Is there a market for wide format inkjet prints in the specialty retail minilab? Historically, film-based photo market data showed a consistent decline in demand for enlargements larger than 5 x 7 not to mention the increasingly rare 8 x 10. Many had interpreted the decline as a clear sign that consumers did not want enlargements however, recent market activity indicates that there is a growing market interest in enlargements from digital files. Why the change? The answer may be access. Many consumers found handling color negatives to be so difficult that the majority of them threw them away. In addition, it had become increasingly difficult to find photo labs with the specialized equipment to produce enlargements. Digital imaging eliminates many of these barriers making the images easier to handle and more accessible to the consumer. In addition, improvements in speed and quality made inkjet technology an inexpensive alternative to the traditional silver-halide processing equipment.
From the technological perspective, the defining moment for photographic quality wide format inkjet printing came in 2002 when Epson introduced the Stylus Pro 7600 and Stylus Pro 9600 printers. The 7600/9600 series were the first inkjet printers that could meet the requirements for producing photographic-quality prints. They produced high-quality images with deep rich colors and smooth gradations, printed on roll or cut sheet media and featured archival pigmented ink that delivered fade resistance exceeding traditional silver halide prints.
Available for less than $3000, the Stylus Pro 7600 is a digital custom darkroom in a box capable of producing incredible images up to 24-inches wide on everything from photo paper to canvas to pre-mounted boards up to 1.5 mm thick. Thousands of units have been sold for use for prepress proofing and commercial and fine-art prints. In spite of availability of the 7600 for more than 2 years, the consumer photographic market has been slow to adopt wide-format.
The situation is reminiscent of the late '70's and early 80's when everyone wondered whether there was a market for one hour processing. At the time, the one-hour minilab concept was new and wholesale photofinishing was inexpensive and readily available. There were spirited debates questioning; "Do people need their pictures in one hour and are they really willing to pay more for it?" This was the 80s; the decade that redefined the term instant gratification and coined the phrase: 'me generation'. The '80s proved that the 'me generation' did want prints in one-hour and, for several years, they were even willing to pay more for it. The one-hour minilab market was born and over the next 10 years, nearly 20,000 outlets were opened. It's important to note that the one-hour minilab was not catalyst for the photo market's unparalleled growth in the '80s. In fact, it was Konica's introduction of a high-quality auto focus point-and-shoot camera in 1978 and Fujifilm's introduction of one-time-use cameras in 1986 that made taking pictures more accessible than ever.
What do one-hour minilabs and point-and-shoot cameras have to do with wide format inkjet prints? Nothing and everything at the same time.
As the famous writer Mark Twain once said: "The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes." Just as the one-hour lab required easy-to-use point and shoot cameras to create the market, the Stylus Pro 7600 could not create the demand for photographic quality, wide-format prints without consumer access to high-quality images. The solution to the 'chicken or the egg' dilemma has been provided by the plethora of affordable 3 and 4 mega pixel digital cameras available today.
With all of the elements in place, it's a great time to add wide format inkjet to your minilab. If you have been in the lab business for some time, don't be intimidated by the technology. It's the easy part. The real challenge is marketing. It's about your ability to recognize an opportunity, develop the right products and services and communicate them to your customers. Here is some advice for getting started.
Forget what you think you know about the photo market. The rules that applied to film processing don't necessarily apply to digital imaging. Digital imaging has expanded the use of images in every possible way. Make sure you don't eliminate any of the possibilities.
Be creative. Continually look for new ways for your customers to use images. There may be a huge untapped market for printing Microsoft Word and Powerpoint documents on pre-mounted board for business presentations and school projects.
Expand your market. An Epson/Fujifilm wide format printer can print an on more than 40 different media types. Seek out local artists, schools, small business owners and anything you can find that may be interested in larger output on different media. The possibilities are endless.
How important is wide format to the specialty retail minilab? Very. With opportunities for new products and markets, it's possible that wide format printing could generate 20% or more of a lab's annual revenue. More importantly, the high-value products could generate an even higher percentage of the lab's profits. And, with new cameras and printers on the way, the future is exciting.
Gregory Kearnan is the director of Sales and Marketing, Digital Products at FujiHunt Photographic Chemicals Inc.