Magazine Article


Virtual Photofinishing


Until recently, Internet-to-lab printing was virtually unavailable. Only major manufacturers had the resources to set up online printing networks, and participating dealers had to buy into a program with numerous restrictions - the most important being that it only worked with the manufacturer's equipment. PhotoChannel, a Canadian-based company headquartered in Vancouver, set out to develop a "private label" solution, designed for retailers and large wireless carriers, that would work with any printing equipment, no matter what the format, brand, or workflow.

"Our goal was to provide retailers with the capability to accept print orders through their own websites," says Kyle Hall, EVP Business Development. "We wanted to set up a system where customers could go online, order their photos, and pick them up at their favorite location within a matter of hours."

All 156 Blacks stores have Fuji Frontier systems, 70 percent have in-store kiosks - as many as three kiosks in several locations because of the high demand.

PhotoChannel achieved its goal, establishing a software development company, specializing in networking and web applications, that works closely with photo lab retailers, developing online print fulfillment solutions to suit the retailer's specific needs. The first priority is to integrate the retailer's photo website - delivered by PhotoChannel - to the company's own corporate web site, so customers can easily access the service through the retailer's home page. "We have various unified login technologies that can be deployed," says Hall. "That way, the minute the customer logs onto the retailer's corporate site, they are also logged into the photo site delivered by PhotoChannel."

Users can either upload their images to an album for storage and/or viewing, or they can use PhotoChannel's "Print Order Wizard" to upload and print their photos. The user can simply select a single image or a folder full of images by clicking on the file or folder, which immediately records them in the shopping cart. Pressing the "upload" button begins transferring the files. PhotoChannel pioneered the use of express order paths like the Print Order Wizard, which allows the user to place an order without ever logging onto the site or creating an account.

Once the prints are uploaded, customers can edit the files, choose what size prints they want, and select the store where they want to pick them up. "We've found that express orders generally have a higher order value than sites where you have to upload each picture individually," says Hall. "It's not really a 'sharing' web site as much as it is an 'ordering' website." PhotoChannel also offers other services, like pre-paid print cards, e-mail campaigns, and different ways to promote their customers' print sales.

Why Online Processing?

The PhotoChannel model is based on customer convenience. "It puts access to digital photo processing in every home, and makes every home computer a photo kiosk," says Hall. "It's convenient, easy to use, and customers can pick up their pictures from the retailer the same day."

"The Print Order Wizard offers the same controls you'll find on in-store photo kiosks," he says. "But without the inconvenience of having to leave the house. Customers don't have to stand in line to use their computers, and they don't have to worry about someone looking over their shoulder while they place orders.

"From the retailer's perspective, high-volume business is good, but keeping customers waiting isn't. It can lead to frustrated clients walking out of the store. I've used photo kiosks to print my own pictures," Hall says. "When I finally get up to the kiosk, I may have as many as three people waiting behind me. I feel pressure to hurry, so I spend less time selecting prints. Ultimately, the retailer could be losing revenue, and while adding more kiosks is one way to resolve the problem, it's expensive and takes up valuable floor or counter space. Giving customers the option of ordering prints from their homes, over the Internet, makes the most sense," he adds.

Converting an Existing Network

Within the PhotoChannel family are dealers who moved from another network to PhotoChannel, and those who are newcomers to the Internet. Black Photo Corporation launched its online service, Black's Photo Centre, in 1997, at the same time the stores began installing Fuji Frontier systems.

"We launched an informative corporate site, complete with retail locator and information on the services they offered," says David Mantei, manager of Imaging Technology Development and Internet Operations. "At the same time, we also launched with an online photo solution provided by Picture Vision. This was primarily a sharing and mail order printing service. Consumers came into Blacks and dropped off their standard film processing orders and requested our scan-to-internet service. When the film was processed and prints made, they were scanned and the pictures uploaded to a website where customers could share their pictures with friends and family. We didn't even have a scan-to-CD service."

Picture Vision was eventually purchased by Kodak and closed down, and Blacks Photo Centre migrated to a company called Telepix. This provider had the capability to digitize processed pictures and upload them to the customer's account. In 2002, Blacks decided to switch to PhotoChannel.

the PhotoChannel Lab Server at Wal-Mart Senchyna's staff regularly checks the PhotoChannel Lab Server at Wal-Mart, housed in the store's lab, throughout the day. As soon as new orders come up, they print them and call the customers to let them know it's ready to pick up. The customer also receives an automated e-mail.

"It was a major operation," says Mantei. "We worked with the entire PhotoChannel operations team, including specialized teams in database, business roles, and design. Each team was very structured in what task it needed to accomplish. Kyle Hall, from PhotoChannel, directed the whole process and assigned project leaders to monitor various subset components. Planning took about six months.

"The actual changeover to PhotoChannel went well," he continued. "Unlike before, we had to migrate a significant amount of customer data from one site to another. We spent a lot of time with PhotoChannel's engineering team and Telepix, to ensure that no data was damaged or lost during the transfer process. All of this had to be done without interrupting service to our customers, so we ended up running both systems concurrently for a period of time. Fortunately, no accounts were lost.

"We are still producing all online prints in two production centers - one for the East and one for the West. Within the next two months, however, we plan to move to a direct-to-store printing model. We've been working on this for about a year and a half."

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