Hunt’s Photo & Video is a vibrant, innovative, eight-store family enterprise that proudly proclaims itself as “New England’s Largest Photography Retailer.” It is also one of the nation’s oldest, having evolved from an iconic New England drugstore chain with an early Kodak franchise established by William B. Hunt way back in 1889.
By the early 1950s, Hunt Drug had been acquired by Solomon Farber, one of the store’s pharmacists. Farber ran it with his sons as a family business based in Malden Center, not far from the present flagship store in Melrose, Massachusetts.
Hunt’s really began building its camera business under the visionary leadership of Solomon’s son Jack, who recognized the great upside potential of photography and astutely foresaw the inevitable demise of small neighborhood pharmacies, as national chains and supermarkets took over that market.
Since then, Hunt’s has steadily expanded and now has stores in Melrose, Cambridge, Boston, Hadley and Hanover, Massachusetts; Manchester, New Hampshire; Portland, Maine; and Providence, Rhode Island.
A Transformational Vision
By 1992, the shift away from the pharmacy and into the cameras and accessories business was complete; the pharmacy closed and selling imaging equipment became the sole mission of what is now Hunt’s Photo & Video.
Sadly, Jack Farber passed away in 2006, but not before he gave his sons the priceless experience of working in the business and learning the ropes by making real decisions and dealing with the consequences. As a result of his wise and loving “hands-off” guidance, his son Scott Farber was able to take over as president of the company seven years ago when he was only 28 years old. Despite facing a challenging and rapidly changing retail environment, Scott has steadfastly applied a rational, responsive, clear-sighted and integrated strategy to expand and enhance the company’s value and presence immensely, creating one of the most successful and promising imaging-based enterprises in the country.
An Awesome Retail Space: A Comprehensive Website
Hunt’s flagship store at 100 Main Street in Melrose, Massachusetts, off of Interstate 93 and eight miles north of Boston, is a large, imposing brick structure that’s austere on the outside. But once you walk through the doors and look around, all you can say is “Wow!”
It’s an immense 10,000-square-foot retail space that is bright, inviting, clean, clearly delineated and extremely well organized, with virtually every product line displayed in its entirety. Along the left-hand wall are sections emblazoned with company logos, complete with counters and informational video screens, covering all the major camera brands—Sony, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Panasonic, Olympus, Leica, etc.
There are full lines of printing paper, ink and printers on display, along with forests of tripods, wide aisles devoted to Tenba, Tamrac, Lowepro and Domke bags, to name a few, a profusion of frames, lighting equipment, used cameras and much, much more—all directly visible, approachable and touchable by customers.
In fact, it is as if every SKU listed on the comprehensive, interactive Hunt’s website is made available for customers to handle and experience in person.
Indeed, the secret of Hunt’s straightforward business model, perfected by Scott Farber, is that every element of the business—the brick-and-mortar stores, the website and the entire Internet retailing operation, including Hunt’s Amazon site and eBay store—is fully integrated to reinforce one another. And they all work together to expand the Hunt’s brand and enhance its power and presence among consumers.
In short, what Scott Farber has accomplished in the past seven years is to take his father’s vision to a new level, transforming Hunt’s Photo & Video into a nimble and proactive business destined to survive and prosper in the frenetically advancing technological environment of the 21st century.
It hasn’t been an easy transition. “When I first came into the business full-time in 1999, we were going through a rocky time,” recalls Scott Farber. “We were heavily into distribution and wholesaling, serving retailers all across the country, and in 1997 we had expanded our operation by acquiring SBI sales with stores in Boston, Providence and Cambridge.
“We weren’t computerized at the time, and reconfiguring existing stores is really not the way to go, so it really didn’t work out. But it taught us a lot. Basically, we learned how to run a multi-store chain properly and efficiently, how to manage remote stores, and since our wholesale business was declining, how to identify and concentrate on our core mission—retail.
“We restructured and stopped participating in big shows like the Photo Show at the World Trade Center in Boston, because the logistics wouldn’t support it, and we came out at the other end a much healthier retail-focused company, fully computerized and engaged in the modern era.
“We still actively participate in the trade show business,” continues Farber, “because it allows us to be a national chain. And with so many local camera stores now gone, we use this as a way to meet people across the country, collect their names and establish a relationship with them online. It’s well worth it even if we just break even in terms of sales.
