Like many of the nation’s most enduring and successful retailers, Roberts Camera, based in Indianapolis, Indiana, began as a modest mom-and-pop store located in the center of town.
Today, it’s still very much a family enterprise with a friendly, personal touch and great customer service.
However, over the past 59 years, Roberts has morphed into one of the largest, most vibrant and innovative e-tailer businesses in the imaging sector. And, by leveraging its awesome multichannel online presence, it is poised to expand its e-tailing reach even further, reinventing itself yet again.
The man largely responsible for spearheading this ongoing transformation to e-tailer is Bruce Pallman. Pallman is the founders’ son and current owner of Roberts Camera/UsedPhotoPro.
Remarkably, he did so by envisioning and anticipating many of the momentous changes in technology and retailing that have occurred over the last four decades. Based on that insight, he restructured the business to take full advantage of each opportunity in timely, effective ways.
In other words, you might say Bruce Pallman’s family values include creative vision, curiosity, effective management, dedication, hard work, empathy, honesty and, above all, a heartfelt commitment to not only one’s loyal customers but also to business associates and each and every member of the staff. Most noteworthy, he is passing these values along to the next generation.
Roberts Camera: The Small Mom-and-Pop Store
When Robert (Bob) and Rose Pallman opened their store in downtown Indianapolis in 1957, the city was pretty dilapidated. It was hardly the thriving and exciting metropolis it is today. The Pallmans had no money, but they did have plenty of spirit. In addition, they were determined to make their small family-owned business a success.
“In the beginning, we sold everything from jewelry to small appliances and luggage—even fishing poles,” recalls Bruce Pallman. “But in 1968 things took an interesting turn. My dad, Bob, bought a little catalog section to see if we could sell cameras. At the time the store had one employee who was taking a high school photography class. And he thought he could ‘sell those things.’
“Our first cameras were Minoltas, and indeed they started selling! Ever since that time, under my direction, Roberts became a camera store,” continues Pallman. “And we made knowledge about photographic equipment and treating our customers like family our top priorities. This was our initial transformation, and pretty soon we were getting calls from photographers around the world. The little store in Indianapolis was making a name for itself.”
Moving to the Web
The second great transformation of Roberts began to take shape just before the turn of the 21st century.
“Roberts Camera was an early adopter in conducting business on the Internet,” observes Pallman. “We set up our first website in 1996. Back then we really didn’t know how to get the most out of this newfound platform. But we were aware that the company that figured it out first was going to win in a big way.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t the first—thank you Amazon and B&H —but we learned and adapted. Today, online sales represent about 80% of our business.
“We now realize you have to find your niche. You can’t just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. You have to focus your efforts on those things you can do well, such as selling used equipment, from pro cameras and lenses to vintage collectibles.
“Basically, our strategy has been to find the holes in the offerings and services offered by the major players and to fill those needs with enticing, consumer-centric channels and options.
“The underserved areas I’m referring to include niche items, products other than imaging equipment offered by Nikon, Canon and Sony. These are items like Bluetooth speakers, headphones and microphones from some of the smaller manufacturers. In short, we sell items that are unique to us and allow us to run deals others can’t match,” explains Pallman.
“We supplement all these platforms with robust social media support to let the world know about our cool, little niches and how they provide a more satisfying and engaging buying experience and the best end result for our customers.
“Perhaps the best example is UsedPhotoPro. It is totally owned by Roberts and is now the second largest marketplace for used equipment in the country.
“We’ve also put together a great workforce,” Pallman continues. “We did not try to expand into new horizons by, for example, making it a current associate’s job to find an extra two hours a day to run our Amazon or eBay store in between waiting on retail customers.
“We created dedicated totally new positions. And we made them full-time positions so these crucial businesses with such great upside potential wouldn’t be an afterthought for a retail employee. We actually thought about each of these ventures as creating a new business that we were opening at a remote location.
