Magazine Article


The Mullinax Twist
With industy-revolutionizing in-store events, inspired marketing targeted to women, and a never- ending supply of new ideas, Fullerton Photo's Gaby Mullinax is a force to be reckoned with.

Leasha Hartig, director of Operations and Allie Hopper, lab manager, in the lobby of Fullerton Photo
Fullerton Photographics’ owner Gaby Mullinax.
Allie Hopper works with customer Susan Bridgeford at Fullerton Photo’s counter
Lobby display of Hip Happening banner and design ideas
Fullerton Photo’s corner signage

It's not unusual for the staff at Fullerton Photo to receive a harried call from a mom idling in the store's parking lot on a busy weekday afternoon, kids chattering (or sleeping) in the back seat, imploring, "Hi, can you come pick up my media card out here?" Or for a customer in the store's Click Café to pamper her peds on a foot massager while browsing images at a workstation.

To owner Gaby Mullinax, these little perks for her customers are simply an outgrowth of Fullerton Photo's overall strategy: to keep their customers happy and inspired, and to make money while doing it. "So much of what we do here, it's intuitive to me that we should be doing it," she says. And from the throngs of people who show up at her "Hip Happenings" events to the ones who are already snatching up her initial attempts at photo gifting, it's obvious that her customers like what they're seeing.

Appealing to the Gals With Store Design and Services

In both her store design and her services, Mullinax aims to keep her female demographic coming back for more. "Our store layout is a feast for your eyes!" she says. "My store is a standalone building with a really nice parking lot. You walk in and immediately see what's going on in here. I'll have a huge banner on a banner stand for our Hip Happenings, and a lot of items that work within the colors that are displayed in the banner. I try to keep it very fresh and change things often. I know that it works because of our repeat business; people are always saying, ‘I love it, you guys are always doing something.'"

A glass table with tree-trunk legs and wrought-iron-and-wicker chairs serves as the front counter, while an airy patio with a large glass window imparts a more spacious feel. A new "preflight station," as Mullinax refers to it, handles the huge number of images that customers are bringing into the store. "The kiosk can only hold a limited capacity of images, so we now have another workstation outside my café," she explains. "If someone wants to edit their images, or drag a bunch of their images to one of our jump drives, or if they have more than 1,000 and they need to see those last 300, that's what this station is for."

Then there's the Click Café, a separate room with 11 kiosks (four are equipped with foot massagers). "We put in six HP kiosks, along with the five Lucidiom kiosks I had," Mullinax explains. "The kiosks are along three walls of kitchen counters; then we have the foot massagers underneath, and a 37-inch flat-panel TV with a DVD player playing old movies." The café did have a sofa and coffee table, but with 11 kiosks, the sofa had to be replaced with comfy chairs.

Signage helps to showcase some of the services that they hope will draw their customers into trying something new. "I have signage on my wall, for example, introducing our shoebox scanning," Mullinax says. "It's a graphic we made with a pair of hot GUESS shoes, which I had to buy to shoot this ad (a really good business expense!). I've got a bunch of photos in these shoeboxes and the shoes displayed, and the signage says, ‘Put your shoes back where they belong.' It's something that a woman would relate to. That one ad has done a lot to drive that one business without anyone having to say a thing."

Other specialty displays have also jump-started customer orders, including canvas and watercolor prints. "People are moving away from the sign-in boards at weddings," Mullinax says. "So I thought it would be nice to have really beautiful text, maybe just their name, a beautiful photo, and the date, on watercolor paper. That display has triggered so much business, with many people doing this to celebrate anniversaries."

Selling complete product packages is another way Fullerton Photo appeals to its customer base. "We don't want our customers to engage in these mental calculations on what they're buying from us-we'd much rather present something as a finished product," explains Mullinax. "This idea came out of David Guidry. He had said to me, ‘You know, Gaby, how many times does someone walk out of your store with an 8x10 restoration in a frame as a complete piece? I said, ‘Zero times.' He said, ‘Same here! So what if we marketed and packaged all of our products, where they buy the restoration, for instance, but when they pick it up, as part of that package, it comes in this beautiful frame?' It's not this price to scan it in, this price for the restoration, this price for the matte, and this price for the frame. That's something everybody could do very easily, and [not] give it too much thought.'"

Having raised three children herself, Mullinax realizes how vital it is to make the Fullerton Photo shopping experience as simple as possible for busy moms: "If I'm going to do anything to market to moms, I have to make it quick and easy for them to get their stuff. Our card says to call us when you get to our parking lot; if you don't want to come in, we'll be more than happy to send someone out to your car."

