Photo Industry Reporter’s 2012 Dealer of the Year: Paul’s Photo

Photo Industry Reporter’s 2012 Dealer of the Year: Paul’s Photo

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Paul’s Photo may not be our typical choice for PIR’s Dealer of the Year, but after visiting this 50-year-old family business in Torrance, California, and seeing their expansion plans and passion for the photography business, it was actually the perfect choice.

All in the Family
Paul Comon, the 80-year-old founder of Paul’s Photo and its president, didn’t come across as someone who wanted to splash his name across his store’s signage and newspaper ads. His beginnings were a bit more humble—and inspiring.

In 1961, Comon was managing one of A-Photo’s four LA County locations when the owner decided to pack it in, and he offered each of his managers the chance to buy one of the stores. Comon, who had been working there for six years, had first choice—and he jumped at the chance.

“I knew what I was doing; it was a small store, with one location,” Paul Comon recalls. “There was a sign on the wall with the old store name and an image of a camera. I realized I could just take down the old name, put in ‘Paul’s,’ and not have to buy a new sign. So I went with it.”

So started the pragmatic approach to the photo business that Paul’s Photo has demonstrated for more than 50 years. It remained a one-store operation (Comon moved into his current 23845 Hawthorne Boulevard store, his third location, in 1987), and he pretty much stuck to the basics over the years. Hardware was at the core of his business, and customer service was what made it successful. Photofinishing was somewhat of an afterthought; they sent out all of their photofinishing through the years—until recently.

But where the photo store found its defining niche was in the classes that Paul taught. Starting out in a local adult school, he began teaching the basics of photography, and he soon found that students became his most loyal customers.

Enter the Next Generation
Mark Comon, now vice president, first started working in his dad’s shop when he was 14 years old—and he never left. Over the years, he has become the yin to his dad’s yang. In many ways, it’s what’s made their 50-year run all the more successful.

“It was always my dad’s store, but I was the one who was constantly pushing to do more,” Mark Comon notes. “He taught me a lot about business, but I think I may have taught him a thing or two about reaching out and trying new things.”
To meet Mark Comon is to instantly appreciate his enthusiasm for the photo business. Notably, his connection to his customers is unique; it’s cemented by the shared passion of photography and his willingness to take his would-be “Ansel Adams” to the promised land.

While over the years photofinishing was the main income driver for many successful photo retail chains, that part of the business became much less reliable in the recent past. Paul’s Photo has always had another approach.

Paul’s Photo runs photography classes almost religiously. They teach techniques and they teach photo appreciation. Mark is well known for taking his students on photo excursions both locally and around the world, and he continues to be successful by “feeding the beast”—turning his students into his most photo savvy and loyal customers.

Teach Them and They Will Come Back
Paul’s Photo doesn’t just offer the occasional photography classes at the store to help drum up business. Education is a cornerstone of the business philosophy—a philosophy that started with Paul years ago and that has become a true passion for Mark.

When Paul taught at night school early in his career, he understood that knowledge could drive passion in the photography business. “Dad always talked about the students,” Mark says, “but we never really had room to give classes. Then, when we came to this store location in 1987, it started to make sense. My dad pushed me hard to bring the classes here, and we started holding them in-store in 1988.”

Today, Paul’s Photo offers classes in photo techniques, equipment usage and photo appreciation. And they proudly hang the students’ images in the store’s gallery. But more than anything, Mark Comon is cultivating a following that means as much to him as it does to his students.

“I have a 20-year group of students who come once a month. We’ve grown together. I’ve seen tremendous growth in my advanced photography class. What I’m most proud of is the quality of the photo work I’m getting out of my group. It’s beyond belief. I judge photo contests. I speak at photo clubs. My students ‘kick ass,’ and I’m so proud of that.

“I offer six to eight photo trips a year. Spring and fall are busy trip times. We do our Eastern Sierra trip and then I go to Bryce Canyon. We usually bring 15 or so people on the trips.

“The classroom, the trips—they are what’s replaced our processing business. It also keeps me sane; it gets me out of the store. And it builds customer loyalty. When my students come on the trips, they see the equipment I have, or what other students have. I don’t mean just cameras, but also bags, accessories, lenses and tripods. If they like what they see, they come to Paul’s and buy it.

“We also want people to keep coming back. So, for example, we had a bus trip to downtown Los Angeles to shoot the city lights. We’re doing a trip to the wine country; we’re shooting on the pier; and then, a month later, we’ll have a reunion party in the store. Everyone brings their prints; they just show up and share, and it’s really fun to share our passion and creativity . . . plus learn from each other’s vision.

“I’ve built three families here at Paul’s Photo. I have the crew here, who I want to have fun and truly enjoy coming to work and being successful every day. And I’ve built my classes—that’s my other family—where we share creativity, photography and travel. And, of course, I have my own family with Sheryl and the kids.”

The Basics of the Business
The store’s merchandise selection is sufficient but not overwhelming. They choose to do business with those vendors that offer the best product selection and also quality service to them. The product selection caters to customers who are serious about photography, but also to those who are just looking for a broad product selection.