“In short, if you expect it to maximize its potential, you cannot think about your online business as an afterthought. Or merely as an adjunct or extension of your core business. They are different and require different business models and totally different kinds of expertise and skills.
“To that end, we have prioritized the hiring of a number of established experts in the field who are dedicated to specific niches,” adds Pallman. “A good example is our leading expert who specializes in acquiring profitable caches of cameras from top-tier collectors at prices that enable us to turn a substantial profit.
“The used camera, lens and accessory business is cash up front all the way. It entails a finite element of risk. It is definitely not for the faint of heart or wallet. But, it delivers a potential profit margin of at least 40% and sometimes much more than that.
“That’s why you have real experts on hand who can evaluate the true market value of what you’re buying and also determine what will sell quickly.
“We’ve also established partnerships with many photo specialty dealers to either buy their used equipment outright or sell it through Roberts and give them a commission on the sale.”
Moving to Grow
The latest great transformation of Roberts Camera has been both physical and conceptual. And it is fully in keeping with the company’s identity, business model and philosophy.
In 2014, Roberts relocated its main store from its longtime downtown Indianapolis location at 255 S. Meridian Street to a truly cavernous, monumental, multifunctional, 35,000-square-foot building at 220 E. St. Clair Street.
It’s sufficiently large to accommodate 7,500 square feet of retail space, 11,000 square feet of warehouse space, a used camera production area of 9,000 square feet, 6,000 square feet of combined space for an educational center, camera repair facility, photo lab, mail order and commercial sales departments, and 1,500 square feet of office space.
The building is located in an industrial area once considered seedy. However, it is now undergoing its own cultural transformation, with boutiques, upscale restaurants and clubs springing up.
As reported in the Indianapolis Star at the time of the move:
“The new site will give Roberts room to grow its online sales channel, UsedPhotoPro, and offer more product lines and equipment, as well as provide a wide range of photography experiences and classes. The business will spend $2.5 million to lease and renovate the former Office Furniture Mart, and the Indiana Economic Development Corp. offered Roberts $150,000 in state tax credits and up to $18,000 in training grants if the company meets its hiring goals.”
At the time, Bruce Pallman said the move “will enable Roberts to hire up to 35 more employees over the next four years.” That number has already been reached. And he noted, “We want to expand in an environment that supports small business. And we’re excited about what this new location offers in terms of growth opportunity and helping us continue to evolve with this ever-changing retail marketplace.”
An evolution is taking place within the Pallman family as well. The family business is being passed on to the next generation. Namely that is Bruce Pallman’s daughter, Meredith, the marketing and HR director, and her husband, Corey Reinker, who is the Internet sales director. Corey also runs UsedPhotoPro, which is expanding rapidly under his energetic leadership.
Bruce Pallman is an articulate, incisive and engaging people person who loves nothing more than connecting directly with his customers (whom he knows by name) on busy Saturdays at the store.
Furthermore, he truly relishes his evolving new role as a mentor. Like all great teachers, he guides rather than prescribes, because he knows it’s essential to make your own decisions and your own mistakes in the challenging and exciting process of learning how to run and grow a successful business.
That indeed is the mark of true accomplishment—being able to preserve and expand your business as a living entity and turn it over to the next generation, knowing it will be successful and advance in a positive direction. That Bruce, Meredith and Corey all understand this very well is evident in the obvious joy they take in running Roberts, and in going to work each day.
Roberts Camera: The Global E-tailer
To give you a better idea of the e-tailer reach of Roberts Camera, we checked out their main social media sites. We wanted to see what’s up and provide a quick tale on each. However, Roberts’ e-tailer presence is far-reaching, including sites we couldn’t cover here, like Pinterest, Amazon, Flickr, YouTube, Google+ and even LinkedIn!
UsedPhotoPro. Click on this cool e-tailer site stocked with merchandise and you’ll bring up tabs labeled About Us, Locations, Policies & Terms, FAQ, and Sell Your Gear. There is also an invitation to join UPP, with the tagline “Roberts Camera, Your Vision. Your Camera Store.” There’s also a helpful list of generic equipment types and services.
