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Future of the Photo Store: Two Successful Brick-and-Mortar Store Owners Weigh In

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New photographers today can buy their first camera, take lessons on how to use it, research photography destinations, order prints and books of their work, and start selling it without ever setting foot in a brick-and-mortar camera store or printing business. It’s hard to imagine how any photo store with an actual sales floor can still survive.

Some definitely aren’t. It’s been more than a year since Ritz and Wolf Camera, one of the larger names in the sector, sold off its remaining physical stores to an asset liquidation firm. Standalone establishments have struggled to hold on as well, and towns from New Jersey to California have witnessed the closing of their local photo shops. That’s a good thing if you like liquidation sales. Otherwise, not so much.

But still some persist, and even flourish, despite tough conditions. In order to understand better how photo shops are competing in today’s turbulent photography market, I spoke with the owners of two different establishments.

Leaving the Darkroom Behind

The Lightroomn

First, I spoke with Rob Reiter, owner and operator of The Lightroom, a fine-art printing studio for photographers in Berkeley California. He didn’t seem to mind the changing photography industry.

“Everything is far better and easier than ever before,” he declared flatly.

The Lightroom started in 1975, well back into the darkroom ages, and since that time Reiter has worked hard to stay ahead of the curve. He explained that the digital age has made his job easier, not more difficult.  When digital printing appeared, he jumped right on board. “I’ve been involved in digital printing since 1985,” he says, “In those days it was pretty crude as far as quality went, but it was fun and interesting.” He made the shift to scanning film in the mid 90s, and started shooting digital in 2005.

Not only was Reiter an early adopter of digital for his personal work, but he was also quick to share it with his clients. He described offering one-on-one tutorials in Photoshop as early as 1993. “As much as anything, the workshops in those days were scanning their film and showing them what you could do with the software,” he added.

Rising from the Ashes

Cmont Pano

A few weeks after my conversation with Reiter, I drove to Claremont Photo and Video in Claremont, California on a Sunny February morning. There, I sat down with Anthony Brooks, who founded the store in 2008. Not the best year to be starting any business.

Claremont Photo and Video has a very different sort of story than The Lightroom. Brooks started his business with his girlfriend when they both lost their jobs at a nearby Camera Store that was shutting down, another victim of the digital tide. Brooks says he learned a lesson from the death of the store he used to manage.

“The store basically became a showroom for buying on Amazon. You can’t fight that, people coming in with their smartphones and checking prices. You can educate yourself and stay one step ahead, but you can’t really change that fact,” he said.

Never Stop Moving

Brooks and Reiter agreed that keeping up with a rapidly changing technological landscape is essential. Thanks to his early forays into digital, Reiter has been benefiting from an early adopter attitude for years. He’s still working hard not to fall behind.

“I just took down a show on iPad art,” he explained, referring to a display space at his store, “I had four different artists using four different apps on the iPad and creating artwork. I’ve also had shows here of iPhone art, and those have been the two most popular shows we’ve had at our gallery!”

What else matters? Flexibility, for one thing.

Reiter says manageable expenses allowed The Lightroom to survive during the lean times. “I’m basically a one person studio here,” he said, “So I didn’t have a lot of extraneous employees that I would need to cut back on when the dark room died. Also because I was small, I didn’t invest in a lot of equipment that would go out of date long before it was paid off. I could be nimble, I could buy stuff after I researched it well.”

Brooks echoed that sentiment. When I asked him about his photo printing facilities, he gestured simply to a computer at the desk he was sitting at and a pigment printer behind him. He also pointed to the importance of staying ahead of the curve. “I think it’s all about reinvention, all the time. It’s about seeing where the need is and adapting to that,” he said.

Claremont Photo and Video doesn’t focus on selling cameras and lenses. There’s a few film cameras on display in a glass case by the main sale desk, but Brooks explains that they focus instead on services. “Services like video transfers, transferring any kind of analogue media to digital media, helping organize it along the way,” he explained.

Slide scanning and custom photo printing also make up a large part of Claremont Photo’s business. Brooks looks for services that aren’t offered by competitors. “We don’t try to reinvent the wheel, I realize that Costco is very inexpensive for 4×6 prints, so we let them do that kind of thing. We do what we do well, which is the custom prints, the 16x20s, the 11x14s.”

