YM camera: Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2019 E-tailer of the Year

YM camera: Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2019 E-tailer of the Year

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YM camera, 755 Boardman-Canfield Road, Youngstown, Ohio

If you were running the third-generation family business founded as Youngstown Microfilm in 1951, would you locate it in Boardman, Ohio? Consider that the Youngstown-Warren-Boardman Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) has lost 6.2% of its population over the last decade. Today’s population is around 550,000, making it the 90th market in the country. Last June, USA Today declared Youngstown the 15th worst city to live in the United States. But Jim and Robby Yankush, who run what is now called YM camera, have never paid attention to the statistics. 

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YM camera features a 1,500-square-foot retail space on its ground floor.

In fact, neither have their loyal customers. Instead, Jim, Robby and their team bring passion and enthusiasm to the joys of photography, attracting customers from hundreds of miles around. Moreover, YM has tripled its number of employees in the last decade.

Their active social media creates an awareness and fun factor that causes customers to drive past local and national photography retailers while heading straight to YM’s front door.

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Robby Yankush

In addition, Robby Yankush is an online celebrity. Customers sometimes line up after making a purchase to get their selfie taken with him so they can post it online. The store is also attractive to visitors. “Customers don’t drive hours to visit a dump,” his dad, Jim Yankush, reports.

YM camera: The Physical Presence

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Laura and Jim Yankush

YM camera’s retail location is a business condominium building, consisting of six businesses in a strip center. The condominium association is responsible for common area maintenance; each tenant is their own landlord, owning their space.

The YM camera space is 1,500 square feet on the ground floor. In addition it has a full basement that’s used for eBay sales, warehousing and storage. This year, YM also bought the space upstairs and put in an attractive stairway connecting “the loft” with the retail store. The loft houses classes and studio demonstration areas, as well as a display area for bulky items. Community groups can also use the loft for meetings.

Jim and Robby understand they can’t be the next Amazon or B&H. What they can be is the best YM camera possible. That’s the message they continually put out through social media.

The Online Face of YM camera

Robby Yankush is constantly on Facebook with general photographic news. He takes care not to overpromote YM camera, instead being a source of what’s new and exciting in the world of imaging.

Robby is the face of the store. When listening to Jim answer the phone, you’ll often hear him say, “Robby’s unavailable. I’d be happy to help you. . . . I’ve worked here 30 years and I’m president of the company. And I’m Robby’s dad. . . . Sure, I’ll be happy to take a message and ask Robby to call you.” Jim says the first time he handled a call like that it surprised him. Now it’s commonplace.

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The leadership team (L-R): Robby Yankush, Heather Lahtinen, Jim Yankush and Jim Stamm

While Robby’s presence online is a magnet attracting customers, much of his online personality isn’t on view. He’s also a member of numerous private photographic groups where he participates as an individual. He doesn’t hide his relationship with YM camera, but he offers impartial advice when questions are posed to the group. It’s other members of the private groups who point to him as a great retailer worthy of support.

“Selfie” Promotions

In addition, store promotions are critical to generate traffic from customers who live hours away. Recently YM camera invited Used Photo Pro to do a two-day used camera buy. Customers could get cash for cameras—or a higher value if taken in store credit. Those were the two best sales days in the store’s history. As a result, YM will have Used Photo Pro return when they do a multi-rep show.

Consideration was given to YM doing the buying themselves. Jim’s explanation of why they used a proven outside vendor is simple. “I’m an okay cook when four to eight people are being fed. With a crowd of 200, I’m out of my comfort zone. The crowds who came were larger than we could efficiently handle. Yes, Used Photo Pro bought some great gear YM would have liked to resell. However, having a professional turnkey process, with minimal drain on YM’s personnel and cash flow, was the best option.”

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YM’s Summer Cash for Cameras promo has a fun factor

Whether it’s promotions or daily interactions, the fun and passion are contagious. Customer selfies adorn YM’s Facebook page. More important, customers are posting the selfies on their own pages to share with friends.

In addition, the viral demand for selfies with Robby (or occasionally Jim) is a significant factor in driving traffic to them. Sure, the customer can order online or by phone, but if they want that selfie, they have to visit the store. The store also encourages BOPIS (Buy Online, Pickup In-Store).

Is Robby worried he’s become the sole attraction for customers? “If a customer comes in the door, our team will make them smile. Everyone at YM camera wants to make the experience the best possible for our customers. Nobody leaves disappointed.”

PRO & POS

Both Jim and Robby sing high praises for the PRO buying group. Each has a circle of close friends who are members. This gives them a resource of like-minded retailers who can help them determine the best POS systems or rental policies or whatever the issue is.

