Magazine Article


The Photo Express: Cleverly Hidden, Cleverly Successful
ND photofinisher is able to "roll with the changes" the industry has thrown at it over the years.

Owner Gary Grinaker
© Nathan Scott of Platinum Photography

(l.) Gary Grinaker's newborn Son. (c. and r. photos) The Photo Express excels in promoting the store's services, including 1-hour printing, calendars, and more. The store's logo and tagline are also used on much of the signage and promotions.
Customers have easy access to the kiosks.

Location, location, location-it's everything! And, sometimes, it can make or break a business. For most photofinishers, the perfect location can mean the difference between a thriving business and one that goes belly-up. But Gary Grinaker, owner of The Photo Express, has been successfully bucking that trend since 1981. His shop is "cleverly hidden in Kirkwood Mall," the biggest mall in central North Dakota, and he plays up the fact that it's hard to find. When you call the store, employees answer the phone by saying, "Congratulations, you've found The Photo Express! How may I help you?"

"When I opened the store, I leased a space in the back corridor of the mall," says Grinaker. "It was next to a back door with plenty of parking, but the one problem was that many customers couldn't find the place. That's where our tagline 'Cleverly Hidden in Kirkwood Mall' came from, and now, 27 years later, people are still looking for us."

Today, The Photo Express is a thriving independent photofinishing operation. In addition to himself, Grinaker has one full- and six part-time employees.

Photo Industry Veteran

Grinaker is a veteran of the photo industry and was on the historic ground floor of the minilab boon of the early 1980s. "My journey in the photo processing industry started in 1981 when I was assistant editor and chief photographer of a magazine in Fargo, ND," recalls Grinaker. "I was on a business trip for the magazine, driving through Texas, when I needed to get some E-6 film printed in a hurry. They were processed on the very first one-hour E-6 minilab, a Noritsu QSS System, which had been installed the week before at The Photo Store in Amarillo, TX. I was so blown away by the concept of one-hour processing and its business potential that I wanted to open a minilab location when I got back to North Dakota. Seeing that Noritsu machine in action set all the wheels in motion. As I drove back [home], I started putting my business plan together and opened my store in November of that year. I went to Kirkwood, got a lease, and the rest is, as they say, history. I've been in this location ever since."

He adds when they first opened the store, they were a pure one-hour lab with their Noritsu QSS-2 system. "We did 3.5x5 prints," he says. "Those were very exciting days. It was hard keeping up with all the rolls of film we had to process. We then started to look at other photo-related items to sell and wanted to get into the Christmas card market. In 1983 I invented the first one-hour Christmas card devices for the unit. It was an attachment for QSS minilabs that enabled you to make Christmas cards on the fly. We've been successful on the photo-card market ever since."

Grinaker brought a portrait studio to the mix in 1988. "It took awhile for us to find our bearings with the portrait studio, but once we did, it grew into a great side business," he says. "I'm our resident photographer. I love being a photographer. I don't want to be in the store 80-plus hours per week. Most of our portrait work is done by appointment only, and that fits nicely in my business model. It also gives me a family life, too."

That family just got a little bigger with the addition of his son, Grayson, who was born earlier this year. Grinaker missed his first PMA show in ages so he could be with his wife for the birth. In the past few weeks, he was able to take paternity leave to help out at home.

Portrait and Passport Biz

Grinaker says right now his portrait business is doing quite well. "While some may say that digital has taken away some of the portrait work, there is a bright side," he says. "Most people don't know how to properly light and pose their subjects, so they won't be happy with the results and will eventually come back to you. Right now my plate is full. I'm shooting weddings, grads, families, pets, plus many corporate portraits."

Another area that's growing is the passport business. "We have a very good passport business," he adds. "It has been a big money maker for us. We've marketed ourselves as the local passport experts. The market is huge, [as you] can't leave the country anymore without a passport. Today, photo IDs have become a necessity."

Grinaker calls his portrait studio business his "big playground." "If you're getting into the portrait business, make sure you get the proper lighting for it," he says. "In our studio, I'm currently using a Nikon D80 with radio triggers. We have Norman lights hung from ceiling rails, controlled by X10 radio controls, as well as a track system for muslins, and motorized and chain rollers for canvas backgrounds. We keep wires and cables off of the floor for safety and for creating the 'wow' factor." There's also a permanent setup of a Sony Passport system with a backlit background so all employees can do ID photos.

The Transition to Digital

One of the reasons for Grinaker's longevity is that he's been able to make sound business decisions and, to quote an REO Speedwagon song, "roll with the changes." "I've always tried to be a late adopter," he explains. "Over the years, I've had many too friends lose their businesses because they were on the 'bleeding edge' of technology. It's fun to be in the front of things, but it's not very profitable. We eased into digital printing with an Agfa Inova Touch kiosk. Things really started to take off for us when the Noritsu QSS-2901 came out, the machine we're still using today."

