Magazine Article


Calumet Photographic
Where the Pros Have Been Going for 70 Years

When Kenneth Becker first formed Calumet Manufacturing Company in Chicago, IL back in 1939, he probably had no idea that his small sporting goods store would become the global photo retail giant it is today. In 2009, Calumet Photographic has 10 locations in the United States, 20 in Europe and operates in five countries, with stores in the U.S., U.K., Belgium, Germany and Holland.

"The goal at Calumet is to empower the world of image makers," said David Drew, CEO at Calumet Photographic. "That goal has been forged by a steady evolution over these past 70 years in meeting the equipment needs of the professional photographer. Our roots date back to 1939 when Calumet started out as a sporting goods store that sold just a few cameras and we have evolved from there," said Drew.

"We don't necessarily sell cameras to people who buy cameras. We deal with people who use cameras. None of our competitors have made the major investment and commitment to the pro channel like Calumet has," he added.

Rich Photographic History

As Calumet began to expand in the 1940s, it moved into manufacturing and selling stainless steel developing trays and other darkroom equipment. "That was their first foray into the photographic market," said Drew. "In the early 1950s, Calumet secured a contract from Kodak to manufacture a line of cameras for them, which became their very serious play into photography and one that has been maintained ever since," he added.

Drew said in 1955, Kodak decided to get out of the view camera business, and sold Calumet the rights to its Master View 4x5 camera. "That set the course for other photographic innovations by Calumet in the 1960s, such as the Caltar large format lens line, the C-2 roll film holder and the nitrogen burst film and print processors. It is product innovations like these that continue with many of our own branded products that we sell today," he explained.

In 1980, after 40 years of manufacturing and selling its mostly large-format proprietary product lines, Calumet became a full-line supplier of professional photographic products. The end result was their first comprehensive photographic supply catalog.

Global Success

In the '90s Calumet Photographic went global when it acquired Keith, Johnson and Pelling, a photo retail chain in the United Kingdom. Soon after locations in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany followed. "The acquisition of Keith, Johnson and Pelling gave us a real global focus. This global focus expanded further in 1998, when we launched our website and moved the company into the digital age. Today, Calumet continues to grow, adding new digital products and services to our stores and warehouses every day. Our mission is to empower, educate and equip photographers and cinematographers to achieve their creative visions. Currently, we have 30 retail stores around the world to help carry out that mission," said Drew.

"Photographers around the world have been coming to Calumet Photographic for 70 years because they know where to go for the equipment they need and expert advice they can't get anywhere else. Our sales associates know the photo industry inside and out; they're on hand to answer questions and offer advice so users can make informed buying decisions. Whether they shoot traditional or digital, it's our commitment to help them get exactly what they need when they need it," he pointed out.

Celebrating a Major Milestone

Don Ernest, vice president of U.S. marketing, said that Calumet's 70th anniversary will be featured prominently in their marketing throughout the year. "2009 is going to be an exciting year for us. It's going to be one where we will celebrate this wonderful milestone. One where we will be reflecting back on past technologies, one where we will look at future ones, and one where we will continue to evolve our business model as well. Just as photography has changed over the years, we continue to evolve and continue to be the place were pros go to meet all their photographic needs. Over the years we have developed a very successful sales strategy to reach the pro photographers. We have the retail locations, sales office call centers and the internet. It's a great three-prong strategy."

Ernest stressed that another reason for the company's successful longevity is taking care of the customer. "Customer service is a very important element at Calumet. We are a direct line for orders, questions, concerns and advice for all the products that we carry. When pros walk into to our stores or dial our call centers, or visit our website, they are speaking with highly trained, professional and personable associates knowledgeable in every aspect of photography."

"Our tagline is 'where the pros go'. If the pro is most comfortable ordering a high-end product online from our website, we are there for them. If they want to have the security of walking into one of our stores and holding the device before making the purchase, we are there for them. And, if they have one last question for making that purchase they can phone our call centers and we are there for them too," he said.

Ernest reported that the website continues to be their fast growing sales channel. "We are seeing more pros purchasing more high-end equipment online. Our website has been successful because we've been able to integrate it with the retail locations and the call centers. The web has helped create a great synergy between our three business channels."