Reiter and Brooks both rode the digital tsunami that consumed many similar entrepreneurs. For photo shops, just like any other business in a competitive and rapidly moving industry, it’s essential to keep moving and to keep an eye on coming shifts. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up being blindsided.

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Looking Forward

There’s no reason to think that the photography industry is going to become any more stable in the next decade, so I asked both Reiter and Brooks what they thought of as keys for continued success.

Reiter focused on premium service. He wants to give his customers a reason to come into his store rather than look for a comparable service online. He had a lot to say about specialty printing papers, for example: “I stock well over 20 different papers here, more than any other studio I know of. I can print on really nice thin mulberry paper out of Japan, nice thin paper with deckled edges.”

He also stressed the importance of educating customers. He offers numerous seminars and workshops on photography and printing, many of them for free. Reiter explains “I want them to say ‘Hey, here’s someone who’s putting stuff out that’s about more than just making money.’ That’ll keep them coming out.” That’s also why he posts pages of educational material on The Lightroom’s website and Facebook page.

Brooks at Claremont Photo emphasized a slightly different approach. Rather than rising above rapid shifts in technology, he wants to take advantage of them.

Much of the work that his shop has been doing in transferring analogue formats to digital formats is starting to dry up. He said “A lot of the video transfer market, the VHS to DVD, has kind of dried up. The 8mm to DVD is starting to dry up. That’s the way this business goes, it changes all the time, it changes monthly, we see that the drop off on one service and the pickup on another kind of service.”

But Brooks didn’t seem worried, and he explained, “As technology’s getting more sophisticated, it’s getting a lot more complicated for people. People are shooting on DVD, Mini-DV, SD formats, and none of these formats are compatible. We’re gonna be doing these data transfers forever.”

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Lessons Learned

It’s interesting to note the similarities and differences in the outlook of the owners of The Lightroom and Claremont Photo and Video. Both lasted this long thanks to their flexible business models with low overhead costs and their willingness to change with the times, but they’re also relying on different strategies to succeed in the future.

Reiter is convinced that he can keep his customers coming back by focusing on providing a premium experience, and wants to attract new customers by offering free educational resources. That requires a loyal base of customers for repeat business, and relies on Reiter’s capability to provide a product that is clearly worth paying more for than your standard Mpix or Shutterfly prints. His more than 30 years of success in his industry, though, is strong evidence that he has a lot of people convinced.

Brooks offers custom high quality printing too, but is more reliant on a steady stream of customers looking to transfer their media from one form to another. For him, rapid shifts in technology are good news because they’ll bring in a whole new crop of people looking to update their photos from the old format to the new.

In either case, The Lightroom and Claremont Photo and Video are standing proof that there’s still a place for the brick-and-mortar photo shop in the modern-day. Whether or not they’ll last forever remains unclear, as online alternatives continue to get better every day. But, for now at least, Reiter and Brooks are convinced that some people are looking for a physical space and some human interaction while they’re shopping for cameras or printing their work.


Image Credits: Images from The Lightroom and Claremont Photo and Video


 
  • David Portass

    It is a shame. I used to use an excellent Kodak lab near me for all my prints and prints for my customers, was nice to go in and talk to the staff but they had to sell up as they didn’t make enough any more to keep the place going.

  • Peter “Pots”

    These guys were correct about people coming in checking prices and wanting a lot of personal interface for free and then leaving to buy on-line. Then they get insulted if you call them whores. It seems that there is no loyalty out there and the lowest price is king, no matter what…try asking a plumber or electrician about fixing something with your “cheap” parts, but their labor!

  • Louis

    that’s a pretty broken analogy. a camera store clerk may know a lot, but a skilled tradesman he is not. not even close. and let’s not get all rosey here, most camera store guys are only serving their own interest as well, just like the online shoppers you call whores. adapt or die, only the strong survive. progress for all cause displacement for the few.

  • slvrscoobie

    as a former ‘Sandrian Camera’ employee, the digital age started way back in 2003 when I first worked there. We called it ‘fondling’ when customers came in, figured out what was best, then said ‘We’ll think about it’ and walked away to buy it online. We tried the educator route, we tried price matching, we tried we tried. Finally left for a non-retail gig in 2006, and was sad to see the store go under at the end of last year.
    But Dan’s Camera City in Easton and Allentown PA are doing well! Should ask them how their so successful basically on the old ‘sell cameras and print services’ model in this day and age.

