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Digital Passports to New Business: Photo Specialty Takes On the U.S. Post Office Over Lucrative Pass



With the increasing demand for photo I.D.s in a post-9/11 world, it was only a matter of time before camera stores with passport photo services began to feel the squeeze of competition.

What comes as something of a surprise though is not the competition itself, but where it's coming from. This time, instead of the usual suspects like the mass market channel or the drug store chains, photo specialty is finding itself going head to head with the biggest kid on the block-the U.S. Government itself.

Yes, the U.S. Postal Service is in the passport photo business and some retailers are steamed the Post Office seems to be flexing its muscles in ways photo specialty cannot.

Photo specialty is steamed that the U.S. Postal Service is now advertising its passport photo services.

In addition to offering passport photos at select locations, the Postal Service has begun what amounts to a direct mail campaign for its photo services. As part of the campaign to advertise that it takes photos and processes passports, the Postal Service has been distributing flyers in mailboxes.

The flyers show three images: a picture of pyramids with the words "GO HERE"; a picture of a U.S. Passport with "WITH THIS"; and a picture of a U.S. Post Office with "FROM HERE." Below the images it reads: "Smile-now we take passport photos, too."

The back of the flyer offers information on which post offices in a particular region offer passport photo services. Post offices that offer passport photos have also advertised those services with banners.

"They get free advertising of a service that photographers have to pay to do," said Steve Noble, executive of Environmental and Legal Industry Issues for PMA which is monitoring the situation.

Noble estimated that about 200 post offices across the country offer passport photo services. To make matters worse, the U.S. House of Representatives is considering a bill that contains a clause allowing the Post Office to engage in "work outside of their regular services." Noble and others feel that if this bill passes, it would give the Post Office carte blanche to continue offering and advertising passport photo services.

"If we can defeat the House bill, or at least take the clause out, I think we can stop them," he told PTN. Noble added that the bill, called the Post Office Reform Bill, is not likely to go up for a vote before summer recess especially with the election coming up. As a grass roots effort, he recommended that retailers concerned about the issue should write their legislators and ask that the clause be taken out of the bill.

The increased demand for photo I.D.s hasn't only increased competition between photo specialty stores and the Post Office, it's increased competition between the makers of photo passport systems. As a result, passport systems have become more technically advanced, utilizing the latest in digital imaging and such technologies as wireless Bluetooth transmission to make the process easier and less expensive. We looked at a few of the latest systems on the market.

The Sony UPX-C200

Along with offering a 4MP digital camera, a digital photo printer that produces 403dpi photo-like prints and software that can generate 22 different layouts, the Sony UPX-C200 digital passport systems has something other manufacturers do not yet-wireless transmission of images for output.

The Sony UPX-C200 features wireless Bluetooth transmission.

With the UPX-C200, a photographer can capture an image and then print it directly from the camera without the need of cables or a camera docking station. Images can be transmitted wirelessly from the camera to up to three printers using Bluetooth technology.

"You can actually be 30 feet from the printer and send your images over," said Lynda Falby, marketing manager of Digital Photofinishing for Sony. "So, in a store with limited floor space, you can leave the camera on a tripod in a set area and then just Bluetooth it over."

The Bluetooth capability is one of the improvements on the UPX-C200, which was released last year.

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