Fullerton Photo's website is similarly designed, though it is also undergoing some transformations. "We'll be trying harder to incorporate what's going on in the store on the website," Mullinax says. "I don't give pricing on there, but I may start to put it on because we're getting more and more calls for it. There's also no photo gifting up there, but there will be."

Mullinax also wants to boost their online presence to connect with customers once they leave the store. "I'm waiting for some home software to be available where the customer can feel like they're at Fullerton Photo and get the same kiosk-type experience from their laptop and then pick up at retail," she says.

Hip Happenings, Charitable Creations

Fullerton Photo's hallmark is the store's successful events, or their "Hip Happenings," as they're often referred to. "We've found a lot of success with these," Mullinax says. "Every quarter gets us focused and gets our customers engaged. We're trying to keep the content fresh."

The store's signature Girls' Night Out (GNO) events expertly meld mingling, food and drink, and a low-key introduction to Fullerton Photo's services. "This will be our seventh annual Girls' Night Out this year," says Mullinax. "Last year we had about 135 guests, our biggest turnout ever. I don't believe in selling that night, so I've never turned my kiosks on, but last year we invited a group of dance-team girls from my daughter's high school to come in and make a project that night for half price. I decided I wanted some buzz in the room, and maybe by osmosis people would see that there was some cool stuff going on. It generated a lot of buzz and gave people something to do other than mingle and eat. I probably will have the kiosks on from now on during GNO, but it's a really subtle sale."

The GNO concept has blossomed not only to other photo retailers (and Mullinax has been a willing advisor to colleagues who have taken the GNO leap), but has also inspired those in other industries. "I have a customer who owns a clothing boutique in our town, who did a GNO in her store with giveaways, a makeup artist-everything related to fashion," Mullinax says.

Taking her in-store events to the next level was a natural progression for a gal whose mind is constantly in overdrive. After an inspired conversation with her friend Chris Lydle, Mullinax went for a swim; by the time she had dried off, she'd come up with her newest brainchild: Celebrate, Create, Donate. "It works like any jewelry, Tupperware, or Pampered Chef party, where I invite my customers to host a party at my store," she explains. "The customer provides all the refreshments and gets out the invitations to a group of their friends to come to Fullerton Photo on an evening or Sunday afternoon when the store is closed. They come in with the goal to make all these creative products; we fulfill the orders while they wait, and then Fullerton Photo returns a nice percentage to the customer's charity of choice."

Mullinax has even taken the charity beyond the event itself. "You can't get that many people in your store at one time in two hours to make a huge contribution to their charity, so when the guests leave, we give them a card that says ‘Fullerton Photo Continues Giving,'" she explains. "We tell them to give these cards to anyone they come in contact with, and as long as they bring the cards back in, we're going to add that sale to your party's total for the next month. It's an additional way to get some additional revenue for your charity."

Besides contributing to a good cause, these events create loyalty. "It's an easy way to build customer evangelists," Mullinax says. "One lady said to me, ‘I have to tell you, I have a very addictive personality-my addiction used to be [shopping at] Marshall's; now I'm addicted to Fullerton Photo!' That lady came back four times in the next two weeks, and it was mostly different products than she had created the night of the party."

Other events on the Fullerton Photo roster include a "Photobook Fever Night" [Ed. note: scheduled for March as of press time], and the ever-popular Pet Portrait Day. "The minute people see the Pet Portrait collage go up, we're taking bookings," says Mullinax. "I'm excited to make that biscuit jar with the pet's picture on it, or an Andy Warhol-style print of the pet."

A Foray Into Photo Gifting

At this year's PMA, Mullinax was finally convinced that she should more seriously consider photo gifting as a new revenue stream. "One of my good friends, Bob Hanson, said to me, ‘Listen, Gaby, you can put the Fullerton Photo spin on it and do photo gifting your way.' He showed me the list and quantities of products they sold this holiday season, and it just blew me away."

Fullerton Photo is working on implementing a Gifting for all Seasons theme, using an icon-based design. "I want everything really clean and simple-I don't want a picture of a T-shirt with a photo on display," says Mullinax. "So I'm just doing an icon of that T-shirt, an icon of a mousepad. You've got to present it to the customers so they can see it in their own life-rather than just having a mug, you have to show it with the new baby's picture on it. I'm showing products that fit into categories. I'm thinking of carrying through with this whole icon display: there will be a heart, a bunny, a baby boy's face, a baby girl's face, a Christmas tree, etc.; then I'll show the products underneath the icons that relate to those categories. I'll probably paint one whole wall, paint the icons on the top of the wall, and display the products underneath. I want to show them in a really nice fashion."