  • Bill Binns

    I have taken to shooting small independent camera stores when I see them now since they are such a dying breed. It is kind of sad but many shops that have gone out of business really deserved it. Many of these were doing little more than selling film and running a pick up and drop off service for some centralized lab at the end of the film era. Ritz really deserved to go under once they started hawking cell phones.

    Many great stores, staffed by actual photographers are thriving. Here in Montreal, as store named Lozeau has expanded several times in recent years and is crazy busy on weekends (like take a number and wait busy). Look at Midwest Photo in Ohio who jumped on David Hobby’s Strobist bandwagon and ships all over the world. Look at Glazer’s in Seattle which is a mecca for film shooters. Henry’s out of Toronto has a healthy brick and mortar operation and a busy ebay store. An independent camera shop owner only need look at these success stories and adapt instead of continually whining about how Nikon’s margins are lower than they were in 1985.

  • Peter “Pots”

    “Broken analogy” ? I had a good friend who owned a camera store and I helped him out at times when I came in for supplies. The terminology was never used in the store. I do know who some of these people were and they “used” your knowledge and expertise and then spent their money elsewhere. In my area there is only one camera store left, and yet there were at least six before. There is only so much “adaptability” left. I feel sorry that you never knew any good “camera store clerks.” So let’s leave alone. I stand by my assessment.

  • ThatGuy

    The last photo lab in our town just shut down about a month ago. Some photographers say it’s sad to see and it is, but photography is always changing and people have to learn how to change with it. Products and services become obsolete in many areas, not just in photography.

  • http://www.edphoto.co.za/ ..

    I work for a very modern bricks and mortar camera store in Cape Town, South Africa. Fortunately we are quite sheltered from the likes of ebay and Amazon as it is just too expensive to ship to SA. But we struggle with the same issues, as it becomes more expensive to run a bricks and mortar store as it does an online store. We also have a comprehensive online store but South Africa has been slow to take up online purchasing and it is still only reserved to a small percentage of middle-class and up customers.

    Fortunately the store I work for has been around for more than 4 decades and so has a strong and loyal customer base. And we also have a very large amount of tourist traffic who always need cameras, film developed and printed etc etc.

    The biggest task is staying ahead of the curve and on top of our game, if we don’t adapt then we will wither out.

  • ThatGuy

    This kind of attitude is exactly why shops don’t survive. Most people shop by price in this economy, especially for photographers in the business trying to survive. Camera shops aren’t the only ones trying to make a living. This is 2014 and the internet is not going away any time soon so get a clue.

    If you look at your customers as “whores” you don’t deserve to be in the business anyway.

  • Caitlyn Chapman

    Fondling… that’s the perfect way to describe it! Using that!

  • Peter “Pots”

    Well, I am glad I started a dialogue here…please understand these were not customers…they were users and never even bought a thing. They drank the free coffee and helped themselves to the pastries. We never looked upon the real customers in anyway but thankful and supported there endeavors with free loaners, etc .Please do not be so quick to condemn. Not everything out there is roses. Read some of the other posts and you will find that I am not to far off the mark

  • https://twitter.com/adamhowardcross Adam Cross

    There is loyalty, loyalty to ones own family and to your own money and how affordably you can get by. The lowest price is king, if you can’t compete then you’re screwed, that’s business. And people don’t want to go and have coffee and a chat with a store clerk, they want to buy a camera and they’re not interested in making friends, they’re not going to be visiting the store once a month to drop off rolls of film and the store owners won’t get to know your family as it grows up. It’s not the 70′s anymore.

  • Sharon Stelzig Snyder

    I agree that a store can’t survive on film processing alone these days, but as a department of a diversified store it is still a viable product. I run the minilab in the camera store I work at and we’re still processing C-41 film every day. We get the pros & artists who still shoot 120mm film because no one else can process it. We get the film shooters who have always come to us to get better quality than the high school kid at Walgreens can give them. Now, we’ve also started to get the casual shooters and disposable camera crowd as they find that they can’t go to the Target, Walgreens, CVS, etc that they’ve always gone to.
    The film processing business isn’t what it once was, but not only are we sustaining the business from the last few years, we had an increase in the number of rolls processed from 2012 to 2013.
    Could this store survive on film processing and printing alone? No, but as a small section of what the store offers we do enough business that we have no plans to stop processing anytime soon.

