There's an old adage that says there's strength in numbers. And for camera specialty retailer Mike Paschke, it's an adage that he runs his business by. Paschke is the president of Shutterbug Camera Shops, a three-store chain in Northern California, as well as a member of the PRO Group. "If it wasn't for the PRO Group, I wouldn't be here, period," says Paschke. "Much of my stores' success in the last few years can be attributed to being a member of their organization. I wouldn't have had the confidence to buy the company three years ago without PRO's guidance. Their buying power helps me get great deals on equipment and supplies. And their product recommendations help make purchasing decisions easier for me. Their online ordering system comes in handy when ordering products to stock for all three of my stores. All that, plus the meetings and the networking, have given me valuable ideas and tips to help grow my business."
The original store opened in Santa Rosa, CA, in the summer of 1968. Paschke began working in the main store 17 years ago while he was attending school. "I got a part-time job there while I was in college," he says. "I was drawn to photography. I had the photo bug and was interested in the darkroom, so I figured there was no better place to work than at a camera store. At the time, I would never have guessed I'd own the store someday."
Through the years, Shutterbug has seen its share of changes in the industry and in its share of customers. Paschke says that "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz was a big customer right up until he passed away. "He probably is the most famous resident of Santa Rosa," says Paschke. "He used to come in and buy Polaroid film and other supplies for his annual hockey tournament and hockey leagues held at Snoopy's Home Ice arena, as well as other events. We still are a sponsor of the tournament brochure. His wife, Jeannie, still comes in from time to time to have images processed."
Today, the three-location chain consists of the main store in downtown Santa Rosa, a store in the Coddington Mall, and another location in Petaluma, CA, about 12 miles away. "We're in a nice niche market," says Paschke. "We don't have a lot of outside competition in our area from other photo specialty stores. We do have to contend with a Costco, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart, but they still can't offer the quality of service and the photo education we can provide. The big-box stores send us their customers all the time when they can't get their questions answered. CompUSA was sending us people daily before they went out of business."
Paschke says they mostly cater to the photo enthusiast, but the demographic breakdown of customers who visit each location varies. "We have pros, soccer moms, and beginners," he says. "Popular products at the mall store include more gifty items and point-and-shoots, while more of the high-end stuff sells at the main store. The Petaluma location seems to be growing in all product and service areas."
Substantial Investment in Digital Photofinishing
Paschke says he's spent about $500,000 in the past few years to upgrade the digital technology at his three stores. The flagship store on Santa Rosa Avenue invested in an AgfaPhoto d-lab.2 industrial-sized digital printer for its lab back in 2002. Two years later, the chain's mall store got a smaller d-lab.1 machine. Both units are connected to their arsenal of kiosks. When AgfaPhoto went out of business in 2006, Paschke was worried about getting his equipment serviced. He was happy to hear that Integra Technologies International of Austin, TX, had taken over the complete service, repair, and maintenance, as well as the exclusive supply of chemicals and repair parts, for the Minilab division of the former Agfa company. "They have been great to work with, supplying us with parts and technical service," he says.
Currently, the main store has a total of six kiosks, the mall store has four, and three kiosks are in the nearby Petaluma location. Six APM kiosks are on order from a recent deal they signed with Lucidiom; some will replace older models.
"I like the Lucidiom system because of its open architecture," says Paschke. "We have their EQ system, which is a great profit center. It comes with everything we need to produce any product involving our customers' photos. Using the EQ-9850 printer, APM kiosks, Photo Finale Web online, improved Lab 50 production software, and special finishing tools, we now offer a solid line-up of products like photobooks, folded cards, bound calendars, posters, enlargements, passport photos, greeting cards, scrapbook pages, and gifts to our customers on the web and on the kiosks. This on-the-fly flexibility of the EQ system means that new products and designs can be added instantly to product menus and brought to market quickly."
"Digital printing represents about 10 percent of Shutterbug's revenues," he continues. "And it's still growing. Having more kiosks in our stores is helping to transform our business by bringing in more customers and prompting them to order more prints than before. With more kiosks, there's also less waiting. Many times, family members will gather at a kiosk and discuss photos they have taken and decide how they want to edit them. The result is that we're now getting bigger print orders [and more of them]."
Having a comfortable environment for customers working at the kiosks is very important, Paschke adds. "Many of our customers are amazed at how easy the kiosks are to use and are having fun playing with and editing their photos," he says. "We wanted to provide a comfortable place for them to sit down, so we put some of our kiosks on low tables with chairs, and others on a counter with high stools. In addition, we added a couple of long tables so customers could stretch out and relax while they're placing their orders. We wanted them to have the time to make leisurely decisions and not feel rushed."
Full Line of Cameras and Accessories
On the hardware side, Shutterbug carries a full selection of digital SLRs, point-and-shoots, and camcorders from a host of manufacturers. "Canon, Nikon, and Olympus are our three big suppliers," he says. "We also stock Pentax and Sony, among others."
Paschke adds that they offer demo days for Canon, as well as multi-rep days. "We're also participating in the Live Drive programs with Leica and Olympus," he says.
Shutterbug also stocks a wide selection of lenses, bags, cases, and frames. "Our accessory sales seem to be increasing lately, especially in the lighting department," he says. "Much of that growth is due to the PRO Group and their Promaster line of products. Their lighting accessories range from simple little lighting kits for eBay users to full-on strobe lighting for the pro."
Photo Classes & Workshops
Shutterbug Camera Shops also offers classes in conventional and digital photography. Classes are designed to introduce the beginning photographer, as well as the enthusiast, to the nuances of the ever-changing art of digital still photography. "Our classes [consist of] about 15-30 people," Paschke explains. "We go out in the field, hand out some equipment, take pictures with a pro, and come back to the store to critique them. We then offer some special pricing on the equipment. These classes and workshops bring excitement to the store. People are learning something new, and even if they don't buy anything, word spreads. In a sense, we're on a mission to teach people about photography and what it can do for them today. Whether they want to shoot digital or film, it doesn't matter. They just love pictures. And that's what really matters."
Shutterbug recently ran a photo workshop with Tamron that featured wildlife photographer Roy Toft as the instructor; Bogen Imaging and ExpoImaging cosponsored the event. "The two-day session was held at Shollenberger Park in Petaluma, CA," says Paschke. "The session began at the store on Friday night, when attendees had a chance to attend Roy's seminar, then got demos on the new Tamron AF28-300mm lens. Loaner equipment was then passed out and the class met again Saturday morning at the 165-acre park for six hours of instruction for shooting wildlife and landscapes. After that, the class met back at the store to look at their images and have them critiqued by Toft. Prizes were awarded for the best photos. All in all it was a huge success. Events like these help create loyal customers. We've done many in the past but this is the first with a real pro photographer supplied by a manufacturer. We hope to do more down the road."
Despite the downturn in the economy and the rising cost of gas, Paschke still reports that his business is in the black. "People may not have the money to do the things they really want to do, like take a big vacation-instead, they might treat themselves to a little something extra, like that special big print or a new digital camera, bag, or lens," he says. "We're in a great [place] where people still want to treat themselves, but they can't do the big stuff right now. They may still do the little things, and that fits right into our product area. Through all this, we're still profitable. It's going to be a good year for us."
Store: Shutterbug Camera Shops
Locations: Santa Rosa & Petaluma, CA
Owner: Mike Paschke
Years in Business: 39
Claim to Fame: Digital retailer/photofinisher that reaps the benefits of buying-group power while offering popular photo workshops meant to inspire customers to love photography.