One of the first projects Fullerton Photo tackled after purchasing its HP laser-duplexing system (for creative products such as photobooks) was to do fulfillment of holiday cards in-store on heavy paper stock. "We've been doing it since 2003-originally they were just 5x7 silver-halide cards," Mullinax explains. "In 2006 we outsourced folded cards. Last year we printed them through our system, which wasn't necessarily designed to print them through Photoshop, but we sold nearly 7,000 folded holiday cards."

Another twist Fullerton Photo put on a seemingly bland offering was its take on custom notepads. "I thought, ‘We can't just stick a notepad out there, it's the cheapest-bond paper that we can find,'" Mullinax recalls. "So I got silk bags and jeweled pens from, and we packaged the notepads in the bags with the pens. I can't justify selling just a notepad: I don't want to sell them if I can't make some money on them, and I want it to be something they can use right away. We took orders until December 10, and did them all on one day. We sold almost 200 at $16.95 each."

For Valentine's Day this year, Fullerton Photo didn't even wait for the custom orders. "We just did some custom designs and packaged them in pink, burgundy, and lavender bags with the right-colored pen," Mullinax says. "One afternoon, a lady came in and bought the entire bunch that was left, like 20 of them-she took them all!"

Mullinax is excited about the possibilities the photo-gifting arena holds. "The light bulb finally went off, and with our twist, it's going to be a great revenue stream for this year," she says. "My customer base has always loved us, mostly because we hold their hands a little. This is the perfect opportunity for us to hold their hands and yet allow them their creative freedom; add in that ‘wow' factor of fulfilling while they wait, and you can't put a price on that."

Employee Investment

Another huge investment Mullinax is making this year is in the people who work for her. "I'm going to compensate them more, but I'm also going to give them quite a bit more responsibility," she says. "It's been a challenge not so much to give up the control, but just to find the right people who present the same energy and the same Fullerton Photo magic that I feel I do a good job at. I have the people in place now where I can take advantage of my marketing background and go out into the community and do the things I should've probably been doing all along. I haven't given them the power to just make the good decisions. They do a great job, but I've always held back and said, ‘I'll go back and finish that job because you're busy,' but now I need to say, ‘That's your job, so finish it.'"

"Everyone who works for me has to be cross trained," she says. "I hired Leasha Hartig in 2000 because I felt like I needed another mom in here, someone I could bounce ideas off of who was closer to my age that would maybe embrace this business like I did. She became this customer service legend; I was getting letters about her!" By sheer need, however, she wound up becoming a Photoshop guru and doing Fullerton Photo's wide-format printing. Mullinax recently decided that she needs to be out front. "I really believe that you grow your business by the people that interact with your customers on a daily basis."

Jennifer, Meet George

While appealing to Jennifer (the PMA soccer-mom prototype) and other female customers has been the cornerstone of her business, Mullinax also realizes the importance of not alienating who she likes to call "George." "George is Jennifer's dad," Mullinax laughs. "He's a great guy; he loves his daughter and grandkids and does whatever Jennifer tells him to do. He has lots of money and time. So if Jennifer tells George to come to Fullerton Photo to make a photobook, I'd better be able to make George just as comfortable as I make Jennifer."

Mullinax cites a recent business day at Fullerton Photo. "For whatever reason, we had a lot of foot traffic in here that day, and about 70% were male," she says. "So we've adapted; we don't necessarily change the look of things to grab every population-we still hold true to our Fullerton Photo quirkiness. But in talking to them and relating, we realize we have a high percentage of a very sophisticated and confident retired population that patronizes us."

Bouncing ideas off of her mostly male counterparts in the industry (and offering her own perspective) has proven invaluable for Mullinax as well. She's a DIMA and IPI board member and a PMA trustee, and she has found her interactions with her colleagues most welcome. "It's a difference in perspectives," she says. "Which is great for me, because while the bottom line is to love what you do, it's also time to make some money. The perspectives I acquire help me so much in my business. I hope I'm giving them as much as I'm taking!"

Mullinax is excited about what the future holds for Fullerton Photo, though the logistics of carrying through with her plans still needs to be worked out. "My biggest weakness is that I want everything done today," she says. "However, I'm not at the point yet where I have staff in place where we can execute these plans in a quick manner. Who's going to be in the back making the T-shirts? It's probably going to be me for a little while! So that will be my biggest challenge-but we'll figure it out."

Fast Facts

Store Name: Fullerton Photo

Location: Fullerton, CA

Owner: Gaby Mullinax

Years in Business: 8

Claim to Fame: Boutique photo business that successfully caters to a female clientele, while not forgetting the guys that shop there too.