  • Peter “Pots”

    I wish you could tell me what the lowest price really is. Also, please understand that I was talking about the film days and thanks for the reawakening of “it’s not the 70′s anymore.” The lowest price is not always KING. There is no such thing as Loyalty to a user.

  • ThatGuy

    I’m not trying to condemn, just trying to understand how shops expect to stay in business in a changing world if they’re not willing to change themselves. Where I live, the nearest decent camera shop is 1-1/2 hour drive so when I go there I don’t expect to hear, “we can order you one.” It seems to me that a shop like this is in denial.

    I’m not saying it’s right, because it sucks the same way it sucks that a photographer can’t sell a portrait the same way we did 10+ years ago. Photographers have to change, and so does our support.

  • Kynikos

    Cry me a river.
    Maybe local shops could rip off struggling togs before the days of the Internet, but those days are gone.
    The businesses in this story are right to focus on services if they can’t/won’t compete on the price of goods.

  • https://twitter.com/adamhowardcross Adam Cross

    i’m not going to pay premium prices just to have a good relationship with a store. never going to happen, no matter how lovely they are as people. I recently bought a Canon 6D body for £1,029 online, in my nearest camera store the body is £1,380 and even Amazon price is £1,299. There’s no way I’m spending £300 extra, what does that extra £300 get me? nothing. saving that £300 means I can buy food for the next two months or put it towards bills, or travel expenses or buy a birthday present or be selfish and put it towards some other camera gear. Store loyalty means nothing in 2014

  • Peter “Pots”

    Why is it that we can forgive the big on-line stores for “back-ordering” and not the little guy? I do agree that it is really tough to sell a portrait today…I blame the smartphones for that and the steady decline of what quality is all about…I would like to get rid of “it’s good enough.”

  • harumph

    I’m still really curious about what exactly it is that Brooks is doing differently from the Camera Shop. He says he learned a lot from their mistakes, but his current business model sounds pretty traditional.

  • Peter “Pots”

    You are not hearing me cry. I never got ripped off as I had a very good idea of what the going prices are/were. I always got “New York” prices and they set the tone in the photographic world. around my area. How come I don’t hear too much about Walmart..;-)

  • Peter “Pots”

    Good for you Adam, you get the smart-shopper award. I do think that I have to state again that I am not a “Bah Humbug” sort, you have to do what you have to do. My “Whore” statement was directed at people who were really nickel and dime-ing (or pence or half crowns) back in the old days.

  • Mr Hogwallop

    most of the mom n pop stores gave up ten years ago when amazon took over. A lot of stores hung on by selling overpriced frames and camera bags and point and shoots. And add on the photo store clerks who insist on selling straps filters and whatever else is cheap with a high mark up and whatever spiff the manuf rep is offering, many stores were not a nice place to shop. I often wonder about the claim that the stores are staffed with pro photographers, if they are photographers why are they behind the counter?

  • Clayton Finley

    My local store trys to prevent getting over run by amazon shoppers by offering a deal with any camera you buy, you get 50 free prints and a free 1 hour 1 on 1 private class. Inticing from some, but until they can afford to adopt a price matching policy, I’ll always go for the cheapest option, which is usually online. I understand they need to make money, but I need to save mine as well.
    ( though I still get my prints from them )

    But luckly, I live in a town were there is lots of wealth and great local ecomonmy.

  • Clayton Finley

    yup, same here. Save my $ and have my item on my door step 2 days later. The shop owner has bills to pay and mouths to feed, but so do I.

    It takes a LOT to get me to become a guy who will over pay a little bit at a local store, and its very easy to upset a customer and have him walk out.

  • Dawn (USMC Mom)

    I work for a brick and mortar photo printing lab in Nebraska. We are the only true photographic lab left in the state. What we see is people who want the personal touch, who recognize quality pro printing compared to Walmart, Walgreens, Cosco etc. We can print any size, any panoramic and can answer questions on why a print will crop on an 8×10. A computer kiosk and minimum wage employee can’t do that.