“I was attracted to PRO because of the potential of PRO’s Nikon and Tamron relationships,” Jim admits. “I didn’t believe it when everyone told me that was the icing on the cake; but they were right. I’ve saved the most money by learning the best practices from industry leaders and adapting them to YM camera. The money we saved on group product buying is important, too.”

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Demand for selfies with Robby (and occasionally Jim) drives customers to the store.

Robby adds: “We weren’t effective with rentals until I had a couple of beers with friends at PRO. They educated me on all the mistakes they had made and how to avoid them. That was priceless information.”

Automation also is a critical aspect of efficiency. The company switched to Lightspeed software to run its POS and online systems. And Emily Bevan is ramping up YM’s rental department.

Emily spoke with other PRO members about using Checkfront and which rental promotions worked the best. She installed Checkfront software, which enables 24/7 online rental reservations as well as enlightened reporting systems.

The first full month the system was operational, the rental volume of the prior period more than doubled. The system also allows myriad marketing strategies to supplement the rental programs. Emily has the system automatically send reminder e-mails and invoice the customer’s credit card when the reservation indicates the gear should be picked up.

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Customers can reserve rentals online and pickup in-store.

Online Ins & Outs

Online fraud is always a concern. YM camera uses PayPal for processing payments. “Granted, we pay a bit more, but I sleep better at night knowing there are no chargebacks,” Jim explains.

YM also started using TaxJar to properly allocate the various sales taxes. They have turned off California because of Proposition 65 expenses and the immense potential liabilities California can levy on out-of-state sellers.

In addition, they believe properly targeted e-mails are growing in effectiveness. “It’s hard to tell manufacturers you can’t run every e-mail whenever they want. We have to respect our customers’ time. We can’t overload them with canned e-mail from manufacturers.” YM tries to have at least one-third of their e-mails come from Robby personally with generalized information, not sales pitches.

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A staff picture is included with all online purchase. Front row, L-R: Jim Yankush, president; Robby Yankush, vice president. Back row, L-R: Liam Abrigg, sales/website; Heather Lahtinen, director of Education; Rich Carroll, Internet sales; Emily Bevan, rental manager; Miguel Colon, sales; Julian Ford, sales/photo lab; Jim Stamm, store manager; and Tim Hickman, sales.

YM also abhors pop-up ads. They know when they pop-up a link for e-mail sign-ups their sign-up list grows. They also know many visitors click off the page when the pop-up appears. They’d rather keep the visitor than chase them away. Robby runs several A/B tests in different website scenarios and believes no pop-ups is the better choice.

Moreover, boosting advertising on Facebook and Instagram have proven very effective for YM camera. An increasing effort is being put to stories, some showing 10 different product images. Events are coordinated and run using Eventbrite. Robby doesn’t see a commercial use for Snapchat “unless you want to reach audiences 22 or younger.” Additionally, YM rarely uses Pinterest or Twitter.

Responding to Customers & Reviews

However, personal interactions can’t be overstated. While Robby was waiting for coffee, the barista asked if she bought an old camera she saw at a flea market would YM add it to their display of historical cameras. “Of course,” Robby said. She promised she’d buy it and give it to the store that weekend.

A customer in line then thanked Jim for the superb care his wife got when she bought her camera from YM. Jim had personally met her in the store multiple times to answer all her questions. They said this was typical of the recognition they get just living their lives among their customers.

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If customers want a selfie with Robby—and they do—they have to visit the store

Moreover, online reviews take on oversized importance when customers are considering driving six hours to get to a store. The YM team immediately responds to Google, Yelp and Facebook comments or reviews. Multiple store personnel can respond. Responses are prompted 24/7 and polite, regardless of the customer’s vitriol.

“You’re not so much answering that one customer; you’re answering the hundreds and thousands of lurkers who are reading the exchange. Most potential customers can read between the lines and determine if the complaining reviewer is a jerk. However, the retailer can’t call him a jerk. We take the high road, as frustrating as that can sometimes be,” Robby says.

“Did we screw up? If so, let’s say so.” Part of the YM magic is admitting they’re human. This can mean leaving live bloopers on Facebook or apologizing when a special order went sideways—even if it was the manufacturer’s error. Earnest apologies go a long way. “Untruthful answers erode customer confidence and you’re toast forever. Don’t risk it,” Jim instructs new and old employees.

A Welcoming Touch

For some customers, it’s very awkward to come into a camera store seeking help when the camera wasn’t purchased from the store. YM reduces that angst by saying, “You’re our customer now. We’ll put you on our e-mail list. You’re welcome at all our events.” YMcamera.com-in-iPad

When customers call on the phone, the YM team tries to go beyond price and availability questions. “What do you like taking pictures of?” can be an ice breaker to get the customer to talk and potentially establish a connection with YM camera.