Grinaker says that he's always looked at technology as a solution to help get things done something faster and easier, and digital has done just that. "We're helping our customers, helping them to take their images and do something creative with them, and digital is making it all happen," he says. "In retrospect, we really loved the change to digital. It has a great personalization process. From the '80s to the '90s, the business model was all about printing out pieces of paper with a picture on them. In the '90s, that model went away."

He likes the fact that digital provides easy ways to make personalized products. "Digital makes it very easy to personalize any product," he says. "It led us into gift items, where we've been very successful."

Another area where Grinaker has been successful is with his promotion and marketing efforts. "Marketing really drives the business," he says. "How you market yourself is how you're perceived by your customer base. We like to personalize our promotions. For example, we have an interesting one that we use for Christmas cards. We utilize the PRO/IPI Christmas card set. It comes with a customizable full-color brochure, which allows us to promote The Photo Express as a brand.

"We have a low-tech way to personalize our mailings, much like a direct marketing firm uses variable data printing," he adds. "Customers who made cards the year prior receive a personalized letter in October, along with their card from last year. We remind them how many cards they ordered and provide info on the latest designs, as well as why they should come back to the store to make more. Sometimes when we as an industry send out promotions, we tend to forget that people have other alternatives, like the internet. It's not enough to tell potential customers about a product; [it's even more important to tell them] why they should come back to you to get that product made at your store. We try to be very cognizant of that point.

"When we print a Christmas card order, we also ask the customer if we can display one of their cards," he continues. "This has worked out very well for us. For a number of years, we've volunteered to fill the windows of empty stores in the Kirkwood Mall with photo cards from customers during the holidays. The customers love it. It's a great testimonial why they should be getting their Christmas cards printed [with us]."

Grinaker's shop offers a full arsenal of equipment to get the job done, including a Noritsu 2901 printer and 450L film processor; a PhotoTherm film processor that handles B&W and other odd films; Silverwire kiosks; and an HP Photosmart Studio. Wide-format prints come off an Epson 7800. "We also have Xerox color copiers and printers for smaller CMYK products," says Grinaker. IPInet is used for online customer albums and Christmas card ordering, ROES software for pro orders, and in-house software for special products.

Cross Promotions

"I'm a big fan of doing cross promotions-it not only saves us a ton of money, but it ties in with other merchants in the area," he says. "You may know that May is National Photo Month, but you may not know it's also National Pet Month. To celebrate, I run a pet-portrait promotion with local groomers, pet-supply stores, and vets. In April I provide the merchants with a $10 gift certificate for a pet portrait at The Photo Express that they can give to their customers. Gift certificates have a bigger perceived value, and if you get one, there seems to be more of an obligation to use it. And if you're a dog groomer, guess what people are going to do before they get the photo taken? Chances are they are going to get that pet all 'gussied up,' so it's a win-win situation for both of us."

Looking Ahead

"We're looking at more ways to grow our web presence," Grinaker says. "We've been advertising online since its inception-way back when things were just in text. That's how we got into our internet Christmas card business. We sell cards to customers on all seven continents. The internet is a powerful tool that empowers customers, and we want to tap into that more effectively."

He's also looking to increase his share in the photobook business: "We put in an HP Photosmart Studio last August. It has created tremendous opportunities for us, especially with poster prints. I'm looking to pump up photobook sales on it this year." 

To kick off marketing efforts, Grinaker and leading IPI members created marketing ideas for their CMYK products. "Being involved in both PMA and IPI has provided great networking opportunities," he says. "It gives me the opportunity to talk to people who are smarter than me." 

The ideas have helped him develop sales opportunities, especially with the Photosmart equipment. "Our most profitable investment has been our IPI membership," he says. "It has added hundreds of thousands of dollars to our bottom line."

Successful Recipe to Turn Lemons Into Lemonade

Grinaker says that over the years he has tried to turn any disadvantage into a marketing opportunity. "Look at our location," he says. "It's been a big disadvantage in terms of visibility but we've managed to turn it into a marketing advantage."

Grinaker cites the importance of good personnel: "We advertise for 'photofinishing trainees' to attract people with interest but no retail photo experience." He'd rather take someone with great people skills and train them in the photofinishing business. "We've been very successful with PMA's Operation Quick Start, supplemented with in-house videos and brochures," he adds.

Another key to success is to choose products and services that you enjoy. "Pick the opportunities that are right for you," he says. "As a small-business [person], your store should be an extension of who you are. If you can let that message flow to your customers, it comes back to you as business."

Parting Advice

For photofinishers still having a rough time of it, Grinaker offers the following advice: "In business, everything seems to come in cycles. About every five years, my business slows down, I get depressed, and then I need to reinvent myself. That's part of the renewal process. So if you're feeling down, it's likely you've slowed down and gotten tired of the routine. You need to reinvent yourself. When you get excited again, business picks up. It has seemed to work that way for me for the last 27 years."

Fast Facts:

Store: The Photo Express

Location: Bismarck,ND

Owner: Gary Grinaker

Years in Business: 27

Claim to Fame: Business is a successful mix of photofinishing and portrait studio-with creative marketing and adapting to change.