“We may also open additional stores going forward,” he adds, “but we know that to be a viable camera store, we must be able to draw on a population of around 200,000 and be able to sell 1,000–2,000 cameras a year to generate a sufficient accessory business. That’s why we’re the only camera store in Rhode Island and one of only two in Boston.
“When we asked respondents why they would not shop at a camera store, we expected the top reason would be the perception that prices would be higher than online stores, but it was actually the lack of any camera stores near where they live! Information like this, and feedback from in-store customers who preferred to be left alone while they browsed rather than being asked ‘May I help you?’ led us to investigate and refresh our whole approach to consumers’ online experience.
“We considered the preferences of younger customers that see advantages in an impersonal experience,” Farber says, “and in being able to return things without having to explain their reasons. I took a close look at the way Amazon treats their customers and realized I had to at least offer that, and hopefully much more.”
The Online Experience
Hunt’s has responded to its research and customer feedback by creating one of the most attractive, engaging and dynamic interactive websites of any photo retailer in the country—a site that carries the not-so-subliminal messages that it represents an immense enterprise run by cool, knowledgeable people who really know what they’re doing.
The site has an ever-changing Product Highlights screen in the center; a crisply written About Us section, including Caring for the Community and Awards sections; and active links for signing up to receive Hunt’s e-mail specials, ordering prints and accessing newly added and preorder items.
Also featured on the website are an interactive Most Popular Products list, Facebook and eBay auction links, a used equipment link and an astonishingly comprehensive alphabetical list of active links to specific brands, products and manufacturers, ranging from Acme Made and Acratech to Zigview and Zoom, listed vertically along the lower right-hand side of the page.
“We have a custom developer who puts very specific niche products up on the website, and we’re often the first to list smaller niche products that are hard to find elsewhere,” Farber notes.
“As for pricing, we’re not willing to move on pricing just to maintain market share online, because we see it as an adjunct to our more profitable in-store business. Besides, our relationships with manufacturing partners are too important to us to allow us to undercut MAP pricing, and I can’t drop a price online without also dropping it in my stores, which I am unwilling to do.
“Whatever we’re doing must be on the right track, because the traffic to our site is mind-blowing.”
“Online is an extension of what’s happening in our store,” Farber continues. “When someone leaves our store, we make sure they’ve had a shopping experience that is unmatched by any other retail store—and our goal is to take that philosophy and apply it to the online shopping experience as well.
“Our e-tailing is broken down into five key elements. 1) The website, which is the cornerstone. 2) Amazon. Dancing with the devil, perhaps, but it’s a crucial part of our business where we can selectively sell products we’ve acquired in special deals, limited distribution items not sold in our stores and refurbished items; in short, items you’re not going to find everywhere or have a limited dealer base. 3) eBay. It’s a great and efficient way to sell used and unique niche items in a short time frame. 4) Social media. Facebook is a great way to communicate with your customers on a daily basis. It’s not about sales, but about selling photography. Every Tuesday we do Tuesday Trivia where we have people identify, say, a backside view of an obscure camera, guess when it was made, etc. We offer large prizes, like a photo safari to North Dakota. This makes our corporation a person—it gives us a face. For example, we used Facebook to tell people that our building is now solar powered and to show the installation. It’s part of our personality and it expands our universe of next-generation customers. We have over 7,000 faithful followers. 5) E-mail blasts. We make it easy to sign up, and it offers us a way to showcase unique products and special deals. It has a 30% open rate, which is unheard of, and over 20k+ re-forwards every two to three weeks, so we know it’s a great way to communicate.”
But Hunt’s e-tailing strategy is not just about the numbers. “Our overall online sales, including eBay and Amazon, account for around 10% of our revenue,” concludes Scott Farber. “While that’s substantial, it doesn’t really convey just how important e-tailing is to our brand identity and our overall success.
“What we’ve done is to marry our in-store presence with our web presence and the resultant synergy has proven to be a very successful strategy. It will be even more crucial as technology continues to transform customers’ buying experiences going forward.”
And that’s why Hunt’s Photo & Video was selected as DIR’s first E-tailer of the Year.