If all the customer gets is price and availability, YM would be the same as every other retailer. YM also offers free calibrations on certain lenses as a way to entice the fence-sitting customer.

The YM Culture

Customers and employees talk about YM’s culture. Jim defines it as “just being nice to people. Just be nice; don’t talk down to customers, vendors or employees. Don’t make life difficult. It’s not hard.”

He also tries to be on the sales floor to thank customers in a slightly different way than most store owners. He opens with, “You spend a lot of money at YM camera. We value you as a good customer and appreciate your support. Thank you.”

Jim believes acknowledging the customer is important and made an investment in YM changes the dynamic from a routine thank you to a real human connection. Watching customers’ facial expressions and body language when Jim does this, it’s hard to argue with his approach.

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Handwritten thank you notes are part of the YM camera culture.

The team’s welcoming approach also extends to online orders. Each has a personalized note, oftentimes written and signed by Robby or Jim, with their business card attached.

Store manager Jim Stamm started in 2004. He reinforces the requirement that customers must feel safe and comfortable regardless of their skill level. The goal is to be nonintimidating and approachable.

Emily Meals became Emily Yankush last August. Like her mother-in-law, Laura, Emily doesn’t take active part in YM camera management. She is an HR professional and has spoken on HR at PRO conventions. Jim and Robby had to attend the PRO convention to hear Emily recommend, “Don’t hire someone for tomorrow’s position. Hire them for a year from now.” They’ve followed that advice with superb results.

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An inviting staircase to the new second-level loft draws customers upstairs to the learning space.

In addition, Jim used the recent corporate tax cut funds to cover increased pay for employees, add a new employee, add inventory and, with used accelerated depreciation, finance the new loft.

Pro Bolsters YM’s YouTube Presence

It took Heather Lahtinen, founder of Weddings by Heather and the Flourish Academy for photographers, more than 10 years before she found YM—an hour’s drive away. Robby reached out to her on social media. That week, Heather drove to Youngstown to visit the store.

“It was obvious we had similar business goals: to inspire hobbyists and aspiring professionals to flourish as photographers.” Without any formal paperwork, Heather and YM camera started working together. Heather needed products to review for her YouTube channel and private Facebook groups. YM had their hands full keeping their Facebook presence topically current. Without formally acknowledging it, YM saw Heather as an ambassador and delegated their YouTube presence to her.

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YMcamera.com features online print ordering.

Many of her videos include equipment made available through YM. “We keep each other relevant, too,” Heather says. “I’m still shooting weddings professionally. I’ve got my finger on the pulse of professional photographers and YM knows what the equipment trends are.”

Robby is quick to admit, “If we didn’t have Heather on our team, we’d have to find someone like her. That would be hard because she’s one of a kind.” Heather understands the needs of the store and promotes it as much as is practical. She also preaches to her audiences and clients the importance of doing business with people who are there locally when you need them.

In addition, Heather frequently tells viewers to patronize YM camera because, without their support, she would have higher costs; meaning fewer free videos and/or higher prices on the videos she charges for. The viewer is given the rationale for why it’s important to patronize YM camera. “If you want people to respond, you have to give them a reason that appeals to them,” Heather explains.

Advice for Photo Retailers

It’s not uncommon for employees to hear “I want what Heather uses.” Customers come in or call asking for “Heather’s filters,” etc.

How can retailers find someone like her in their market? Heather suggests following photographers online. As you find photographic influencers, see what they’re doing and how you might help them. Maybe loaning a piece of new gear or letting them test a new lens can start a relationship.

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YM loves to host (for free!) camera and community clubs, like this local entrepreneur group. The store is a collective for creators and artists.

You’re looking for a photographer who has a lot of photographers following her—an influencer. Wedding photographers with 1,000 brides following them aren’t as important to you as a photographer with 100 other photographers following her.

The future of YM camera and photo retail? Robby can see the differences between today and yesteryear. “December isn’t our biggest sales month anymore.” Jim explains: “The industry is back to where it was fifty years ago.” Robby grins, “We’re a specialty store that’s special to hobbyists and professionals. The future is event and education focused. As long as we’re continuing to educate, entertain and excite, then we have a great future. I’m all in!”

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Out-of-store classes and photo walks are important to keep the community engaged.

It’s pretty clear that this third-generation photo retailer continues to be successful because it continues to evolve with customer preferences. They have harnessed the twin assets of creating both a warm, inviting physical retail presence and an active social media marketing strategy.

At the core of both is detailed attention to the customer experience. The secret ingredient is YM camera’s ability to create, both in-store and online, a passion and enthusiasm for the joys of photography that attracts customers well beyond their geographic region. We are pleased to honor YM camera as Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2019 E-tailer of the Year!

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