  • http://kyleclements.com/ Kyle Clements

    They are behind the counter for stable income.

    I might get 2-10 gigs a year that pay over $2000 each, which is awesome, but they all tend to clump together during spring and fall. The smaller events that are a few hundred are ok, but not big money makers.

    A lot of people need the comfort of seeing something steady and reliable coming in to their bank account. It can be hard to deal with getting $20,000 in one month, then make absolutely nothing for the next three months, then get a few hundred for a random gig, then back to making nothing…

  • http://kyleclements.com/ Kyle Clements

    “Why is it that we can forgive the big on-line stores for “back-ordering” and not the little guy?”

    When I order online, I expect to have to wait for the product anyway, so what difference does an extra week make? It will still be shipped to my front door.

    When I walk into a store, it is because I need something right now, I have already invested my time and gas to get there, I’ve made peace with knowing that I will be spending more, and I’m ready to have the product….and it’s not available.

    There is a huge difference between the two.

    I’m lucky to live in my nation’s largest city, where one of the cheapest camera stores is located, and the other’s all have price match policies, so I never *have* to buy online to get the best deal. But I would in a second if it means saving a few hundred dollars.

  • http://www.winslowpicturecompany.com/ Graham Marley

    If you’re going to a specialty store looking for a trade-specific item, I think it’s always wise to just call ahead first. I mean isn’t that a little obvious?

    I started shifting towards making my significant gear purchases at a Boston chain called Hunt’s Photo that’s actually grown pretty well in the last few years, opening up a handful of new stores all in the same region. If I need something, I can call any one of the stores and if they don’t have it, they can check the other stores, and 9 times out of 10, I get a call back within an hour with directions to where I can go pick up my held product.

    They’ve also done a pretty good job of keeping up with the pricing of at least the major online camera dealers, but after being taken care of very well in more than a handful of situations, I am willing to pay a reasonable premium if it comes to it.

  • Jake

    You’re right – 300 quid is a lot of money and for such a big price difference, there’s no reason to pay premium prices. But I’ve found that in the best stores, the price differences are fairly minimal and the clerks will bend over backwards for you to maintain your loyalty. I get privileges and deals as a loyal and regular customer that the average joe off the street does not. So yeah, premium prices can’t compete with nice clerks, but having a human being treat me well and having someone to talk to or look out for me when I have a sales or product issue, and who personally knows me as a customer, is worth more in the long run.

  • Peter “Pots”

    I do agree. I do understand exactly where you are coming from…I want it when I want it…period, ;-)

  • David Vaughn

    I understand the part about ripping off others. I mean, if there’s only one camera store in a 300 mile radius that is worth anything, then of course you’re gonna pay their (possibly gouged) prices.

    However, what I’ve seen more of is just trying to make a profit, and to do that they have to sale at a higher price than otherwise. Part of this is because they might buy in bulk, but they buy less in bulk so they get less of a discount. Online retailers also have better means of paying for what physical assets they have, so they can charge a lower price, because a lot of their money might be coming from elsewhere. Or maybe they have so much influence on the market that it’s easier for them to sell 100 at $10/item instead of 10 at $50/item.

    There are a lot of different variables for why mom and pop camera stores do what they do besides “They’re just taking advantage of customers.”

  • pgb0517

    I figured out a few years ago that if I do all my shopping online, then the next time my kids need a job and can’t find one, I have only myself to blame.

  • pgb0517

    Here ya go: I hate Walmart. It’s a disaster for locally owned retail. I almost never shop there.

  • Peter “Pots”

    I am so glad that someone out there dislikes Walmart. Welcome to the club.

  • pgb0517

    Customer service wins me over regardless of the product or service, and yes, I will and do pay more for that — when I can find it. Unfortunately, good service and knowledgeable staff are on a downward spiral.

  • Joshua Kern

    I am a Photo Lab Tech at Calagaz Photo in Pensacola FL. The Calagaz family has been in business for more than 55 years with a sister store in Mobile AL. Our biggest pull is that we buy, sell, and trade used gear. We rent gear too, no one else near us can use a lens for the weekend on such short notice.