In the top menu there are clear descriptors: Shop Used Gear, Shop New & Refurb, and Photo Lab tabs. A navigation tool with headings such as Sell Us Your Gear, Shop by Brand, etc., makes moving around the site easy and intuitive.
Below this is a definition of the conditions list (e.g., Very Good—80–89% of original condition). This is followed by quick links to Shop Popular Camera Categories, Shop Hot Lenses, and Shop Top Accessories. Finally, there is an extensive list of specific new and used products with pictures as you scroll down.
Site visitors can quickly go to what they are looking for, click for detailed descriptions and pricing, and then click to buy. Simple, fast, user friendly—and addictive!
Twitter. A perky image of the current store with the Roberts/UsedPhotoPro logo. And the tagline “The Midwest’s best camera shop” comes up along with various engaging posts and images.
Timely topics include how Roberts’ advice helped me take better 4th of July fireworks pictures and the latest drone rules. Plus, there’s an offer of a free lens rental for the holiday weekend. And an announcement of an in-store demo of the latest Hasselblad X1D mirrorless medium-format camera.
Jointly sponsored by Roberts and Olympus, a free photo walk in the woods was also posted. (They supply Olympus PEN F’s and OM-Ds to put through their paces.) It’s definitely up-tempo, relevant and lots of fun.
Facebook. The Roberts Imaging @robertscamera Facebook page opens with a prominent motivational posting on Roberts Gallery Night in Indianapolis. It lists the number of people interested and the number of those attending. It also showcases more fascinating July 4th fireworks pictures inspired by Roberts’ tips on taking fireworks pictures. A few of them are quite impressive.
In addition, there is more content on drone rules, evidently a hot topic. Complimentary posts abound. Here’s one on visiting the Carmel store, “No one rushed up to me (which I LOVE), but they all said hello.” Another post stated: “Amazing customer service—thank you all for saving the day when I forgot my camera battery at home.”
There are also helpful, informative pictures showing “how I used my new shutter remote at the Marion County Fair.” Roberts’ Facebook presence is a nice mix that definitely enhances the image of the store and invites participation.
eBay. Roberts has a very active e-tailer presence on eBay, offering a huge variety of used equipment, often at very attractive prices: a Sigma AF 17–50mm f/2.8 DC EX HSM lens for $245; a Nikkor AF-S 55–300mm at $187; and some super-rare classics, like a pre WW-II Hansa Canon with an original 50mm f/3.5 lens for $8,350.51. For a cool $7,795.88, a humongous Nikon AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4 G ED VR AF lens was also posted.
Furthermore, the sheer variety and number of Roberts’ eBay offerings is staggering. Full disclosure: I personally bought an old rangefinder Canon IIS from Roberts about a year ago. I got it for around 27% of its actual value. It arrived swiftly and was very well packed. Consequently, I left five-star positive eBay feedback on this transaction. Good job!
Foursquare. The Roberts Camera listing on this site shows the location of the second smaller Roberts store located in Carmel, Indiana. It includes nice testimonials. Katie posted: “John Scott took an extraordinary amount of time helping us pick the perfect camera. No gimmicks, just knowledge. We were absolutely floored—worth a visit for him alone!” Another from Mike D said simply, “Love this place!”
What is it that someone once said about word of mouth being the best advertising? That goes double in the digital era—and it lives forever!
The remarkable evolution of Roberts Camera exemplifies how forward-thinking business practices and a willingness to expand into new retail technologies—all while maintaining knowledgeable, superb customer service and the
ability to treat customers “like family”—can grow a small shop that sold cameras out of a catalog into a premier global source for photo, video and electronics equipment.
And that is why we have selected Roberts Camera as Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2016 E-tailer of the Year.
Roberts’ Expert Staff