Dan's Camera City - Allentown, PA
by Dan Havlik
It's one of the oldest saws in the retail business"The customer is always right." Lots of people say it. Few truly mean it. Regardless of how one feels about the adage, few would argue that it has become the first commandment of selling, surpassing even "Location, location, location" and "Always stay ahead of the competition" in the top ten list of great retail mottos.All photos by Dan Havlik except where indicated
At Dan's Camera City in Allentown, Pennsylvania, PTN's 2002 Dealer of the Year, the customer really is always right. During a recent visit to Dan's, a 15,000-square-foot store nestled on a quiet tree-lined street just outside the city center, we witnessed a customer returning a two-year-old, out-of-stock frame and getting immediate store credit for it, not because it was Dan's policy, but because it was good business. We also saw a Dan's staffer laboring over a broken SLR shutter that the camera's owner had accidentally put his finger through, not because the staff member was doing an expensive repair job, but because he was giving some free help to a loyal customer. And we talked to some of those loyal customers face to face; most who had come from miles around for Dan's professional-level processing, its large selection of albums and frames, or its comprehensive line of digital cameras. But along with the great selection, many people visit Dan's just to get knowledgeable photo advice from one of the store's highly trained retail staff members, almost all of whom are Certified Photographic Consultants.
Take Grace Evanko who drove fifteen miles with her husband Jim from their home in Nazareth, PA to pick out film, batteries and a cute airplane-shaped frame for a relative who flies for Federal Express.
"We've been going to Dan's since before it was here," Grace told PTN. "The sales people are very helpful. If there's a problem, they always solve it."
Then there are the cards, letters and emails that come flooding into Dan's on a regular basis. "I have gone from a hobbyist to a sports photographer/writer and feel that a lot of this is due to the great staff," one emailer wrote proudly. "I have gone from just taking pictures to getting paid to take pictures."
Another letter writer who's been shopping at Dan's for the last ten years gushed: "Much credit for the success and happiness which I enjoy as a photographer is due to this past decade of expert attention and help which I've come to expect from your excellent customer service people."
In short, the concept behind Dan's Camera City has been to create the feel and services of a professional-level photo specialty store in an environment catering toward the consumer, layman photographer and photo enthusiast.
"The failure I saw in photo retail was that the photo specialty store was for the photographer and the picture taker had the department store," explains Dan Poresky, owner and operator of Dan's Camera City, which is currently celebrating its 25th year. "Nobody was serving the picture taker in a photo specialty environment and that's what I wanted to create."
With 65 staff members, all but a few who are full time, and an average of over 400 customers a day, Dan's is the largest single-location camera store in Pennsylvania, proving that there's still something to be said for great customer service.
The Employee's Always Right
The customer's always right. Well, sure they are. Everybody who's been in retail for more than a minute knows that. But what about the employee? Can the employee always be right too? At Dan's Camera City, the employee is always right, in that they are always afforded the right to speak and be heardand this has been the real secret to Dan's success.
"Our employees are free to complain and they don't have to worry about the repercussions. We've removed the fear of being outspoken and that creates a tremendous sense of empowerment," Poresky says. "By saying it's okay to speak up and give me your opinion, it forces us to change and make the store better for our customers and employees."
Evidence of those staff suggestions are rampant throughout Dan's Camera Citysmall sheets of paper or charts tacked up and pasted onto almost every available free space in the staff areas of the store. The sheets of paper are what is known as "systems" at Dan's Camera City, or "tools for increased efficiency and productivity." They might be as simple as the bright red label affixed to a paper cartridge to denote that it accepts glossy, not matte paper. Or they might be as sophisticated as a guide with a variety of photos attached to it to show whether the quality of a certain type of print meets Dan's high standards. In the end they are all part of Dan's mission "To be the best specialty retail business in the country by developing and maximizing systems for continuous improvement utilizing full staff participation."
In fact, the entire layout of the store is one giant system designed to maximize efficiency, inspire good customer-employee relations and, ultimately, induce sales.
When Dan decided to move his operation in 1994 to its current Fairmont Street location from a smaller store about a mile away, what he had to work with was basically 15,000 square-feet of raw warehouse space. Instead of making it a long rectangular store like most of his "big-box" competitors, he designed the interior in a semi-circle with the sales counter exactly a third of the way into the store and the various departments spread out around it. Behind doors in each department are stock rooms filled with supplies that can be easily accessed when items run low.