    If people didn’t ignore their legal obligation to pay the Use Tax for items they buy online, little stores would be better off. and some companies like Canon, allow online stores to sell below our cost, which is a slap in the face when there is nothing we can do.

    We will match any reputable deal selling the same product so we have that going for us ;)

  • Clayton Finley

    I figured out if I shop smartly, and don’t have kids, I can do whatever I want, its a sweet gig.

    also, those kids working retail stores don’t know anything, and I can make more informative buying decisions by reading online reviews than I can from some 17 year old with a name tag. All I need him to do is show me where the box is so I can use an automated self checkout machine. some dream for your kids…

  • Guest

    I am a Photo Lab Tech at Calagaz Photo in Pensacola FL. The Calagaz family has been in business for more than 55 years with a sister store in Mobile AL. Our biggest pull is that we buy, sell, and trade used gear. We rent gear too, no one else near us can use a lens for the weekend on such short notice.

    If people didn’t ignore their legal obligation to pay the Use Tax for items they buy online, little stores would be better off.

    We will match any reputable deal selling the same product so we have that going for us ;)

  • Billy Walker

    Although touched upon no one really stated why it is OK to use your local camera store as an educational resource by asking whatever questions you may have but not as your supplier as you go home and purchase online. It seems to me if you want to do an online purchase you should be funneling your questions through the online resource. The reward of answering those questions with answers becomes a sale. What many folks do in reality is go to a knowledgable resource such as your local store (yes, I realize not every local is helpful but many are) and then go elsewhere to buy. Do people really feel that is appropriate? I think not.

    Many, if not most (I’m just guessing here) are already aware in advance that their online vendor totally sucks when it comes to supplying service and knowledge. There’re merely there to sell a product and do zero for the customer. Nothing inherently wrong with that approach but I say if you’re going to hit up your local source for knowledge and expertise make the purchase through them and not online. Do you really think the local brick and mortar is there just to supply answers and expertise and to allow you the touchy, feely experience with their inventory just so you can buy online with confidence in your purchase?

    I am not in the camera business. I am a consumer however and my funds are limited just like yours. I deal local and I deal online. Businesses that work hard for my money have a place in the world other than operating solely as an encyclopedia. Those types of businesses deserve the sale if they have worked for it.

  • Mr Hogwallop

    i have been in bookstores who offer to order books…I can order it and
    get it faster than the store can. I am there to buy it now and take it
    home now. If it’s not in stock its going to come from Amazon.

  • Clayton Finley

    what are you talking about? every online store has a review system, there are tons of youtube videos for nearly any product imagineable, there are tech and camera blogs who often write their reviews before it goes on sale. Unless the salesman happens to have what your looking at, he does not know anything about real world useage, info that can be easily found on those low information sites you speak of.

  • Billy Walker

    What you say is true. However, there are people out there who prefer dealing in person. There are a variety of reasons for this and I imagine you’re bright enough to know what they are. Just because you might prefer (I don’t know this for fact as I don’t know you) online exclusively doesn’t mean that others agree. A knowledgable and caring local deserves his/her share of the pie. Not everything boils down to dollar and cents.

  • http://www.ceaserphotography.com/ Sid Ceaser

    There used to be a really interesting co-dependent world that existed in photography; shooters and printers and developers and retail sales and rental shops and so on. In a grand scheme of things, everyone was part of a big team. Shooters shooting film that needed to be developed that needed to be printed and who needed new gear and gadgets from the local shop or the rental place that was fun to chat with and feel generally taken care of by their local retail stores. It was all about established relationships – the same kind of established relationships that can develop when photographers work with their clients.

    When digital started putting everything in the hands of the photographer, that structure changed; people became more introverted because now they were doing everything themselves. Their interactions changed. At some point everything came down to pinching the last nickel and dime. I’m sure shooters have always done that, but the automated services of the internet and online shops have really killed peer support, community and development. I’ve seen it spread across my local photography universe like wildfire. So much so that photographers can’t even develop referral networks any more – they’ll shoot anything and everything, because where they once existed in this giant sphere of a large creative family they now work mainly alone, by themselves, constantly hanging on to the thread before it breaks. The dog-eat-dog mentality doesn’t belong in a service oriented craft and profession like photography. If I don’t shoot weddings and I have peers and friends that do, I’m going to send them to those photographers. Just like I would hope they do the same for what I specialize in. It’s called support. We can’t do this alone.

