When you pull up to the understated main entrance of Precision Camera & Video, located in a commercial area that’s a short drive from downtown Austin, Texas, you might think you’re about to enter an ordinary medium-size photo specialty store. What greets you instead is a cavernous, brightly lit 6,000-square-foot retail space that presents a world of fascinating possibilities to any photo enthusiast or picture taker.
There is a prodigious amount of merchandise on display—printing paper and inks, an array of lighting equipment, a huge display of camera bags, a smaller display of tripods, a vast range of photo-related novelty items from mugs to art frames to cell phone cases and, of course, cameras by the carload, with full lines of virtually every major brand plus a veritable arsenal of lenses. Despite the profusion of gear, it’s all neatly organized and inviting, allowing customers to interact with the merchandise.
Nestled among the defined product areas are clearly marked counter spaces for specific types of customer contacts. There’s an attractive drop-off counter for photofinishing orders with a group of six Whitech kiosks nearby, an amazing amount of picture frame options visible behind the cash register, and a well-marked service department for rentals and repairs. It is all dominated by the store’s chief attraction—a large L-shaped area of camera counters for DSLRs, point-and-shoot models, video hardware, lenses, etc., where salespeople and customers congregate for friendly, animated discussions. In short, Precision Camera is a bustling full-service, single-location store that has evolved into a destination location for photography fans of all stripes, from novices and the proverbial soccer moms to serious enthusiasts and pros.
“We’ve got a really great location here in Austin,” said Gregg Burger, Precision’s affable and upbeat general manager—an experienced hands-on photo retailer who’s been with the company for more than seven years. “We have no real competition in our area that’s at our level of inventory depth, service and commitment to promoting involvement with photography, and we serve a community of nearly 1.2 million people who live within a 20-mile radius of this unique and vibrant city that’s a hub of creativity.
“To maintain and enhance our leadership position,” Burger continued, “we have a strong program of community outreach that includes sponsoring the annual Austin Photo Expo at the Austin Conference Center, where we offer free photo lectures by well-known experts like Hanson Fong, not Gary Fong, and present a trade show for displaying and selling merchandise. Our last lecture series was attended by over 1,500 people and far exceeded our expectations. I should also mention that we are members of the PRO group, and the ability to tap into the knowledge base and getting the support of our PRO brothers and sisters continues to contribute to our success.”
Customer-Centric Photofinishing Services
As you would expect, Precision Camera’s formula for incentivizing photo printout at retail is “all channels all the time.” As Cathleen Menke, the store’s photo lab manager explained, “We’re a member of IPI (Independent Photo Imagers) and connected with LifePics for online photofinishing orders. We also run C-41 and E-6 lines in our in-house photo lab using Noritsu and Fujifilm Frontier equipment, and we have a dedicated machine for printing greeting cards, announcements, postcards, etc. Precision also offers shoebox scanning to save customers’ images in digital form. We employ a high-end flatbed scanner to scan old photos, and we do photo restoration and retouching in-house, in addition to offering a wide selection of gift and novelty items that incorporate photo images. We also offer custom framing and canvas printing.
“I’d say that about 20% to 25% of our print orders come though LifePics,” Menke added, “and the majority of the remainder are printed on our kiosks. We try to encourage our customers to print at the kiosks because it’s more efficient for us in terms of staff involvement and profitability. We may have to do a little handholding with new kiosk users at first, but it becomes a satisfying and fulfilling experience for most consumers, and the per-print price is lower than what we call a ‘technician print’ that’s sold over the counter.”
Deep Inventory and a Wide Variety of Merchandise
We then turned to Mark Cooper, the retail store manager, to find out what other factors make Precision Camera so unique and successful. A Brit with an engagingly sarcastic sense of humor, he replied, “Well, as long as we’re standing here in the ink and paper department, I should tell you that one reason it’s so well stocked is that we serve Austin Community College, which has a very active photography department. Students are responsible for buying their own printing materials, and we accommodate them by pre-discounting it to the point that we offer the lowest prices in Texas. Needless to say that also appeals to serious shooters and pros, and incentivizes people to do business with us. It’s one of the many ways in which we win friends and influence people by being an integral part of the photographic community.”
