Liz Weidner has grown up in the photo industry. For as long as she can remember, she has been around photography, even working part-time in her parent's photo store as a teen. Today she's the co-owner of Woodward Camera and was featured as one of PTN's next generation of young guns in the January 2008 issue.
"I'm very optimistic about the photo specialty channel," says Liz, VP of Woodward Camera in Birmingham, MI, an upscale suburb 20 miles outside of Detroit. "Where some might see its limitations, I see its opportunities."
Weidner's dad, Bert, and mom, Ruby, who have been in the photo industry most of their adult lives, opened Woodward Camera in 1984. "I would help out in the store when I was younger, but I didn't get heavily involved until after I graduated from college in 1997," says Liz.
"We opened Woodward Camera in 1984 as a 6,400-square-foot, freestanding camera store and expanded from there," says Bert Weidner, president. "My daughter started working for us in high school and then went to school at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and worked for Camera World in North Carolina while at school. She worked for us when she came home during Christmas and holiday breaks. She came back full-time after graduation. Liz started and expanded our kiosk business. Today she buys about 80 percent of all the products we sell."
Bert is still active in the business and co-runs the camera specialty store along with his daughter. Woodward has 16 employees; nine are full-time. "My dad and I run the store together," says Liz. "We don't have any issues and are on the same page. It works out extremely well. It gives my dad the opportunity to take more time off and enjoy his senior years, and it also gives me [the ability] to spend time with my young children."
"I'm absolutely thrilled that my daughter has the same passion for the photo industry that I do," says Bert. "I've spent my life building this business. And the future of this industry is in services, kiosks, diversification--Liz is very capable to take the store into the future.
"What I've tried to instill in her over the years is that the customer is king--without our customers we wouldn't have a business at all," he continues. "We also treat our employees like family. That's how we've been able to build a very strong sales team [that] has helped build our success."
Secrets to Lasting Success
Liz credits the ability to offer a plethora of digital products and services over the years, as well as being a member of PRO, as reasons for their longevity. "A good portion of our success is probably from being a PRO member," she explains. "They make my job so much easier. PRO is a great organization--it brings together all the top photo-specialty dealers across the country. PRO's buying power helps us get great deals on equipment and supplies for the store. And their product recommendations help make purchasing decisions a snap for me. Their online ordering system comes in handy and streamlines my inventory when ordering products to stock. All that plus the meetings and the networking have given me valuable ideas and tips to help grow my business."
Liz recently attended the annual PRO convention in Fort Lauderdale, FL, where the buying group turned 50 this year. The retail group has evolved from its founding in 1958 with just six retailers to its current impressive stable of 131 members and 41 affiliate test-program participants, representing a total of 400 retail stores. "I get fantastic ideas every time I go to the PRO show," says Liz. "It's a great way to brainstorm with other dealers--to find out what's working and what's not working in their stores. We bounce ideas off of each other. We share ideas and pass them on to our peers."
Successful Digicam Sales
Despite having many big-box stores in their area, Woodward has been very successful selling cameras. "We sell DSLRs and point-and-shoots and carry all the top brands such as Sony, Nikon, Canon, Olympus, and Pentax," she says. "Sony is one of our fastest-growing brands. What has made us successful is that we actually don't follow the easiest plan, which many of the big-box stores do. One of the most important things my parents taught me was to listen to the customer and give them tremendous customer service. We listen to them and try to service what they need. We want happy customers walking out of our store, [so we] try to match them up with the right products."
The store's selection of products includes a host of accessories that range from camera bags and lenses to lighting equipment, software, and albums and frames.
Weidner's specialty programs are doing quite well in bringing customers back to the store. Most camera purchases come with a free photo class, free prints, and a discount card. "We offer for a free basic digital photography class, $50 in free prints, and a VIP discount card for every camera sold at $99 and up," she says. "It gives everyone who buys a camera from us the opportunity to come in and use our kiosks and try other output options that we offer. This program helps get lifelong customers. Even just one of the three offers makes it enough of a deal for them. This offer also makes the issue of price disappear real quickly."