    I used to work part time at a local mom and pop camera store in my town. They had been around for 60+ years. Three generations of the family worked at that store. Sometimes people would go in and not leave until two hours later, because the guys behind the counter knew you and your friends and your family and your work. There was history.

    I witnessed first hand people that would come in and look at new camera bodies – they’d fuss and paw over them for extended periods of time asking question after question and taking test shot after test shot. Then, they’d put down the camera, make a wincing face and say “Sheesh, whelp, I dunno. I’ll have to think about it” and off they would go, out the door and home so they could log on to Amazon and buy the camera. Some were even ballsy enough to come back to the store with their new camera and ask to be shown how the buttons function with promise to buy some cheap doodad or something. A lot of times people were asking for prices that were so low the shop owner couldn’t compete. Online would have prices that were lower than what it cost the store to purchase it for resale. That’s crazy, and I think a little blame should be put on camera companies that treat camera stores like that.

    While I love ordering beard trimmers and movies through Amazon, I really enjoy the one-on-one experiences I have when I go into a camera store and converse about things related to my field. I tend to think most specialty shops have people bend the counters that are invested in photography and are more than just shelf-jockeys like those you might find at Best Buy. People passionate and invested in different aspects of a craft we all share in – from printing to developing to sales to rentals to shooting and so on.

    The lack of personal connection, interaction, and peer investment the internet has created has spread out all over the place. I’m guessing the same people here that say camera stores have to “adapt or die” with little empathy are the same ones that kvetch about the shooter down the street with less ability who charges less and might or might not take your possible clients. We’re all in this boat together. We should all be doing what we can to not only make a living, but to broaden the photographic community so that we can all do this together for the common good.

  • Roger Christian

    I am a camera dealer.

    Part of the truth of the matter is that, believe it or not, there is virtually no real profit in hard goods, it isn’t quite as bad as you may have heard about grocery stores, but in general real camera stores find it very difficult to survive in today’s market. In Iowa, the ENTIRE state, there are only 5 stores of any size left. Precious few in even Chicago, which used to be a great camera town: Altman’s, Helix, Mike Wolk, etc, etc. Now most of them have been resigned to the dustbin of history.

    While everyone complains about lack of service or ‘high prices’, the fact that you may have a more or less local store to complain about is unusual these days.

    I am not saying that being uncompetitive, within reason, is good. So those of still in business must find new ways to serve the customer base. Broaden offerings (requires an investment of $$), expand services, same answer, add staff, hard to find, same answer, and on and on.

    So, we are left with doing what we do, work within the customer-imposed constraints of pricing, services, etc., or go out of business.

    And, frankly the economics of the matter are that to duplicate what my store offers in terms of services, inventory, infrastructure, etc., would cost around $750,000 now.

    With a return imposed on us by the manufacturer’s slim-profit MAP policies and screwy rebate programs, general cost of doing business and other factors beyond our control, it is unlikely that even I, after 30 years of ownership of a 45+ year old store in a modest sized town, would start up if I had a place to park my money and get a far better return.

    My loss of income, relative to what I could reasonably be expected to have earned over the past 30 years has cost me 7-figures in lost income. I used to sell Porsche-Audi-VW and Mazda and in the 1980′s made a very comfortable living.

    So, despite what I have read in these posts, many of the comments may, in fact, be justified, but not many in this business are getting rich. Support your local camera store, if you still have one, or order on the internet to save a few percent in sales tax (don’t get me started), but support us and we can probably stay, don’t support us and when you are left with the local Best Buy as your only source of camera ‘knowledge’, or information you can really trust on the internet, remember we used to be here to serve you, personally.

    Between only 3 people in my store, we have over 125 years of photo knowledge, from alternative processes to the latest digital gizmo. And one of the finest color printers in the known universe, no brag, just fact.

    Still here, still growing, but only for so long as people keep coming in the door and spending their money with us.

    What I have written is pretty much the cold hard facts of life in both small retail these days and the photo industry in particular.