Fostering success with a dedicated, knowledgeable staff and a wide-ranging, deep inventory—as well as creating customer loyalty by providing that little something extra
Why has this unique family-owned enterprise been able to expand when so many other specialty retailers in our industry are treading water, or worse? Obviously, it’s because they’re doing something right. Actually, Mike’s Camera, headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, is essentially doing everything right. Chief among their achievements is inspiring a heartfelt team spirit among their friendly, knowledgeable staff and really going out of their way to give customers that little something extra.
Mike’s Camera, founded back in 1967, will be celebrating their 50th anniversary next year. But its rise to prominence as Colorado’s leading photo specialty retailer and a photofinishing dynamo really began in 1980 when the original, much smaller Mike’s Camera was purchased by Kaloust Christianian. Today, the present owners are Jirair, Alex and Vahe Christianian, Kaloust’s three remarkable sons who began taking over the business around 1989.
The family, of Armenian descent, emigrated to the U.S. from Beirut, Lebanon, and they obviously brought their forward-looking, can-do entrepreneurial spirit with them. Over the ensuing years, the photo specialty dealer has steadily expanded in terms of both size and diversity. Mike’s Camera now numbers 11 store locations, six in Colorado and five in Northern California. The main store and corporate headquarters opened in 1993, and the second and third stores in the Denver area opened in the mid-1990s.
Elements for Success
The flagship Mike’s Camera location in Boulder, Colorado, is one of the most amazing retail spaces I’ve ever experienced. It’s bright, immaculate, colorful, spectacularly spacious, meticulously organized and replete with a profuse assortment of merchandise on view and touchable—and interspersed with numerous, brilliantly designed, motivational displays. It’s overwhelming in the best possible way. It conveys the not-so-subliminal impression that this store is the source for any equipment, services or information a photographer of any level could possibly want—and that the people who run it really know what they’re doing and want to help.
Even the coordinated colors of the signage and the typefaces used are crisp, contemporary and inviting. Nobody has to tell customers, “We carry the full line of five major camera bag companies and four major tripod makers for your shopping
convenience.” Or, “We offer dozens of different ways of printing out and sharing your photos, including making photo books, cards, cups, charms, toys and apparel.” Or, “We have a cleanly styled, spacious and inviting kiosk area and a complete high-end framing service upstairs.” Customers just have to walk around the store, with eyes open, and they’ll get the message loud and clear—this is their one-stop imaging resource.
Then there’s the staff; it’s a really great group of bright, talented, sincere, dedicated people. They truly embody the Mike’s Camera concept of team spirit and the sincere desire to help the customer in any way they can. This is not something you can fake, and overhearing the friendly, empathetic interactions between customers and staff, whether behind the impressively long camera counter or out on the floor, validated this impression.
These folks are also very knowledgeable about the areas they serve, whether they’re working in the camera department, framing department or monitoring the photo kiosk area. It’s clear that their focus is on listening to their customers and satisfying their needs and desires rather than on just selling for the sake of bolstering the bottom line. They know that this honest, forthright approach is the best way to build customer relationships—and that is the key element that ensures the company’s growth and long-term success.
Embracing Niche Markets
Another crucial element that differentiates Mike’s Camera from many other imaging retailers is its willingness to support and embrace niche markets. For example, in the Boulder store you’ll find an amazing selection of fabric backdrops and advanced studio lighting equipment, including floods, strobes and reflectors; a small, well-stocked darkroom department with paper, chemicals, tanks, trays, tongs, thermometers and lots more; and a little boutique devoted solely to GoPro cameras, accessories and assorted gear.
Upstairs there’s a sophisticated, large-format printing operation that can turn out huge prints, advertisement materials and photomurals in virtually any size and on any material, including canvas and metallic media. There’s also a complete darkroom with C-41, E-6 and black-and-white processing capabilities.
