Aptly named, Unique Photo, which bills itself as “The Only Camera & Video Superstore in New Jersey,” is truly a one-of-a-kind enterprise. Combining a bright, spacious and ingeniously organized 5,000-square-foot retail space with a cavernous 50,000-square-foot warehouse that is literally a walk through a door from the showroom, it is currently a single-location photo specialty retailer and distribution center rolled into one.
Located in an impressive stand-alone structure right on a major commercial corridor, it is an attractive destination store for photo enthusiasts and pros that ships everything from consumables (photo paper, film, chemistry, batteries, minilab supplies) to accessories like printers, tripods, frames, albums and camera bags to retailers and minilabs nationwide.
Although Unique Photo moved into the modern brick-and-mortar building it now occupies in 2008, the company traces its roots back to 1947 when Bernard and Harriet Sweetwood opened a small photographic supply outlet in Brooklyn, New York. Thereafter they expanded by opening retail outlets in 20 department stores across New Jersey and, later on, a store called Hoboken Camera.
In time, Unique became one of the largest privately owned photographic supply distributors. The present facility was conceived by the founders’ sons, Jonathan and Matthew Sweetwood, CEO and president, respectively, who took over the operations in the 1980s. Alexander Sweetwood, who recently earned his MBA, became the third generation to join the company, as vice president of Operations and Purchasing. “By running a family owned business we have been able to maintain the fundamental values that have kept us at the forefront of the industry,” notes Matt Sweetwood.
To give you a more precise view of the values and business practices that set Unique Photo apart, we visited Unique Photo and interviewed Matt Sweetwood over a cup of Kobricks gourmet coffee, the brand served in the store’s coffee bar and Wi-Fi lounge.
“Before we get into our core values, I should point out we selected this location very carefully,” observes Sweetwood. “It’s in the dead center of Northern New Jersey at the intersection of three populous counties, Essex, Morris and Passaic, and it’s located on a major highway. If your object is to create a destination store, job one is to make it convenient to get to, and a close second is to give your customers good reasons to make the trip—to provide them with a fulfilling and positive experience. To that end we pride ourselves on providing absolutely the best customer service. That means all our salespeople are photographically knowledgeable, friendly and courteous, enthusiastic about photography and well dressed—our employees wear neat casual uniforms so customers can easily identify them. The store itself must be user friendly, inviting and clean, and that’s a constantly evolving process. I’m a fanatic on customer service, cleanliness and merchandising, and I don’t mind copying some effective strategies from the big boys, like stacking a bunch of tripod or printer boxes and placing a tripod or printer on top with an enticing ‘special sale’ tag affixed to it. This really moves merchandise.
“Of course, you also have to offer competitive prices,” says Sweetwood. “These days, most customers check things on the Internet before they buy, and they’ll discover that our pricing is low and our selection wide. We also offer an extensive range of services, including a very high-quality on-site lab, and one of the best rental departments in the state. When pros or serious shooters rent something fairly exotic like a tilt-shift lens or a Steadicam Merlin, our knowledgeable rental department will walk them through how to use it. By the way, we take trade-ins too.
“A key element that really sets us apart is our commitment to education. Unique University is the largest photo education program in the country, and its mission is to help customers ‘Create Better Pictures’ by providing quality photography education for everyone from beginners to experts. We have daily events, and it’s a meeting point for local camera clubs, ASMP, PPA and other organizations. We offer a full curriculum of classes and seminars with world-famous speakers like Lindsay Adler, Will Crockett, Rick Sammon and Art Wolfe, and we offer exciting photography experiences at off-site locations such as Nets basketball games, Meadowlands Racetrack, the Lakota Wolf Preserve and many more. Our well-attended technical classes include basic topics like DSLR photography, DSLR video, lighting techniques, Photoshop, composition, wedding photography, HDR photography—the list is almost endless. And we offer intensive one-on-one personalized instruction.
“Another of our core values is accessibility,” continues Sweetwood. “Anyone can contact the president by e-mail; I often answer customers’ questions at night or on weekends. The staff understands I personally provide this level of accessibility and customer service and they naturally follow suit. Dedication to the customer starts at the top. In short, even though we often work on a consumer electronics margin, we still must provide Tiffany service. That’s the reality of the modern business environment. To compete these days you have to do everything humanly possible to make yourself irresistible to your customers. When people in New Jersey think photography, I want them to think Unique Photo. And my goal is to be so amazing that customers simply have to return.
“We view our store as a dynamic entity that changes weekly. We move things around and constantly strive for the most esthetic and effective placement of merchandise, whether it’s on pegboards, slot walls, islands or in cases.
At the same time, you have to have a store that’s based on knowledge, because that’s what really separates you from the big-box stores. Customers have to be educated that a camera is not just another appliance—that you’re much better off buying it at a camera specialty store.
“There are no shortcuts to building a great retail store,” Sweetwood concludes. “You have to do everything at once, all the time, and do it to a high standard. It’s kind of like baking a cake—you need all the ingredients in the right proportions to be successful, and you can’t leave out a single thing. I’m excited about where we’re going too—we’re building an additional 800 square feet of contiguous retail space behind the wall next to our new Sony display case. We’re also considering expanding with satellite locations to our main store, which will probably be mall based. It’s a challenge to run a one-of-a-kind operation that’s 50/50 in terms retail/distribution revenues and needs to carry 20,000 different products, but it’s also an immense amount of fun to do the job that you love.” http://store.uniquephoto.com/e/