It is tempting to assume that National Camera Exchange was selected as Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2014 Dealer of the Year because they just happen to be celebrating their centenary anniversary this year.
It’s really what lies behind that impressive record of longevity, their steadfast commitment to delivering the ultimate in customer service, and their willingness to evolve with the times that make this unique and successful family business worthy of this high honor.
Headquartered in Golden Valley, Minnesota, National Camera Exchange was established back in 1914 as a small store in downtown Minneapolis by Herman Liss. His son, Mort, joined the company in the 1930s, and the third generation took the helm in 1978 when Jon Liss, Mort’s son, became president.
National Camera Exchange began expanding in 1981 and now has five stores, each with its own distinctive personality and demographic, and all located in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
The influence of Herman Liss, a colorful character and inveterate horse trader, is still enshrined in National Camera’s business model. And while they’re unlikely to accept a Harley-Davidson motorcycle or a Saint Bernard dog in trade as Mort did back in the day, they still do a brisk business in trading and selling used equipment, both in store and online. Indeed, it accounts for about 10% of their revenue.
To get a real feel for this venerable business, we visited the main store and corporate headquarters in Golden Valley, about a half-hour cab ride from the Twin Cities airport. We spoke to Jon Liss and his right-hand man, the company’s vice president, Mike Lamotte—both of whom have been with National Camera for more than 40 years.
How does a camera store manage to stay in business, much less expand and prosper, for 100 years when so many have fallen by the wayside? “Customer service beyond what anyone would expect,” answered Liss without hesitation. “We’ve had people come in with cameras they’ve bought from other stores, and we take the time to explain how to use them. If a customer asks for help, we have only one answer, and that answer is yes.”
“In addition to providing exceptional customer service, we serve our customers by offering a very wide range of products at competitive prices, both in our stores and online,” added Lamotte. “We carry pretty much everything that’s out there, and we’ll order virtually any item the customer wants. We also have an excellent and growing photofinishing business that offers an extensive range of photo-gifting options, such as mugs, calendars, photo books and wall art. And there’s a good balance between standard prints and creative services. Indeed, boutique photo services are growing fast, and this year prints on canvas or metal are up 27% over last year.
“We have knowledgeable and friendly people on call at all our photo kiosks,” Lamotte continued, “and we provide 100% quality control and inspection on all photo services, and we reprint whenever the results don’t meet our high standards. We’re also in the process of expanding our rental business, which we know will become a stronger revenue stream. Frankly, it was a boost for us when Ritz went out of business, but only because we were able to fill the gap with first-rate services and products to attract and retain new customers.
“Our photo classes are another significant part of building long-term customer relationships,” explained Lamotte. “Our instructors have more than 100 years of combined experience, and every camera or camcorder we sell, regardless of price, comes with a package of four free tickets to introductory photo classes. We also offer one-on-one photo instruction, by appointment only, at $99 a session.
“Here’s a cool stat: according to our director of Education, 15,000 people attended our free classes this past year alone. We offer three to six classes a week at our five different locations, and that doesn’t include educational events where experts from Nikon, Canon, Sony and Tamron, etc., come in, or special events we host at the local arboretum and various other venues.
“Another thing we’re focusing on is expanding our online presence. We’ve recently redesigned our entire website to make it cleaner, better organized and much easier to use, and we’re running online photo contests as well. When people order online, we treat them with the same honesty and respect as when they visit the store,” said Lamotte. “Exceeding people’s expectations—that’s what we strive for.”
“We also train our salespeople to qualify every customer to determine what they really need,” added Liss. “We are not shy about suggesting a less expensive product if that will do the job. That’s because establishing trust and confidence are ultimately more important than any short-term monetary gain. That’s one reason we offer a 30-day satisfaction guarantee on any new or used camera we sell. We encourage people to try it out and see if it works for them. And we do not charge any restocking fee so long as it’s returned in like-new condition.”
Lamotte continued, “Are there occasionally people who take advantage of this policy to get to use a camera for free with no intention of buying it? Sure. However, it’s important to go beyond what big box and most Internet stores offer to create a class of customers I call advocates for National Camera. These people spread the word, and so far this policy has been very successful. We’re small, which means we can be more nimble and flexible, and that’s just one way of leveraging this advantage. Essentially, we operate on the basis of one overarching principle that’s known as the Golden Rule.”
