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Passport Business Ready to Kick Into High Gear



They say there’s no business like show business. They’re wrong. There’s really no business like the passport business. And it’s about to get better.

With everyone clamoring to fill in the void of lost processing rolls, one would expect that every stone would be turned looking for rough gems that could be polished into new opportunities. The digital world is sending everyone into a tizzy on how to make profits in this environment. Equipment to be bought; store re-designs; promotional activities; new concepts to understand. Decisions, decisions.

You are already providing a service that is so automatic and so under the radar that you hardly know it’s there. I’m talking about shooting passport photos. With a minimum investment in hardware, labor, and inventory the shooting of passports is probably one of the highest margin items in your store. But, be honest: when was the last time you spent a penny advertising or promoting passports? Or, even thought about the passport business?

Though only a tiny segment of any on-site photo operation, from the large mass chain to the smallest independent, passport photo business, nevertheless, results in a neat, steady cash flow—whether management is aware of it or not. As I spoke to various principals, it was amazing how many knew so little about how many passports their staff shot a week or the revenue it produced. Invariably, they turned to a subordinate for information.

When I owned eight of my own minilabs in New Jersey I treasured the passport photo service we offered. I had a Polaroid passport camera in every store (along with a hair dryer) and I kept a backup in the office in case a camera broke down. I didn’t want to lose one sitting. I had a neon sign in every window offering instant passport services and every newspaper ad included the fact that I had free passport applications.

With a revenue of $9.95 and a cost of $1 for a Polaroid sheet with two images, I was amazed at how the profit added up at the end of the year. It looked good on the bottom line.

Why Promote Passport Photos?

Despite the quiet, positive roll it plays, the passport business does not grab too many headlines in our trade press. This is my 149th column and I don’t think I’ve ever focused on the subject.

Why now?

Thanks to the U.S. government, your passport business is about to increase—even if you do nothing. There are new State Department regulations that will mean automatic boosts for every passport shooter and potentially significant boosts for any on-site operation that decides to make a meaningful effort to promote the business.

A quick explanation: As of January 8, 2007, ALL persons traveling by air between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda will be required to present a valid passport. Beginning one year later, 2008, people traveling to these same places by land or sea, will also need a passport.

In the past one could travel from the Caribbean, for example, and return by just showing a driver’s license or birth certificate or some other proof of citizenship. What might the impact be? Look at the accompanying chart (below) to see how many passports have been issued in each of the last 10 years. Since 1997, passports issued have about doubled in number from over six million to over 12 million. The only down year came after Sept. 11. For the past two years they have increased about 20% each year.

With the State Department estimating that only 27% of Americans have a passport, the volume should bloom. They are guessing 16 million in the current fiscal year, which would be an increase of over 30%. If the typical lab operator only opens the door in the morning, passport business should increase by that much. Consider what might happen if someone starts to actively advertise and promote the potential.

Passport Camera Systems

How are passports being shot on-site these days? At one time the Polaroid Model 203, mini-portrait twin-lens camera, using Polaroid type 669 film was the standard. If you wanted an ‘instant’ passport picture, that’s what it was shot on and it is still being used at some labs and in most post offices. But, as with everything else photo, digital came on the scene and Sony designed a system that included its own digital camera and dye-sub printer dedicated for passport output.

The Sony UPX-C200 system, at $1,495, seems to be the choice for many passport locations, both at independent dealers as well as chains, such as Kinkos. Using Bluetooth, it is possible to do the shoot and transfer the images to the printer without any cable connection. The camera is four megapixels in resolution, with auto focus and gridlines for framing the subject.

The print output is rather versatile, offering a 4x6 sheet with either two, four, or six prints per sheet and can include different people images on the same sheet. The ability to print the image in different sizes, not just 2x2-inches, makes the system useful for the output of specially sized images for Visas and other ID needs.

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