It is an understatement to say that most who are on the periphery of the photo retail business, e.g. sales people, pundits, gurus, and the like, are optimistic and have continually attempted to push the market with regard to the introduction of new formats and technology. This is not to fault them, diligence and pragmatism is the lab owner’s responsibility. The stock and trade of the independent retailer was always information and superior service. Trading on this, we independents have always been able to create niche markets from those segments that wanted better quality and service.
It is all too apparent that as a group we have decided to let everyone else decide how our market should be defined. I’ve run into lab owners who are stunned to learn I still charge $.39 per digital photo. Many think they can compete with the mass merchants or online services with regard to price. At the same time, they wouldn’t dream of charging the same for reprints as prints with original roll developing.
Furthermore, I’ve never seen an industry run away from quality as fast as ours. Some of my peers are incredulous when they hear that I tell my customers that the best camera is still a film camera. It is only then I qualify that with, ‘do you wish to only email pictures?’ Not withstanding this effort, I’m surprised at how many film cameras I still sell to young women and moms who simply want nice photos of their children. Some of my peers have even called this practice of mine “dangerous.” This while they bemoan roll erosion and the lack of digital printing. We shouldn’t be afraid to tell the truth about the difference between film and digital quality. I see enough of both to tell you prints from film are decidedly better; and I am not afraid to say so. But with respect to digital printing, our lab currently “intercepts” kiosk orders and improves color and density. Some of my colleagues do not think this practice is important. It is an opportunity we don’t miss to tell the customer how much better we are when service is taken into consideration.
What message do you send to your customer when you sell them ink, paper and even the printer for their digital printing needs? Then you try to convince them you do a better job at a cheaper price. Last December I was in an office supply store behind three folks whose arms were filled with ink and paper. Did they know my store, right around the corner, could fulfill their needs better, faster and cheaper than they could do it themselves? Or were they under the impression that the “photo paper” they were buying was the same “photo paper” used in photo-labs. Either way they are victims of the most abused term in the industry: “photo paper.” This is because they believe the marketing of the print at home companies…the same companies that are also trying to sell us their products. Most importantly, consumers believe it because we as a group have done little to disabuse them of this misinformation.
I’ve been told by industry gurus to “be careful as inkjet printing gets better, you don’t want to be caught putting it down” and that “it is all good.” What I am telling my customers is that we “develop their photos on real photographic paper not home inkjet photo paper.” If a quizzical look happens over their face I explain further that our paper is developed in chemistry just like photos made from film and it has nothing in common with an inkjet printing process. I do this while showing them samples to touch and scratch. Usually the look and feel of the samples gets them to nod with understanding.
I’ve instituted a minimum purchase requirement where a customer who prints fewer than 20 images purchases a “loyalty card” which is simply a “pre-paid” printing punch card. It has been met favorably by the majority of customers when presented correctly. The card allows us to have a higher average sale and implants the idea with the customer of returning to us.
If you have a wide format printer as anyone in this business should now have, you should not feel like you are being duplicitous in selling this as an inkjet print. Large prints aren’t meant to be handled like small pictures, they’re made to be viewed from several feet away and are usually framed behind glass as well.
Changing the Market
Could we get the photo companies to mount a “print real photos” campaign? Could we get them to say that film is still better for the average picture taker?
Unfortunately it is not likely. But that should not stop us from doing it ourselves. We can’t allow those who obviously no longer have a vested interest in the small independent operator to define our marketing strategy or offerings. It should be apparent that to large manufacturers we have become much less important. The independent operator must make himself important in the eyes of his potential customer with imaginative offerings and the cold hard facts about quality the customer will not get from anyone else. Lab owners need to commit to an advertising program that takes these ideas to the customer. One should not be afraid of spending as much on advertising as they would on a fulltime employee. Local cable T.V. and direct bulk mail are affordable outlets for your message. Most importantly make a commitment to an advertising format for at least six months. People need to see your information several times before it “clicks” and in many cases before they realize they have a need you can fulfill. It is painful to hear about independent labs having a hard time. I know for many of us it is a source of great pleasure to help people capture and preserve the important moments in their lives. And just because our industry seems to have lost its way doesn’t mean we should lose our focus.