Five Stores, Each with Its Own Personality
The five National Camera Exchange stores, all located in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, serve a population of 3.7 million people, including the suburbs. Minnesota’s Twin Cities are home to such major corporations as Cargill, General Mills and 3M. The area is also an important center for computer and information technology.
While all five stores embody the same consumer-centric culture and basic business model, Jon Liss does not believe in a cookie-cutter or “template” approach to corporate diversification. As a result, each store has its own separate management and distinctive personality that reflect its location and demographic. Here’s a quick rundown.
This is the highest volume retail location in the National Camera Exchange group. The store is located in the affluent western suburb of Golden Valley. It’s an area with many professional people with high median incomes and educational levels. With 5,000 square feet of retail space, the Golden Valley store is also corporate headquarters. It is designed to look like a camera with its large circular front window. Inside, it is clean, bright and meticulously organized.
It’s also inviting, easy to navigate and provides an impressive visual “wow” factor. That is thanks to its high ceilings and unified space. The location also houses the central photo lab for custom printing and gifting. There are also a used equipment department and eBay staff, and the in-house advertising staff. A freestanding building built in 1984, it has the largest selection of new and especially used products in the group.
The second highest volume retail location in the National Camera group, it’s located in the St. Paul suburb of Roseville and draws customers from St. Paul and its eastern suburbs. The store provides 6,200 square feet of retail space. It is located in a busy strip mall across from the larger Rosedale Center regional mall. It has a photo print lab of its own, and its dedicated classroom can accommodate up to 50 customers.
This 5,200-square-foot store is located in the affluent suburb of Edina. This is also an area with high median incomes and education levels. It’s in a strip mall that’s two blocks from the Southdale Center mall on busy France Avenue; it, too, draws customers from the surrounding affluent suburbs. This store sells large quantities of high-end cameras to its sophisticated and knowledgeable customers. It also has a photo print lab and a dedicated classroom that accommodates 25 customers.
Measuring around 6,000 square feet, the Burnsville store is located in the southern metro area of the Twin Cities. It draws customers primarily from the older, established suburbs south of the Minnesota River and southern Minnesota. It’s situated across from the Burnsville Center regional mall. The freestanding building includes a photo lab and a classroom that can handle up to 60 customers.
Maple Grove is the largest of the National Camera Exchange stores. Boasting a retail space of 7,700 square feet, it’s situated in the northwest suburb of Maple Grove. It’s located in The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes, a very affluent lifestyle mall. The store has a younger, high-income demographic with a preponderance of young families. It offers a photo print lab and a classroom that can seat 50 customers.
All five National Camera Exchange stores feature an extensive photo kiosk area. Customers can order photos, metal and canvas prints, and gifts and greeting cards. They can also receive guidance and advice from an expert photo staff. All these services are also available online at natcam.com.
Management and Staff: The Right Stuff
Certainly, one of the main reasons National Camera Exchange continues to be a successful and thriving enterprise after more than a century in business is that it is run by thoughtful, experienced people. People who are adaptable, forward looking and truly care about people and the community.
It’s also evident that the leadership of this company is equally adept at selecting employees with the right stuff. The knowledgeable, friendly staff is personally dedicated to upholding and embodying the company’s core values of extraordinary service and unimpeachable integrity.
Many great stores have dedicated and friendly people working for them. However, whether I was chatting about classic cameras with Eric Kleiner, the used camera guy, asking the staff at the gifting display which items sold best, or talking to the custom printing personnel about quality control, it was clear these people are a special breed. This staff transcends the usual concepts of team spirit and customer service.
They are nothing less than evangelists for a way of thinking that is unfortunately too rare in today’s corporate world. Like Jon Liss and Mike Lamotte, they really care and will do anything to help customers. Ultimately, they are what make National Camera such a unique and enduring establishment.
DIR’s 2014 Dealer of the Year: National Camera Exchange
By the way, speaking of team spirit, some of the charming historical pictures accompanying this feature were taken from a beautifully printed 12×12-inch, 84-page hardcover commemorative book. It is titled National Camera Exchange 1914–2014—100 Years.
The opening page bears this simple, eloquent dedication, “To: Jon Liss; From: The staff of National Camera Exchange.”
That really tells you all you need to know about why National Camera Exchange was selected Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2014 Dealer of the Year.