The showcases are lined with the latest digital SLR offerings from Nikon, Canon, Sony and Olympus, a full range of Tamron and Sigma lenses, and also Fujifilm’s latest X-series premium cameras.

The point-and-shoot selection is a bit more limited, mainly focusing on higher end cameras. “The market has sort of dropped out of the low-end point-and-shoot category, and it’s also tough to compete with cell phones,” explains Mark Comon.

Paul’s Photo also has a full range of camera bags and accessories, including a large display of tripods, which is a very important part of the business. Paul’s is also a very enthusiastic and active PRO member. Mark and Paul credit the ideas learned from fellow PRO members and ProMaster products as one of their secrets to success.

A Latecomer into Photofinishing, but Now All In
Throughout the years, Paul’s never really relied on photofinishing as a crucial part of the business. That’s probably one of the reasons the business survived the film-to-digital crash of the printing market.

“We were all about hardware and classes, but we really never depended on photofinishing. We sent most of our photofinishing to out-labs. Running a lab just wasn’t a part of the business that my dad and I understood or felt we had time to learn,” Mark says.

Well, that’s all changing. Last year, Mark hired Jeffrey Ikemiya as the production manager, and he’s been charged with moving full-speed ahead into photofinishing. In addition to kiosks in the store, Paul’s Photo is offering large-format printing (using a Canon iPF8300), printing on canvas and photo book printing. They are also buying a dye-sub printer to expand into other areas as well, and they are now looking at printing on metals.

“The hot thing was canvas, but now it’s metal prints,” notes Ikemiya. “We’re getting a separate press for that; even though it’s a $5,000 investment, we see great profit potential in this market.

“Right now kiosks and small prints are still 50% of our business. Large format is around 30%, and we promote mostly through word of mouth. Our typical customer is a 40-year-old woman taking pictures of her family, whether they’re playing sports or on vacation.”

They’ve expanded their photofinishing department to one full-time and five part-time employees, but as they bring more printing in-house, they’re working hard to keep up.

“For us to gain more sales, we’ll need to do more business-to-business; if things go as planned, the new dye-sub printer should pay for itself within a year. We’re bringing things in-house to make more profit, instead of having margins eaten up through wholesaling,” he adds.

Cleaning Up and Modernizing
Paul’s Photo has been run with somewhat of a conservative business model over the last 50 years: one location, limited floor space, lots of inventory on the shelves and on the floor, a one-room gallery that doubles as a classroom, and a single counter for sales, with offices perched above the store in a loft overlooking the sales floor.

Well, that’s all changing, too.

First, they decided it was time to clean up the store, which had become practically a warehouse of products and accessories. The fixtures in the store were the same ones from when Paul bought the business in 1961. When Mark heard that Cal’s Camera was going out of business, he rushed up and purchased all of the fixtures from that store. “I paid 50% more to get them here than I paid for the fixtures,” he admits. “So then we immediately started on construction, but we stayed open the whole time. The hardest part was the floor, but we got through it.”

This spurred them to clean up what they had and get rid of a lot of the excess inventory that had been crowding up the floors and shelves, which resulted in a much more organized look.

“We cut our inventory by about a third; for example, we cut our bag inventory by around 30%; the old displays held lots of stock, but it wasn’t easy for customers to shop. We’ve seen significant increases in bag sales now that they are attractively displayed.”

The fixtures also feature a small, square glass showcase at the end of each one, which is perfect to show off some of Paul’s incredible historical hardware collection. It’s really a nice touch to offset the high-tech products that Paul’s Photo now sells.

They’ve also installed eight 50-inch TV monitors above the primary showcase. They will be running loops of product information from manufacturers, so customers can learn about products as they’re waiting at the counters, or roaming through the store.

The Next Frontier
Paul Comon purchased the entire 11,000-square-foot building where their store is situated in 1987. Just as the remodel was nearing completion in April, the tenant next-door ended its lease and left the space vacant. Paul tried to lease it again to regain the income he had enjoyed over the years, but the market value was down and he wasn’t successful.

Mark’s dream was to take over the area next-door and expand their “little red schoolhouse” to a fully developed state-of-the-art classroom, gallery and studio. His dad was a little reluctant, as what they had was still working for them. But Mark engendered the support of his newest employee—his lovely wife, Sheryl—to convince Paul that it was time to expand.

And expand they did. Mark has extended Paul’s Photo (at the time of this writing it was still under construction) to the adjoining building, where he created an annex for teaching, including a studio large enough to hold 75 students, a suite of offices and a photo gallery. On November 16, the Comons celebrated the grand opening of the Creative Photo Academy at Paul’s Photo, along with Frank Scotto, the mayor of Torrance, California, as well as members of the Torrance City Council and the Torrance Chamber of Commerce, local photographers, businesspeople and representatives from the photographic industry. And judging by the conversation I had with Paul and Mark, dad couldn’t be prouder of what his store has become.

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