Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2015 E-tailer of the Year: Adorama

Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2015 E-tailer of the Year: Adorama

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Adorama is one of the largest photo specialty retailers in New York City, and its impressive single location store at 42 West 18th Street in Manhattan has been tastefully remodeled over the years. It is now one of the classiest, most inviting retail spaces of its kind in the Big Apple.

Serving the photographic industry for more than 35 years, Adorama has grown from its flagship store to become a leading online destination for photography, imaging and consumer electronics at Adorama.com. Its comprehensive product offerings encompass home entertainment, mobile computing and professional video and audio segments.

Adorama’s services include an in-house photo lab, pro equipment rental and the award-winning Adorama Learning Center, which offers free education for photographers in video channels such as the popular AdoramaTV. AdoramaPix.com is a premier online source for a wide-ranging menu of creative photo merchandise and photofinishing, from photo books, cards and calendars to prints on metal or canvas and home décor. AdoramaTV is Adorama’s YouTube channel, which hosts four educational shows: Digital Photography One-on-One; How’d They Do That; Product Reviews; and Photography App Reviews.

To learn about the fascinating history of Adorama, its roots, the e-tail side of the business, and why it has been named Digital Imaging Reporter’s E-tailer of the Year for 2015, we interviewed Ahron Schachter, Adorama’s engaging and articulate director of Strategic Planning and ambassador.

“Adorama was established in 1978 by founder Mendel Mendlowits, who originally came to America from Hungary with two Leica cameras over his shoulder,” recalls Schachter. “He’s always had a personal passion for cameras and gadgets, not surprising since his family ran an imaging (photo retail) business in Europe.

“Mr. Mendlowits began buying and selling cameras on the side before establishing the business. He knew he wanted to get involved in people’s hobbies and passion, because camera enthusiasts and pro photographers always kept coming back to buy film, straps, cases, lenses and a plethora of related accessories and services. He understood that interaction with customers is essential to establishing ongoing relationships. And he also knew there is no engagement when the interaction is based only on price—getting the best deal.

“That’s why we take what we call the ‘boutique approach’ of building customer relationships and only carry items with some specific connection to the imaging workflow—it’s in our DNA. If we sell TVs, they’re 4K 80-inch TVs that allow 4K video shooters to view the images in UHD.

“Back in the day, Mr. Mendlowits’s father had a wholesale photography business that became a storefront located a few blocks from our current location,” continues Schachter. “Then in 1978 we moved to 34th Street, close to the present B&H store. Ironically, at that time B&H was on 17th Street, so you could say we switched locations :).

“The early business that became Adorama started around 1963 and was officially incorporated in 1977. By the ’70s we were authorized Nikon, Canon and Leica dealers. The present store was physically here in 1978, and before that Mr. M’s father and brother ran Masel Supply Co., a well-known importer of photo accessories. This store started out at one location, here on 18th Street. From the beginning we were authorized Nikon, Canon, Kodak and Olympus dealers, and we also ran a mail-order business out of the store with a staff of 20 sales associates. At that time, we took out detailed ads in the major monthly photo magazines, listing specific equipment and prices because prices were reasonably stable then.

“Mr. Mendlowits is proud that we are an authorized vendor,” notes Schachter. “And because we buy direct from the major manufacturers and distributors, we get the latest equipment first and can address warranty issues more quickly and efficiently.

“Being honest with customers is our byword. Mail-order sales to hobbyists are kind of like a glorified pushcart. More accurately, they’re like a big hardware store—Lowe’s, for example—where you can always get what you need to finish the job, along with friendly, professional advice on how to do it. Many of our sales associates, both in the store and on the phone, have been with us 20 to 30 years.

“We pride ourselves on the depth and breadth of the merchandise we stock, and it is our goal to be a ‘destination location’ for customers and to have the products they need in stock. To serve our customers in specific niches, we invest in inventory, even in small product categories. For example, these include film channels to serve photography students whose buying patterns peak at specific times of the year. Retailers that are overly concerned about maintaining lean inventories at all costs just don’t get it. But as a result of our policy, categories that may have shrunk overall have grown for us, such as film and chemicals.”

