Dealer of the Year
by Lorraine A. DarConte
Photos by Lorraine DarConte
(left: NYC; right: Alkit Pro, Park Ave. location)
New York City's Park Avenue is a fascinating blend of old and
new structures where turn-of-the-century churches quietly
intermingle with glass and steel skyscrapers and classic New York
landmarks such as the Chrysler building. Grand Central Station
coughs up throngs of commuters at regular intervals and they
quickly disperse in a thousand directions onto crowded sidewalks
and into waiting cabs. While some grab a cup of coffee, a bagel, or
a newspaper at corner kiosks, others disappear into hundreds of
buildings that line the busy Avenue. Alkit Pro Camera occupies one
of those buildings, conducting business from 222 S. Park Avenue
since the early 1980s.
The corner store, open seven days a week, is housed in a rather grand stone edifice with a stately awning. Inside, the shelves are stocked with film, batteries, ink jet paper and inks, frames and albums, tripods, background papers, and darkroom supplies. To the right, just inside the door, is the photofinishing area, complete with a Kodak Picture Maker, two Fuji Frontier 390s, a Fuji LP2500P and two Noritsu minilabs. Pegboards are laden with professional accessories, and glass-enclosed showcases neatly house the latest cameras, digital cameras, binoculars, light meters, flash units, and more. Easy-to-read signs listing both price and features are propped up next to each item. Toward the back of the store are the Rental and Digital Solutions centers, and smack in the middle is the new Fuji Digital Demonstration Area. Tucked behind the sales area is a bustling little warehouse and phone/computer center where orders from around the city and country are processed.
Although Alkit gives the appearance of a large corporate conglomerate, it is a family-run business. Ed Buchbinder, his sons Steven and David, and daughter Hildy, all hold key positions within the business. Ed Buchbinder, company president, began building the business back in 1964 when he first went to work for his father-in-law at what was then Modern Photo Shops (on 52nd and Third Ave). "I was fresh out of college," states Buchbinder, who did not have a photographic background to draw from.
"My father-in-law gave me a Kodak Retna camera as a birthday present when I was dating his daughter. It was the first camera I ever owned; I didn't have a clue to what photography was all about." Luckily, back in 1964, Kodak conducted classes in Rochester to help educate photo retailers. "If you had a store," remembers Buchbinder, "you could send your people up there for a few days for a basic course in selling. The course was about learning the equipment — I got to go to Niagra Falls with a camera and take a few pictures — but more importantly it was about learning how to sell. And it was a very good course; I still use a lot of what I learned today.
(Bottom Left) View of NYC from the Empire State
(Photos by Lorraine DarConte)
"We went from 1,500 square feet to 20,000 square feet, which was a huge endeavor for us at the time," says Buchbinder, "but it turned out very well and business continued to grow. We also kept the store on Third Avenue and continued our retail presence there. Five years ago we added three KICS (Kodak Imaging Center Solutions) stores, which cater to a very knowledgeable amateur clientele. The KICS stores are based upon photofinishing camera sales, binoculars, etc. We also do a tremendous amount of photofinishing out of this [Park Ave.] location both for professionals and amateurs. I came from a store where photofinishing was the backbone of the business," states Buchbinder. "So even though I came downtown to chase professionals, I still had a feeling that photofinishing should be an important part of the business. So I opened a minilab in the store."
Of course, Buchbinder's critics thought mixing amateur and professional services was a misguided notion. But he proved them wrong. "Instead of being a one-hour amateur lab, I turned it into a one-hour professional lab," he explains. "[The pros] needed the work done perfectly — and that's how we do it — it just happens to be quick. They laughed at Christopher Columbus," reiterates Buchbinder, "but photofinishing has been a huge profit center for the store all these years. Now it's 2001, we've had a digital revolution, and I'm spending a lot of time discussing output, which is really photofinishing, so what has really changed? Not much. It's still the profit center of the business," he notes. "Say we sell a digital camera or scanner today for $1,000. That product may have a life of three to five years (for the customer). So where's the bang for us? The bang is having that consumer come in and have us do all the manipulation and output of images for them. That's where the bang is. That's where I want to be."
"I think consumers are looking for quality photofinishing, and they're really not receiving that." Buchbinder notes that drug stores (who have captured a good share of the photofinishing business) that are doing a less than stellar job of photofinishing help his business. "I believe our stores have to compete in the arena of quality as opposed to the arena of price. People will spend $3.50 to $4.00 for a Starbucks latte cappuccino double, without sugar; I don't see why they won't spend another three or four dollars on processing. And they get to keep those memories forever, as opposed to five minutes pleasure for a cup of coffee."
(Top Right) Joe Brady, Alkit Pro, Park Ave. location.
(Bottom Left) Aerial view of New York City.
(Photos by Lorraine A. DarConte.)
New Technology, Old Technology
Even with its emphasis on digital product and services, Alkit Pro Camera still stocks a fair amount of darkroom supplies. "The entire area that we are devoting to the digital area used to be darkroom," notes Buchbinder. Although the department is constantly scaled down, darkroom will continue to have a presence in the store. "Again, it's part of our industrial/commercial business all over the country, and we do sell to many schools in the area." Another portion of the business that has lost a lot of ground is APS. "I was one of the first to embrace APS. As soon as it came out we either bought new equipment or changed what we had to APS. It's declining both in camera sales and photofinishing," he states. "Unfortunately, Kodak has always messed around with smaller format film rather than going up. It was rumored years ago they would go to 'Super 35,' which is what they should have done — capture another 30-40 percent on the film. APS was not nearly as successful as it should have been. The main problem," he says, "is the consumer saw a difference going from 35mm to APS, even with the added advantages of print sizes, etc."
Those dwindling areas aside, other portions of the business are thriving. "In New York City," explains Buchbinder, "most of the professional photographers had given up their photo studios, so there was a great need for rental equipment. We went into the rental business, and we're now one of the largest equipment rentals in the city. We also opened up ADI (Alkit Digital Imaging), which is located on 27th Street and is 5,000 square feet. At ADI, we provide high-end retouching, scanning (flatbed and Phase One), IRIS and Roland prints, Kodak Photo CD and Pro CD, Portfolio CD, large format inkjet, Duratrans, murals, Fujix 4000 prints, Giclée and Canon prints, retouching, and digital photography. The imaging center also services the other stores."
In addition, Alkit Digital Solutions debuted at the Park Avenue store approximately one year ago. This department, managed by Joe Brady, provides the professional/industrial community with high-end digital photographic solutions including, computer integration and output. Brady trains customers and staff on product, equipment and software. He also tests new product, such as Kodak's DCS 760 and 720 digital SLR cameras, which he considers "top of the line digital SLRs." States Brady, "What we do is above and beyond manufacturer specs. We test in-house and with the customer, and then present our findings, warts and all. We're here to present a solution to our customers' needs." To do this, Brady asks clients what their objectives are and then finds ways to help them meet their goals via printers, scanners, software, cameras, etc.