We’re so proud to feature District Camera and Imaging as our E-tailer of the Year for 2017. While their success is evident, after my discussion with Saed Tariverdi and his son Eldar, it’s hard to imagine many retailers having to overcome so many obstacles to become and remain a success in this business.
They literally started from scratch. Eldar’s maternal grandfather, Saleh Jani, was a successful businessman in Tehran, Iran, in the 1970s. He owned an import hardware business that was run by Saed. When Saed emigrated to the U.S. just before the revolution in 1978, he decided to run a camera store here with Saleh.
Not unusual for the time. Except for the fact that the only English words Saed spoke were “yes” and “no.”
“Saleh Jani opened Photo Craft in Fairfax with his nephew,” said Saed. “It was a struggle early on, as they were both new to the business. After the nephew and Saleh had a falling out, they were ready to close the store. But the landlord wasn’t letting them out of their five-year lease, so Saleh knew he had to make a go of it. It was at that time that I came over from Iran to help build the business.”
Nothing like rent payments to provide a little motivation.
With hard work and determination, Saed built Photo Craft with his true business sense, and without any experience in the camera business. When manufacturers heard about his new store, they started to come around slowly. “Kodak, Hasselblad and Minolta came around first, and we built from there. It wasn’t easy, but we amassed a nice clientele on our customer service,” Saed explained.
Saed’s son, Eldar, started coming into the store when he was around 10 years old, and he took a liking to it. “The customers liked talking to the little guy who could hardly see over the counter,” said Saed.
“I studied biology in college, basically to appease my father,” said Eldar, “and was on my way to becoming a dentist, but my heart wasn’t really in it. While I was growing up, the topic of conversation at the dinner table was always business. And oftentimes it was a struggle, especially with my dad as a first-generation immigrant. We were all new to the game, but I always understood the challenge.”
So in 1996, Saed opened up a store for Eldar to run. It was three miles from his other store, near the house they owned. They ended up closing the original store in 2005, and Saed bought Embassy Camera in downtown Washington, DC. “We decided to keep two different names (Photo Craft and Embassy) for the stores, given the equity they both had.”
Eldar saw the future of Internet retailing before most.
“We started online very early. We had a family connection in the e-commerce software business, so we jumped in as early as 2003. My brother was fresh out of Virginia Tech with a computer science degree, and he helped us get online,” Eldar recalls. “But in those days, manufacturers were wary about online stores crossing state lines. So we didn’t really ‘push the envelope’ too much. We were just trying to grow our business and move forward.”
It was around 2013 that the challenge of two different store names started to become a burden. “PhotoCraft.com was already owned by someone else, and the name didn’t really do justice to us, as we were more of a hardware store. We knew we were giving up equity in our brands, but I had been thinking of creating one store brand for quite a while. We decided to change the name of both stores to District Camera and Imaging.”
I asked Eldar if Amazon scared him, and he had a funny response.
“I would say I was one of the first three or four sellers in the photo business on Amazon in 2003. At the time it was just a bookseller, while we sold cameras, bags and accessories. After a while, they started selling the same products we did. I thought they were going to be our competitor, so we pulled out around 2005, before most camera companies even knew who Amazon was.
“Then around 2012, I remember seeing a UPS truck and every box in his truck was from Amazon. I spoke to the driver, and he said ‘all I do is deliver for Amazon.’ So I jumped back in, and we populated our entire inventory at Amazon. I can’t tell you how many old SKUs that we hadn’t sold in years were sold the very first night on Amazon.”
District Camera and Imaging’s online success is due to their commitment to online sales. “Once you’re online, the playing field levels out,” said Eldar. “But to grow and prosper, it takes time, effort and money. You have to make the investment to make the playing field even. We invest every year in software and customer service to keep us ahead, because in reality, there are fewer competitors out there who are taking the time to do it right. And the customer recognizes the difference between any online store and one that understands their needs.”
So, are there future Tariverdis on the horizon to join the business? “I have four kids, and the advice I will give them is to get a good education. This is a tough business, and there are certainly easier ways to make money. I watched my dad struggle when he started, especially not speaking English,” said Eldar. “I felt responsible even as a 12 year old to come and help him out. For my kids, the door will always be open. I’ll bring them in to do summer jobs, and if they love the business I won’t talk them out of it.”
Kudos to the Tariverdi Family
The Tariverdi family faced so many challenges as photo business owners, and they overcame each one, learning along the way. Their impressive results, and their commitment to growing their online business, have resulted in their success for more than 40 years. For this reason, we’re proud to honor them as our E-tailer of the Year for 2017.