She reports that they get about 20 percent retention in the photo class, and most customers pay $50 to take an additional Photoshop or a beyond-the-basics class. "In the basic class, we go over digital education and try to provide one-on-one attention," she says. "When you purchase a digital camera and you have questions, you first read the manual. It's going to tell you how to make every setting change on that camera; however, it's not going to tell you when to use those setting changes. That's what we try to bring to light in the class. We also try to stress the values of digital photography and make it a fun experience for the customer."
Over the years, Woodward has been able to change with the times, and while many camera dealers struggled with digital printing, they were able to thrive and be innovative. These innovations have come in the digital arena in the form of digital kiosk stations, online printing, and photobooks. "My dad saw early on that to be successful you need to be cutting edge and move into new services quickly, so when digital came along we were able to make the transition quite effectively," Liz explains.
Despite the digital shift, she reports that they still process a fair amount of film. Their processing arsenal includes a Fujifilm Frontier 710 digital minilab, a Konica R2 Super minilab, and a B&W developer.
Weidner has also moved into wide-format printing. The store features an Epson 9800 printer for making poster prints and fine-art reproductions. "We can turn around large-format work quite fast," she says. Other special services include videotape-to-DVD transfers, photo restorations, and high-volume photo scanning.
Woodward Camera houses eight kiosks from Lucidiom, plus the Lucidiom EQ photobook system. "We've had the photobook service in the store for about six months," says Liz. "It's one area that I see incredible growth for the future. I see the opportunities in volume sales for groups or schools. Photobooks take a lot of time to sell, so to be successful at it, you need to do it well and differently. In many cases it's easier to make one book and sell it to 15 people. That's a lot easier then helping 15 individual customers. We have been successful producing photobooks for some of our pros who shoot schools or events, who then sell them to their clients. We get many additional orders from them."
As the stores sales continued to grow, they also needed to remodel, but they had to do it wisely. "We wanted to remodel our store, but it was going to cost more than $200,000 just to bring it up to code," Liz says. "So we did it, but [just] on a smaller scale.
We added huge signs from many of our camera companies and also printed and put up huge prints taken by our customers," she adds. "These are images that most of our customers would take and connect with. Our customers loved the idea of seeing their images on display. We're printing more poster prints than ever before on our Epson. We were able to do the complete makeover for just under $20,000."
"Liz did a fantastic job with our makeover," Bert says. "Those big photos dramatically change the look of the whole store. Our signage is [among] the most magnificent in the country."
Read All About It in the Sunday Papers
The store services a wide variety of customers, from pros and prosumers to weekend warriors, beginners, and even "Jennifer."
With so many different types of customers, it means different marketing messages in their advertising. For the Weidners, that means reexamining their advertising and marketing messages and the target audiences of their media. "We've tried a number of different vehicles when it comes to advertising," Liz says. "We promote the store in newspapers and on the web and search engines, along with some radio and cable."
Liz says the most effective one for them has been flyers inserted in the Sunday paper. "We run four-color insert flyers in the Sunday paper," she explains. "We've found they get us the reach we're looking for, and it helps give us the level of professionalism in our message."
Looking at the Future
Liz says that despite the tough economics time ahead, there's plenty to be excited about. "Although there will be some tough times ahead with the economy, I see the glass as half full," she says. "There are plenty of opportunities out there to be successful in camera specialty. There are people out there who don't know how to get their images off their media cards. Find solutions for them--make them happy and they'll be back. Many of my customers depend on my store for everything in their digital life.
"I think people in the industry should be psyched," she adds. "The numbers in processing are really starting to skyrocket. We already hit the plateau in home printing. People realize it's overrated, it's time consuming, it's hard to do, and we can do it better."
She feels that consumers are finally starting to get it when it comes to making digital prints at retail. "Preservation of memories is key in helping fuel the demand for digital printing at retail," she explains. "They realize that they can't have files sitting on their media cards. They also don't want to spend lots of time and money making prints at home. Consumers are doing their homework, and so are we as an industry."