A Pioneer E-tailer

“Adorama was one of the first e-tailers to focus our efforts beyond the local level,” observes Schachter. “We aimed to achieve a national reach. We sold it, packaged it and got it out the door. At one point we were practically the only game in town to do so efficiently in an integrated way.

“Eugene, Mr. M’s son who is now president of the company, remembers personally packing items and running to the UPS truck to get them delivered! Today, we have a large distribution warehouse in Elizabeth, New Jersey. It used to be an old airplane hangar and is as big as a football field. If you can picture Hasidic Jews running around on Segways, that will give you an idea of its unique character.

“What catapulted us in that direction was the Internet, plus perhaps some ‘customer conditioning’ by big companies like Amazon that spurred Internet purchases. Mr. M clearly saw this as the next phase in creating the best customer communication, and thereby providing better and more convenient ways to enhance customer service.

“Perhaps the main reason we have been named an e-tailer has to do with the core values in our DNA: honesty, integrity and putting the customer first. Backing that up is our cohesive partnerships with manufacturers that let us come to market first with the latest products and help us build the allegiance of our customers, which inevitably makes them repeat customers.

“This is the only successful strategy for organic plus growth,” adds Schachter. “Anyone can run ads for cameras at well below the going price or run a flash sale, but where is the customer’s allegiance? In providing fair prices, accurate timely information and unsurpassed customer service, we serve the hobbyist’s passion and the professional’s livelihood. How? We do it by building customer loyalty and a committed customer base. We educate our customers to achieve a better and more satisfying experience with whatever they’re doing.

“You can go to AdoramaTV and see a pro-caliber studio video on how to use a newly released product, and it’s viewable the moment that product is released. And you can access Adorama website productions via Vimeo and YouTube. In addition, the Adorama Learning Center provides an incredible array of how-to articles, product reviews and creative projects by knowledgeable writers and photographers that are also available via social media, e-mail, radio and at in-store events. Taken as a whole, this is all part of our coordinated marketing strategy, and that includes vendor relationships and merchandising, which means everybody is getting what they want.

“Our early strength in mail order is what led us directly into e-tailing,” Schachter continues. “However, what differentiates our approach to e-tailing and takes it to the next level is the caliber of customer interactivity we deliver. If we are just selling on price, we know there’s no sustainable growth, and that is why elevating the customer’s experience is crucial.

“On the other hand, that’s why selling products without any underlying passion results in a lower percentage of returning customers. We know we must go with the times and sell gadgets that touch our customers. For example, we wouldn’t sell air conditioners just because we could get a great deal on a bulk purchase, because they don’t touch our customer base. But if that air conditioner had a built-in face recognition system based on capturing an image, that would provide a contact point with our customers’ DNA. You have to know where you’re coming from. The Apple iPhone is both a picture-taking and image-transfer device, and we are an authorized Apple dealer and sell a ton of them.

“We are also number one in selling high-end computers, because sophisticated imaging requires high-end image processors. That’s why we’re invited to Intel conferences. It’s also why we offer products by Lenovo and Samsung, LG and Panasonic 4K TVs,” Schachter explains. “You can view 4K on some high-end computers, but what 4K video shooters really want to view them on is a curved-screen 4K TV. In other words, consumer demand is what has made 4K TVs part of the high-end digital workflow. As e-tailers, we must be future directed. Streaming UHD content also ties in with the ultra-high-end, broadcast-quality video market, because these people really care about the image.

“We create bundles consisting of really high-performance items to serve and incentivize that deeply committed market segment. Pro audio is also an essential part of the high-end digital workflow, and so are drones with cameras. The message: Always engage the customers where they are and always encourage them to move up.

“That’s the reason our robust rental department is a key element in our operation. Frankly, the growth in our rental department has been astronomical, and we offer high-end $30K and $40K professional, broadcast-level cameras and related equipment. With rentals on the Internet soon to come, we’re also able to quickly deliver rental equipment anywhere in the USA. As with all other facets of our business, it’s all about serving the customer.

“Another way we enhance customer connections and profitability is never to sell an item without the necessary accessories that go along with it, such as extra batteries, memory cards, cases, lenses, etc. It’s analogous to a kid receiving a toy on Christmas or Hanukkah without the batteries needed to run it. We want to be sure every customer is able to complete their project when they leave the store, and this also gives them the value of our expertise and helps to forge connections.

