When Tom Gramegna, owner and president of Bergen County Camera, purchased his Westwood, New Jersey, storefront in 1980, he was a bright-eyed 26-year-old with a passion for photography and big plans. What he didn’t count on, though, was inheriting a business from a guy who was somewhat lacking in the customer-bedside-manner department. “This owner was not very friendly, he was overpriced, and he didn’t have a great selection, so I knew I could do at least as well,” Tom says. “We obviously started being nicer to the customers right off the bat.”
The previous owner could have used an image consultant as well. “I remember there was an old Honeywell strobe and flash unit in the used-equipment window that had about three inches of dust on it,” Tom laughs. “The first thing we did was get that dust out of the window!”
After a thorough spring-cleaning, they started to increase the breadth and depth of the merchandise it carried, including adding the Leica line to the store. “We’ve always prominently featured our association with Leica, and it’s served both us and Leica well,” he says. “I remember the Leica salesman coming in and showing me the large concentration of Leica customers in Bergen County—there was no one to serve those customers. We saw this as a golden opportunity with Leica and seized it.”
This well-informed foresight, willingness to take educated risks, and devotion to its customers has served Bergen County Camera well for nearly 27 years. Today the photo retailer offers everything from photo restoration, film processing, equipment repair, and digital printing services to passport photos, on-site classes, on-location trips, and online photography tutorials. Combining these services with a love of the arts and creative promotional efforts, Tom and his staff hope to serve their customers for many more years to come.
It’s All About the Customer
Being an independent retailer always presents its own unique sets of challenges, but Tom feels Bergen County Camera has found the right prescription for keeping traffic constant. “I think that being kind to people is the cornerstone, along with being knowledgeable and trying to stay up with whatever’s going on out there in the marketplace,” he says. “Of course, you shouldn’t entirely guide your business by just following along with whatever the current whim or trend is. But keep an eye to what’s going on outside, and also try to create something that’s special and unique about what you do.”
Keeping up with technology is another important aspect of running a successful photo business, and Tom makes sure he stays in the loop. “I go to PMA every year, and in 1995 I joined the PRO Group,” he says. “Other than buying the store, joining that organization was the best decision I probably ever made.”
His staff also shares his love and knowledge of photography. “If you totaled up the photography experience of the 20 people who work here, it’s in the hundreds of years,” he says. “There probably isn’t anybody here that knows every aspect of photography. But in conjunction, there’s not too much that throws us for a loop, either.”
Bergen County Camera’s management staff are the lifeblood of the store. Bob Gramegna, Tom’s brother, is VP and the most visible salesperson out front. “I’m more behind the scenes, while Bob is the public Gramegna face,” says Gramegna. John Tworsky, the store’s general manager, started as a part-time stock person in 1980, and after finishing his education at RIT convinced the Gramegnas to computerize the entire store. In Paul Carretta, the store manager, the Gramegnas feel they’ve found their “third brother.” “Paul has a lot of heart, and he gets our method of treating customers,” says Tom. And then there are assistant store managers Abby and Rob Passman, whose shared surname is no coincidence: The two met while working at Bergen County Camera and married in May 2006.
The Gramegnas invest heavily in their employee base, most notably with an intensive employee sales and management training program that took nearly three years to complete. “We’re finally starting to really see some dividends and positive effects on both our sales and on our profits,” says Tom.
“Our rulebook can be simplified down to two rules,” continues Tom. “Rule #1: serve the customer. Rule #2: make the register ring! And if you remember Rule #1, Rule #2 will happen.”
This personal attention to their customers is what gives Bergen County Camera the leg up on some of the bigger, more-impersonal retailers. “Attention like that’s a very rare commodity,” he says. “If you can position yourself as the guy who’s separating the wheat from the chaff and can make people’s decisions easier and lead them to their individual best photographic solutions, then that’s something that has resonance over many generations.”
And now the Gramegnas and their staff are dealing with three generations of customers. “We ask people to tell their family and friends,” he says. “We don’t make a living off of any one sale; we make a living off of customers’ lifetime patronage and word-of-mouth referrals.” Tom explains that his staff takes the time to find out customers’ picture-taking goals and expectations before they recommend equipment.
The Fine-Art Finesse
One creative way Bergen County Camera has kept customers coming back is its Gallery Two Seventy, an in-store fine-art gallery that also has an online presence. “Eight years ago, when we did our last renovation, we added the fine-art photography sales to the mix,” says Tom. “It sets us apart as someone who really does understand every aspect of photography. Plus, many of the best customers we’ve sold equipment to still kept visiting us, and we felt by promoting and educating them on fine-art photography we’d keep their photographic interest high.”
Tom considered a separate fine-art photography gallery, but then realized he wouldn’t necessarily have the traffic of customers coming in for their everyday photographic needs. “The biggest problem I heard when I talked to other gallery owners was that they had to find ways to draw people into the gallery,” he says. “We don’t have a problem drawing people to our camera store, so now we can pick off some of those people and they can be fine-art photography customers, too.”