique University program is a model that many retailers can admire. “We put around 1,000 people per month through our schools. They learn in the classroom. We sponsor trips to Rutgers University football games and other treks. We make it fun. And for every customer that engages, we probably earn 10 new customers who appreciate what we do.”

And this loyalty has lead to growth. “We opened our camera store on the anniversary date that my parents opened Hoboken Camera—June 4, 2008—and since then we have engaged in almost 60 months of continuous growth.”

Considering all these years and changes, I asked Matt Sweetwood what he learned from his parents.

“You can never rely on current business. The time to change is not when it’s too late. My parents were always looking at the next thing. When you’re at your peak is when you should think about reinventing yourself. You have to stay ahead of the curve.”

When I drove up to Unique Photo, I noticed a T-Mobile dealer sign on the building. Staying ahead of the curve.

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