A Rental Center
Additionally, a well-stocked rental center offers a wide range of high-end equipment that’s available for pickup next day in any of the six Colorado stores (and returnable to any of the stores), while an in-house repair department is efficiently set up to send out warranty and other repairs.
Why has this unique family-owned enterprise been able to expand when so many other specialty retailers in our industry are treading water, or worse? Obviously, it’s because they’re doing something right. Actually, Mike’s Camera, headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, is essentially doing everything right.
The Learning Center
A key component of the Mike’s Camera success story is the Learning Center, which is now slated to move to a larger, upgraded upstairs location in the Boulder store. Any customer that buys a camera from Mike’s automatically gets a free half-hour, one-on-one consultation with the salesperson that sold it. If for some reason that person is unavailable, a staff member thoroughly familiar with the equipment will stand in. This gives the buyer the opportunity to ask questions and run through all the camera’s modes and functions.
In addition, the customer receives two free tickets to Learning Center classes. They include Basic Digital SLR courses. The courses cover photographic concepts like image quality, white balance settings, lens selection and automatic versus program mode; and Advanced Digital SLR classes that present information on depth-of-field and focus control, spot metering and understanding histograms.
Normally, these 2½-hour courses cost $59. However, attendees receive a $10 coupon they can use toward purchasing anything in any of the stores. Other popular classes offered are Compact Digital Cameras and Cell Phone Photography. In addition, there are brand-specific seminars that bring together, for example, groups of Nikon or Canon shooters.
Mike’s Camera also offers an extensive program of workshops with schedules that can be followed on Facebook. Each one typically consists of three parts: a content-based lecture; a hands-on field shoot at a zoo, park or mountain location; and a critique. Participants bring two or three of their favorite images to be evaluated by the group and the instructor. Seeing the same subject shot with different eyes really helps to expand everyone’s creative horizons. Indeed, elevating the customer’s shooting experience and satisfaction through education is one of the company’s most effective ways to establish genuine and heartfelt relationships with their customers.
Another unique aspect of the Mike’s Camera corporate culture is its long-held belief that each customer-service employee must be fully competent in a broad range of photographic knowledge. As a result, each service staff member is required to qualify as a Certified Photographic Consultant (CPC). In addition, they must maintain that status.
The CPC program, developed by the Photo Marketing Association International (PMA), is a comprehensive educational program. It encompasses photography, digital imaging and also aspects of photographic technology. A sister program under the auspices of the Society of Photofinishing Engineers provides similar education. It also provides testing for lab technicians. This ensures the highest level of quality as well as consistency in processing and printing images.
The primary goal of these intensive programs is enhanced picture-taking enjoyment and greater overall customer satisfaction. But they also results in a higher level of empowerment and a sense of accomplishment among employees.
Doing It Right
There’s a lot more one could say about Mike’s Camera and its “do everything and do it right” business model. Its membership in the PRO Group. An incredibly broad selection of equipment and services, including pro-grade video cameras, editing and audiovisual equipment. An extensive user base of commercial-industrial, law-enforcement as well as educational photographers. A robust presence on eBay. And also its active participation in providing booths, point-of-purchase materials and signage for trade shows.
However, the clearest, most concise statement of why Mike’s Camera has been named Digital Imaging Reporter’s Dealer of the Year for 2015 was delivered by Alex Christianian. We asked him directly, “What’s the ‘special sauce’ that differentiates Mike’s Camera and makes it stand out?”
His illuminating reply says it all: “Two things. Number 1, an unequivocal YES! Whatever a customer wants to do, we find a way to say yes and to make it happen. Thinking outside the box and adapting to whatever the customer needs is the key to customer loyalty.
“Number 2, great +1 service. That little extra something, the +1, is what really makes a positive difference in the customer interaction. It is also their take-away for choosing to shop at Mike’s Camera. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It’s more like a little unexpected thing that takes the experience to another level. It’s something that really puts a smile on the customer’s face and also makes them want to visit us again.”
And those sentiments and retail principles are exactly why Mike’s Camera is Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2015 Dealer of the Year.