Operating a photo retail store is hard. It’s hard work with long hours. It’s hard to make sales. It’s hard to find good employees. It’s hard to keep expenses down. It’s hard to maintain inventory and have good cash flow. It’s hard to get vendors to support you when their sales are down dramatically and they can’t decide whether or not they need you. It’s hard to sell cameras, when every human being on Earth is taking pictures with their smartphone and checking your pricing on them. It’s hard to find margin in sales, especially when your competition can ship to your customers tax free. But most important, it’s just damn hard to make a profit—which if you could, would make everything else less hard.
Nine years ago my photo distribution business at Unique Photo was in serious trouble. My business model of selling film and accessories to photo retailers wasn’t working any longer. The number of photo retailers had dramatically declined over the preceding 10 years from well over 10,000 to a few thousand, and then to a few hundred. Our product mix had become obsolete and our customers became few. The end was coming fast.
We could have gone out of business. But that would mean I had failed. It would mean I would have to leave the business I was born into and grew to love. I would have failed in a business that my parents started in 1947 and was trusted to me and my brother Jonathan to run. But failure was not an option for me. As a single dad and sole parent of five young children, I was desperate to make it work. I had to make it work.
So in 2008, we opened the Unique Photo Superstore in Fairfield, New Jersey. There were many doubters who did not believe we could be successful—inside the company and out. They doubted my sanity in fact. After all, we were 15 miles from Manhattan and the largest photo retailers in the world. All of the potential retail customers either bought from there, big-box stores like Best Buy and Target (which are all over New Jersey) or from Amazon, which back then didn’t have to collect sales tax in New Jersey. There was a reason the number of photo retailers still in business in New Jersey could be counted on one hand.
Today, nine years later, Unique Photo is one of the largest and most successful cameras stores in the country. And I did well enough to be able to walk away, leaving the business running successfully and sustainably, to do something different in my life, find new challenges and help other businesses succeed.
So based on my experiences, here are 10 things that will help make your store more successful in 2016.
1. Build a Brand. What brand means the most to you—Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm, Sony, Panasonic or Olympus? The answer should be none of the above. The most important brand to you is the brand of your store. A customer can buy a Canon camera anywhere, anytime. She will buy it from you if she has an attachment to your store. A quality brand builds attachment to its businesses. At Unique Photo our brand was centered on education and experience. Our salespeople educated as they interacted with customers; our education program became university-like; our advertising was focused on education. And as the company’s president, I became a photography expert. Our brand oozed into our company from the top down and outward in every way.
Action Items: Create a list of what makes your store worth going to and make sure every aspect of your business speaks to that.
2. Build a Meaningful Education Program. Essentially every single successful photo retailer has a quality education program. I don’t mean just offer a class now and then. I mean build a coordinated program that draws customers in and gets them coming back. Make sure your class space looks great (even if it’s small), your topics are of varied interests and levels, and your instructors are informative and well liked. By educating customers in a meaningful way you change your relationship with them from an adversarial/business one to one of a trusted advisor. That turns them into advocates for your store.
Action Items: Plan three classes/workshops per week minimum for the next six months. Come up with 10 local, unique locations to hold workshops (be imaginative). Focus your marketing on filling these classes. Survey your customers after each class.
3. Streamline Your Product Lines. It is easy, considering the long-term relationships we have with so many vendors, to try to stock every product line they want to sell us. Don’t let salesmen pressure you into that trap. You have to do what’s best for your business. In a declining market it is better to reduce product lines and stock deeper in the ones that work best for you. This is your chance to get greater discounts and support from vendors by agreeing to eliminate a competitor from your store. How many tripod and bag lines do you really need? Pick items based not only on what you think would sell but from the vendors you think will give you the most support.
Action Items: Ask your staff which five product lines you don’t really need. Stock deeper in fewer product lines and negotiate with the vendors that you chose to keep for more support.