The Emerging Advanced Amateur

While the core focus of their business is still on the professional photographer, Ernest has seen a large influx of advanced amateurs as new customers. "In the past year or so we are seeing a lot more advanced amateurs out there that are carrying the gear that the pros use like the Nikon D3 or Canon EOS 5D Mark II models, so we began to reach out to that market as well. We are seeing advanced amateurs are purchasing more higher-end models. When we began to target this demographic in 2006, we started calling this advanced amateur segment 'photocrats'. The name 'photocrat' embodies what the advanced amateur is all about. Many of our pro customers were happy that we started to cater to this segment too because they realized that many of these 'photocrats' shared the same passion for photography that they did," he pointed out.

Emerging Video Capabilities

Val Maros, vice president of U.S. operations, is very excited with camera makers such as Canon and Nikon incorporating high-end video into their newer DSLR models. "The convergence of video in digital cameras is really growing. The video quality of the new Nikon D90 and Canon 5D Mark II is fantastic. We are seeing more photographers starting to dabble in video while some of our customers are getting more serious about it. Shooting videos can greatly expand their businesses. When you shoot video you can publish it right on the web; whether it is footage of a wedding or a fashion shoot. We see 2009 as a year with many DSLR cameras being introduced offering more video capabilities and video cameras with incredible still-capture features," Maros predicted.

Selling Branded Accessories

Another area that sets Calumet ahead from the rest of the pack is that they manufacture their own lines of photographic products. "Our Bowens line is known worldwide for featuring the most innovative and advanced studio lighting systems available. In addition, our lines of Cambo technical cameras and accessories have been big sellers for us as well," said Maros.

Calumet also sells a host of private label products: tripods, filters and backpacks that are very successful with the pro. "These products bring photographers a tremendous value for their money. We are also introducing more products for the advanced amateur segment as well," said Maros.

At PhotoPlus Expo last year, Calumet unveiled a number of new lines of affordable products for the "photocrat," including the Genesis 200ws and 400ws monolights. "These extremely affordable, yet sophisticated self-contained flash units provide photographers with all the power and lighting control that they will need to create professional-looking portraits and great still-life tabletop photographs," said Maros.

Calumet's U.S. distribution center and corporate offices are housed in their downtown Chicago location. They also have stores strategically placed in major cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Much of their growth can be attributed to organic growth and through acquisitions of competitors in major cities. One recent organic move came in 2007 when Calumet moved its Bensenville store to a convenient new location in Oak Brook, IL. "The move to a major shopping area gave us an excellent opportunity to serve the professional and advanced amateur photographers in Chicago's Western suburbs. It's right next to the Oak Brook Shopping Mall, which is one of the largest malls in the country. The store is very inviting, especially for the advanced amateur. The 5,000 sq. ft. showroom offers a larger selection of photo gear and supplies and a greater selection for hands-on demos as well as more space dedicated for educational seminars," said Harry Werlin, vice president of U.S. sales.

Committed to Education

Calumet is very committed to offering their customers a fresh and interesting variety of in-store events and seminars to ensure they stay on the cutting edge in whatever they do. "From new-product demo days to customer-appreciation sales to the opportunity to talk with manufacturer reps, we have a slew of events specially designed with our cutomers' needs in mind," said Werlin.

Calumet offers classes for both pros and advanced amateurs. "In addition to offering seminars on new equipment and technologies we also offer programs for pros to better help them run their businesses. We are conducting a seminar in the Oak Brook store in January on how pros can better market their business. We also offer classes for photocrats; guiding them to take their photography skills to next level. We ran an Adobe Lightroom Version 2 intensive two-day seminar in January in our New York store where they can learn how to better mange their workflow. The computer is the new darkroom of the digital age," he said.

Drew sees that the face of the pro market is changing with new generation of pros getting into the market and that education of those photographers will be a key. "The passion of photography comes in all shapes and sizes. And as those changes happen in the market, Calumet is going to be the brand that's there for them, helping them make the right equipment choices. Our customers vote for Calumet by calling our phone sales team, walking in to one of our retail locations, or visiting our website. We share a passion for photography with our customers and that passion won't go away. While we think that 2009 will be a challenging year for many retailers, our business model has left us well positioned to forge through and celebrate our history along the way," he concluded.