Nestled in the heart of the idyllic northwest college town of Corvallis, OR, is Rush Hour Photo & Wireless—along with OSU (Oregon State University), rolling hills home to thick forests, a dairy-farming community, a handful of high-tech companies (including Hewlett-Packard), and the town’s population of 50,000 residents. About half of the population is made up of the students, faculty, and support staff of OSU and a few thousand people who work at HP. The rest are locals, many of whom have lived in the town for most, if not all, of their lives.
Driving through downtown Corvallis, it’s hard to miss the octagonal shape of Rush Hour’s building, which often has balloons out front to draw attention to the small shop. Owner Paul Rentz, who opened the store as Rush Hour Photo in 1985 (he changed the name to Rush Hour Photo & Wireless in 2002), grew up outside of Detroit, Michigan and lived on the East Coast in his younger years, so he was hit with culture shock when he moved to Corvallis. There weren’t any malls back when he arrived in town—just the one store that stocked everything you’d need, like clothing, food, and pharmacy items. But he’s discovered a definite small-town advantage: you get to meet people and watch them grow up. “You know everyone here,” Paul says.
Rush Hour is staffed by Paul, Aileen Anderson, Wireless Manager (13 years); Barbara Stagner, Photo Manager (2 years); Liz Ransom, Photo Lab Assistant (1 year); and Daniel Keese, and Chase Andrews, both recent hires from a regional department store where both worked printing on the same equipment we use—and both also worked in the electronics area of that store. Both also seem to enjoy learning the ‘deeper secrets’ of printing on a Noritsu digital lab that department stores don’t explore.
Wireless was originally added as just a small section in 1993, before many in the Corvallis area even knew what a wireless phone was or how it would change the way people communicate. In fact, when Paul first added the wireless phones to his product mix, people wondered why he was doing it—no one was really sure it would take off.
A Verizon rep came in during the 1992 Christmas season and began servicing Rush Hour in January 1993. That first month, no phones were sold. February brought one sale, and in March they made 20 sales. It turned out to be a great sale to vertical markets, such as insurance agents, real estate agents, and the like—in essence, mobile businesspeople, individuals Rush Hour already had contact with in the neighborhood.
“We were the first retail location in Corvallis that offered US West,” he says. “US West had 35 customers in the mid-Willamette Valley then (the company eventually merged into Verizon). Cellphones were mainly used for B2B back then, they were expensive and bulky, and people were not used to using them.” Rush Hour grew to offering wireless service plans from four carriers, but because of the way the wireless companies are restructuring, the store is now exclusively a Verizon Wireless dealer. “The Verizon rep came to see us because of the location,” he says. “No corporate stores were open at the time—they’d just built a tower in the area.”
Wireless has since taken over about half of the 750-square-foot retail space of the store, and Paul has been able to successfully marry the photographic-processing side of his business with cellphones and wireless services, taking advantage of many opportunities to cross-sell. For instance, with each phone activation, Paul gives his customers free processing. “I decided one of the advantages of wireless is photo processing, and I take advantage of that unique position,” he explains.
And this position hasn’t been limited to cameraphones, which are just now beginning to offer the resolution here in the U.S. for decent prints. “I like to combine the two, instead of focusing too much on photo or on wireless,” Paul says. “I don’t want to let people forget that we do both.”
One of the reasons Rush Hour has succeeded with wireless is that Paul and his staff talk to their customers to find out what they want and why. “The worst thing in the world you can do is to sell somebody something they don’t want,” he says. Even if Rush Hour doesn’t carry a certain wireless service carrier, Paul wants to find out why his customers are asking for that specific company and how he can help them, whether it’s servicing them himself or sending them to another store. He wants his customers to get what they need, not just sell them a box for the sake of making a sale.
And, of course, you need to be dedicated to wireless. At least one staff member has always been put in charge of wireless promotions and sales at Rush Hour Photo.
“You can’t inventory everything,” Paul says. “There’s just too much product out there. But you should know how long it will take you to get a specific item for a customer if they request it.”
Understanding your customers is also key. Because so many of the OSU students in the community (nearly half of Corvallis’ population) have migrated here from other parts of the country, they’re often used to a faster pace of life. For instance, twenty-somethings from New York or California are used to using their cellphones for more than just making phone calls. Local residents, on the other hand, are not as exposed to the features offered by wireless companies, as high speed data services have not arrived in Corvallis as fully as other markets.
Paul has put a strong marketing plan into effect for the business. Once a month, Rush Hour puts out a sales insert in the local newspapers, such as The Corvallis Gazette Times. According to Paul, “It’s personalized quite a bit.” The insert isn’t just made up of price listings—it’s more of a newsletter, with personal product use and photo tips, history, and application stories. The newsletters are easy to read and involve the recipient because they’re written with a personal touch; they’re much more effective than product ads alone.
Paul also utilizes specials to bring customers in the door, like offering free prints on select days or holding drawings to win cameras or other items. He often tailors his marketing efforts around holidays, events and other happenings, when customers receive something extra for their patronage.