4. Get Social Now. If you aren’t using social media to build your brand and business every day, you are falling behind one day at a time. If you don’t know how to do this, hire someone to do it. I successfully built a well-known brand mostly through social media. It is the way modern business communicates, builds brand awareness and fosters loyalty from its customers.
Action Items: Hire someone to do your social media or take a course (I offer one!) and do it yourself. Start today and never stop.
5. Fix Your Website. If your website isn’t good (and you know if it isn’t), you are basically sabotaging your own business. If you have a commerce site, you are not going to be able to compete with the scope of Amazon or B&H, so make sure what you have looks great, works perfectly and shows your brand. When a customer goes to your site it should look like the brand of your store. If your site is not as you like and you don’t have the resources to build one, then use a free technology like WordPress and build an attractive and informational site that at least looks great.
Action Items: Ask 10 customers who come in your store each day for the next seven days what they think about your site. If anything gets mentioned with more than three complaints, you need to fix it now.
6. E-mail and E-mail Some More. E-mail is the most effective way to contact existing customers. It is also a cost-effective way to reach new customers. You should be e-mailing at least once per week and your content should be informative and carry your brand message. Make sure your e-mails are not only about product and price. Those get deleted fastest and the reader unsubscribes more frequently. Use an e-mail manager like iContact, MailChimp or Constant Contact. They work really well to manage both the creative side and your lists as well.
Action Items: Buy an e-mail list from a local source, upload it to an e-mail manager and send out an e-mail. Do it now. Then create an informative and entertaining e-mail that has absolutely no product or price in it, and send it to your existing customers.
7. Only Grade A Employees Wanted. Employees deserve to know where they stand. You deserve to have only grade A employees working for you. Reviews should happen at least twice per year, and positives and negatives should be communicated. If you have any employees who aren’t top-level performers (grade A), they need to be guided to the A level or let go. If you allow grade B or worse employees to interact with your customers, you’re committing a business sin.
Action Items: Start reviewing all staff members. Grade A’s should be given incentive to grow with the company; B’s should be worked with to get to A, and C’s or worse should be immediately let go.
8. Make Your Store Look and Smell Great. I think of cameras as jewelry, and so I wanted my store to look like a fine jewelry store. Merchandising must be perfectly neat and attractive. Showcases need to look clean and modern. Every item needs to be priced, and there should never be any garbage around. Make sure the aisles are clear and the store looks uncluttered. Brew coffee or make popcorn to make your store smell wonderful. We want the experience to be great and that requires your store to look great all of the time.
Action Items: Remove anything from your store that doesn’t belong there. Have your store professionally cleaned. Make sure every display looks perfect.
9. Focus on Customer Service. You have to set the example for fanatically good customer service. If customers don’t think you care about them, they will simply buy online. Unless the customer is crazy or trying to get one over on you, never let a customer walk away unhappy. I would respond to customer complaints myself in the middle of the night. Turning a complaint around into a positive experience bonds a customer to you for life. They will talk about that to everyone. Conversely, we all know what unhappy customers can do to your online reputation with a negative review.
Action Items: The next complaint you get after business hours should be answered by the store’s owner and the entire staff should be copied on the response. Create a reasonable written policy that says no customer should leave the store unhappy.
10. How Badly Do You Want It?! That’s my personal slogan. If you run your business with desperation and you want to be profitable badly enough, you can make it happen. It requires work, imagination and dedication. But ultimately you are the only one who can lead your business to success.
Action Items: Create a list of 10 objectives for your store for the next year and place that list where you and your staff can see it. Hold regular meetings to see how you are progressing.
Wishing all of you photo specialty retailers out there a successful and profitable 2016.
Matt Sweetwood is known for his innovative and transformative ideas as a marketing, social media and business-development consultant. He has experienced professional and personal success as an award-winning marketer and CMO club member and as president of Unique Photo, through his reinvention of the modern camera superstore. Sweetwood is currently writing his first book, Man Up, and is a regular contributor on national TV and to several publications in the business, parenting, ethics and politics arenas. You can follow him on Twitter @MSweetwood or at MSweetwood.com.