Directing our attention to the camera counter, we observed Gregg Burger knowledgeably helping a customer with a balky digital SLR. When he was done we asked him about the large used camera display case, a fairly uncommon sight in most contemporary camera stores. “We actively buy and sell used equipment,” noted Burger, “and it’s a profitable niche that provides trade-in opportunities for our customers. We focus primarily on late-model stuff rather than collectibles, although 35mm SLRs are still fairly popular among students, and we also sell used equipment on consignment. You’re standing right next to our well-stocked Leica section, something you’re unlikely to find in any camera store in Texas unless you travel to Houston or Dallas. We’ve done very well with the Leica M9 and M9-P, and we sell any Leica M lens we get in stock almost immediately.
“We’ve also done very well with the Fujifilm X100, and we just sold 30 of the new Fujifilm X10, both cameras that appeal to serious enthusiasts. We generally serve a higher end clientele, but that includes everyone from family picture takers to students, serious enthusiasts and pros. Our marketing philosophy is simple: we provide a lot of choice without appearing overpowering to the average consumer.
“In our present location,” continued Burger, “we have about 6,000 square feet of retail space and around 8,000 square feet of space devoted to the warehouse, offices, classrooms for our extensive range of Precision Camera University educational programs, and on-site camera repair facilities. Our size allows us to stock more than other stores, and we pride ourselves on offering a far greater variety of merchandise than other stores. We generally carry the full line of products from major manufacturers and actually have them on display to give our customers a hands-on buying experience.
“This is also our third year sponsoring the Austin Photo Expo, and competitors in other cities are starting to copy us. Off-site we offer a three-day workshop staffed by four professional photographers that’s typically attended by 100 student photographers; it costs about $250 apiece including meals. The renowned Henry Hornstein just had a book signing in our store. In short, we try to cultivate photography in every way we can and to add value to the boxes we sell. That’s why we give a free two-hour photography class plus 30 free prints with every camera we sell.”
A Motivated Staff Excels in Relationship Marketing
Precision Camera & Video not only motivates consumers by prioritizing their needs and enhancing their capability and involvement, it also motivates its sales force with personal involvement on the part of management and cash incentives to sell extended warranties and accessories.
“We meticulously track accessory sales,” observed Mark Cooper, store manager, “and we reward salespeople with specific dollar amounts depending on how many accessory lines they add to each sale, with an extra bonus for being the top accessory seller of the month. As you can see by looking at this confidential chart, most salespeople really get with the program, and those who don’t are encouraged to improve. We know we can’t survive and prosper by making 5% on a camera, and that’s one reason we carefully select our sales staff, many of whom have come to us from places as diverse as Dallas, Los Angeles, Colorado and New Orleans.
“Of course, we’re also committed to customer satisfaction,” added Cooper, “and we want to be sure to sell the right products to the right person—that’s the ultimate goal of relationship marketing, which is really the cornerstone of our success. We also rotate our displays on a regular basis to keep things fresh, and to motivate customers to engage with the products.”
Clearly, having a stable and effective management team and a nimble, responsive and fully engaged business philosophy has had its rewards. Precision now has a total of 46 employees, including management, and it has posted overall sales increases of 15% last year and 12% this year—impressive figures indeed in this challenging economic environment. As Craig Mayhew, Precision’s buyer cogently observed, “The owners, Jerry and Rosemary Sullivan, have put together a management team that has done very well indeed, and they have fostered a customer-centric corporate culture that encourages friendly interaction and phenomenal service that turns people into loyal fans.”
Indeed, it is clear from spending just a few hours at this remarkable establishment that attitude is what makes it special. “How can I help?” is the most popular question, a smile the most common facial expression, and it is evident that while everybody is working hard to attain clearly set goals, they are also having a lot of fun doing it—and that makes all the difference.
Precision has certainly come a long way since Jerry and Rosemary Sullivan founded it back in 1976 as a camera repair agency that sold a small selection of top-brand cameras. There’s a good chance that within the next year, Precision Camera & Video will be moving to a new custom-designed location fairly close to the present store, giving it the opportunity to configure an even more expansive and spectacular retail space. But it’s the people that make the company what it is, and that’s why it will continue be very special going forward.
A customer-centric business model, savvy management and a friendly, knowledgeable staff, it’s for all these reasons Photo Industry Reporter salutes Jerry and Rosemary Sullivan, and the entire staff of Precision Camera & Video, as our 2011 Dealer of the Year!