“Amazon is one of the online partners that helps us expand our potential customer base,” says Schachter, “but we’re the ones, at Adorama.com, who have the relationships with the manufacturers, the products and the customer. Yes, there are things we can learn from them, but ultimately we have a relationship with our customers based on our knowledge base and deep connections in the imaging industry. There’s a story about two competing hardware stores across the street from one another. The owner of one of the stores notices his competitor Moe has a lot more customers than he does. So he goes across the street to ask him why. Moe replies, ‘Because you’re busy watching me and I don’t bother watching you.’ In other words, Moe was focusing on what his customers were doing, what they needed and how to best meet their needs rather than worrying about the competition. However, imitation can be the sincerest and most effective form of flattery; if you can find out what your competitor is doing better than you, then incorporate a version of that strategy into your own business model.

“At the front of the Adorama store there’s a hands-on school for our customers,” Schachter notes with pride. “The classes, covering all aspects of how to become a better photographer, are given by knowledgeable experts in the field. It’s a win-win that enhances our customers’ total end-to-end experience with photography and helps to create customer loyalty. We also run studio classes and walking tours run by seasoned professional photographers. And our store has been remodeled and visually upgraded to provide a boutique experience that includes literal boutique areas devoted to Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc.”

So why does Adorama only have one store? “Basically our challenge in expanding to other locations boils down to replication and control issues,” explains Schachter, “but we may do so in the future if they can be resolved.

“While many customers do come to our store and most of them say they have a great experience, it really doesn’t make that much difference to us if a sale is retail or e-tail, so long as a genuine personal connection with the customer is made.”

What imaging trends does Schachter see reflected in Adorama customers?

“Things are changing at an astonishing pace due to the rapid advances in technology,” he replies. “The resolution of today’s smartphones is truly remarkable and ‘phonography’ is exploding, with every conceivable accessory now available for them. Indeed, DxO now has an app that will let you shoot RAW images with your cell phone!

“Another fast-emerging trend is the rise of mirrorless cameras, with Nikon and Canon finally poised to release cameras that will compete effectively with Sony and Olympus. Also, making photo books is a hot trend on AdoramaPix, and it’s part of the cutting edge of the digital workflow. We’ve seen an upsurge in making photo books, not only for mom or to commemorate an event like a Bar Mitzvah or family reunion, but also to provide, say, a building contractor with a visual, step-by-step plan for renovating a house!

“We have the in-house ecosystem to handle that workflow. And we’re the ‘king of bundles,’ because all the items we include are top-quality, name-brand products like Lowepro bags or SanDisk and Lexar memory cards. We even offer a free ‘drop and break’ warranty on some new camera purchases. And we’ll offer customers the option of making a photo book for free with the purchase of a camera—and we make those photo books in house!

“Yes the experience of buying equipment has changed just as much as imaging technology has advanced over the past four decades, but what has not changed is what people expect—a user experience bar none,” Schachter proclaims. “The challenge: How does Adorama leverage all its channels and assets to offer not just a great camera at an attractive price but also an authentic life experience?

“Fundamentally, Adorama is not about what we sell or even whom we sell to; it’s about whom we touch. We must always be keenly attuned to what is changing and how the purchasing ideas of our customers are evolving. That’s one reason we’ve been running more brand ads rather than product ads and typically don’t include prices in the print ads we run in the photo fan books. You’ve got to look in the mirror and change to accommodate the latest customer buying patterns.

“A lot of this is data driven,” notes Schachter. “We get quantifiable information by analyzing all touch points with the consumer, including the Adorama Learning Center, and we also use Google Metrics. We ‘know when you didn’t buy’ and that may generate a customer service phone call to find out what, if anything, went wrong. We reach out by sending e-mails and data mining, and we’re thinking of providing even faster delivery times than we do now. I repeat, it’s all about the customer, and price has become the third or fourth parameter in the equation.”

Unsurpassed customer service, fair prices, comprehensive information, an incomparable online presence, and a driving desire and intent to both fuel and satisfy its customers’ passion for photography are all reasons why Adorama was selected as DIR’s 2015 E-tailer of the Year.

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