2001 AD (After Digital)
by Brian Biaca
Western historians used the birth of Jesus as a convenient
marker to divide history: BC denotes Before Christ and AD (Anno
Domino) or "year of our Lord" meant to signify the 2000 some odd
years since. Photo retailers may likewise divide up their existence
into discrete phases: BD, or Before Digital, and AD, Anno Digital,
year of digital.
To say that the advent of digital imaging has wrought seismic change in the retail market is an understatement akin to saying that Osama bin Laden has a few personality flaws. Everything from who's doing the buying, who's doing the selling, how the industry is perceived, to the hobby and very language of photography have all undergone rather dramatic alterations in the wake of the rising digital tide.
Imaging retail was, by all accounts, stagnating in the years prior to the birth of consumer level digital imaging. APS never lived up to the hype and profit expectations trumpeted by manufacturers. Single-use cameras were a pleasant surprised but offered profit on the back end, printing, rather than a margin on the hardware.
The photography demographics were static, women took more pictures, made more prints and photo retail franchisers, like MotoPhoto, were designing store fronts that put the emphasis on what they considered a more feminine appeal (more frames, less conspicuous gadgetry and processing equipment) to court the dominant demographic.
Photo retail was, in a word "boring," says Ed Buchbinder, president of Alkit, a New York City specialty retailer. "It was going nowhere before digital."
"Photography was definitely flat before consumer digital cameras hit the shelves," says Mark Robertson, president of Beach Photo, a Florida retailer in business since 1926 (the store, not the youthful Mr. Robertson). "From a finishing standpoint, the market was saturated with one hour labs, you could get prints anywhere: a drug store, supermarket or gas station, so it was hard for the specialty retailer to differentiate himself.
"In terms of sales, the product had no where to go. Prices were so low on point and shoot cameras that they were really just junk and people weren't happy with them."
Then around 1996 the digital camera began to infiltrate the retail sphere and reworked conventional notions of photography, injecting it with a vitality that has been embraced by retailer and consumer alike. According to most retailers, digital has, in just a few years, instigated a renaissance in the hobby of photography.
"I definitely believe that digital has resurrected photography as a hobby," claims Mark Von Keszycki, Photo/Camcorder category manager at Good Guys, a consumer electronics retailer. "From the numbers I've seen, people are snapping more pictures than ever before and sharing them over e-mail to a wide audience."
"Digital has really divided up our customer base," states Robertson. "We now have two kinds of customers: those looking for the newest, hottest digital camera and those looking for advanced, manual focus film cameras. The traditional point and shoot customer has vanished." According to Robertson, he or she has presumably been lured by the "curiosity" that is digital imaging.
"It's definitely injected life into the consumer and, hopefully, the retailers," says Buchbinder.
The renaissance in photography is closely tied with the perception that digital imaging is part and parcel of the general infatuation with high tech gadgetry.
"It's really conceived as a high tech product," says Von Keszycki. "I think that's one of the reasons we do so well with them. We don't sell computers, so we don't position it as a peripheral, but it still has a link with electronics in people's minds."