Photo retailers have been aware for years that passport photos have been a steady profit center, one that actually pays for itself in addition to helping to increase store traffic. While passport and ID photos aren't a luxury service, like portrait or glamour photography, they are vital and always in demand. And, if predictions are correct, that demand could set new all-time records as we head toward 2008.
The Department of State recently announced that it hit new records in March and April, issuing more than three million passports to Americans planning international travel. For the first seven months (October through April) of Fiscal Year 2007, the department issued 8.6 million passports. This is a 33% increase from the same period last year and is more passports than were issued in any single full year before 2003.
"The passport market is exploding, and it's the perfect time for dealers to aggressively start promoting the service," explains Belinda LoPresti, marketing manager at Sony. "With a minimum investment in hardware, labor, and inventory, the passport business can probably be one of the highest margin items in a camera store or minilab."
LoPresti pointed out that the new government regulations are helping to fuel the demand for passport photos. "The demand for ID photos is increasing due to the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, where travelers to the Caribbean, Bermuda, Panama, Mexico, and Canada must have a passport to enter or re-enter the United States," she says. "As of January 8, 2007, the requirement applied to all air and sea travel to or from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. As of December 31, 2007, the requirement extends to all land border crossings, as well as to air and sea travel."
Sony Takes the Lead
With so pressing a need for this service, it's strange that there are not as many suppliers supporting this market anymore. This could perhaps be because many retailers are using standard digital cameras to shoot images, using software to set up the different crop requirements and then outputting them to their digital minilab equipment.
"While this is true and it is happening in the market, understand that this new method for outputting to a minilab can be a ‘kludge' system that offers much frustration to consumers," says LoPresti. "Imagine waiting weeks to get your passport renewed, and on top of that having the photo rejected due to incorrect sizing, shadow, and cropped images. Sony has taken the guesswork out of the entire process by offering a system that conforms to the passport standards. It guides the retailer through the entire process so that very few photos are rejected by the passport office. There is no guesswork, since the correct U.S. passport size can be easily selected; there are guidelines for placement of head and chin, and the large flash ensures elimination of shadows. Add to all this that the capital investment of our system is so marginal that it's really not an issue from the retailer standpoint."
Olympus and Mitsubishi have had dedicated passport systems in the past but have withdrawn from this market, and Polaroid is no longer the dominant player in this space that it used to be. The clear-cut leader in the passport camera market is Sony, who entered this area in the late '90s.
Sony offers a few products that help provide an easy solution to retailers. Their UPX-C200 Digital Printing System features direct printing from the camera without the need for cable connections or for a camera docking station. The system can transmit images from the camera to up to three printers wirelessly, using Bluetooth technology.
Sony's UPX-C200 can conform to all major standards for identification photos. A digital photo printer with the camera creates photo-like prints at a resolution of 403 dpi, and can produce up to 22 different layouts on 4x6-inch media, including one full-bleed mini portrait and two 2x2-inch passport photos. The camera itself features a 1.8-inch swivel-LCD that can be adjusted 90 degrees and can store up to 200 images.
No More Peeling
"The peel-off Polaroid passports are long gone; it's totally a digital environment," says Mitch Goldstone at 30 Minute Photos Etc. in Irvine, CA. "The best solution is to use a digital camera and print out perfect photographic-quality passport photos in minutes that meet the official requirements and are easy to produce in large quantities. Even if a customer asks for just two (we charge $10.95), we always include two extras and explain that it's just in case they lose their passport, so they have an extra set. Our cost is about 10-cents! The real value is the super-fast turnaround using our Noritsu 3213 digital lab. We use a regular Kodak digital camera, and that's it. The real money is on the extras and gaining new customers who we win over to come back once they return from their trips."
Goldstone says that since their passport customers are going to be traveling, they include with the service a complimentary Häagen-Dazs ice cream bar or other treats, plus a coupon for 50 free online photos. "This helps to get them hooked to come back and print all the images they will be taking while on vacation," he says.
He reports that business in this area has been quite good. "This has been our best year ever for passport photos, as people are rushing to update their passports and are looking for places that can provide the photos without hassles or errors," he says. "We have heard horror stories of people ordering passports from chain stores and other non-expert service providers. If there is an error, they have to come back and redo their photos. We are happy to help them get it right."
Snap-Happy in Hoboken
Another retailer reaping the benefits of the exploding passport market is Mimosa Digital, located in Hoboken, NJ. "There was a mad rush at the beginning of the year when the regulations first came into effect," says owner Jason Jaslow. "We were swamped with passport requests. Business has slowed down a little since then, but it is still running at a much higher clip than in recent years."
The full-service photo retailer is in an ideal location in the city. "We are right next to the Hoboken train station, so each day we have hordes of people commuting to and from New York City," says Jaslow. "That's a lot of foot traffic. In addition, Hoboken is an ethnically diverse area, so we get people from all different nationalities needing photo IDs for all sorts of applications. Our motto is that we offer immigration and passport photos that are guaranteed to fit our customers' specifications."