Yes, the film processing industry has just about gone full circle since the early 1980's when the local drug store or supermarket was the prime drop site for film processing. Along came the free-standing one-hour minilab and eventually (though kicking and screaming) the camera store, to show the shooting customer that there was no need to wait a week for pictures when they were now available in an hour.
The concept of one-hour was so strong that, surprise!, the drug, supers and mass merchants decided to get in on the one-hour game, also. Now, over 20-years later, this group dominates again and, according to the latest PMA figures, account for about 87% of all processingómost of it being done on-site. The photo specialist (free-standing labs and camera stores) share of film processing is less than 5%.
The roles have reversed. Now, it's the photo specialist who is struggling to compete with the giants. The weaker of the species have already fallen by the wayside. Nevertheless, according to PMA, there are still about 7,000 photo specialists out there doing battle.
Those dealers who remain are definitely a result of Darwin's survival of the fittest rather than of Intelligent Design.
One of the weapons of battle for the specialist has been to ban together to collectively purchase in bulk, share ideas and tactics for the benefit of the group rather than go it alone in the fight of the independent against the huge resources of the giant.
Offering an umbrella for such gatherings is Independent Photo Imagers (IPI), a group that started out in 1982, when one-hour was in its nascent stage. Today, according to Brent Bowyer, president and CEO of the Charleston, WV organization, IPI has 366 members that run 540 store locations. IPI cuts supply deals on behalf of its members with a large number of the suppliers in the minilab industry and Brent claims the purchasing power of members approaches $100 million.
But using its clout to clobber vendors is just one of the organization's functions. It recognizes the plight of the photo specialist who is fighting a war on three fronts:
- The mass merchant who is offering photo prints from the exact same equipment as used by the specialist, but at lower prices;
- The blitzkrieg, a.k.a. digital photography, that is forcing the independent to re-invest new money in his business while watching his high-margin film d&p drop 20-30% a year;
- The consumer who, so far, has found a certain comfort in printing at home or uploading to websites and picking up prints at a mass store within an hour after pressing the 'send' button at home or office.
IPI also uses its wallop to muster troops that help the indies fight the battle. As survivors themselves, the members become their own support group by sharing their experiences and knowledge for the benefit of all. Also, IPI can tap the brains from its vendor family to participate in programs that inform on product as well as trends.
Putting these resources all together, IPI is running its own convention which dovetails with the PMA Fall meeting in San Diego, the second year in a row it has done this, so that its members can conveniently attend the two meetings while paying for airfare and hotel only once. "More bang for the buck," said Brent Bowyer.
Also, with most manufacturers taking part in some way at the PMA event, their management folks are nearby and available to participate in the IPI activities, as well. According to Brent about 200 IPI members are expected to attend, representing a good chunk of the total number expected at PMA, about 1,500 (including exhibitor personnel).
On The Agenda
The agenda fashioned by Brent for the three-day IPI convention looks as though it might have been created by the PMA staff for its own convention. It is chock full of activities that allows time for members to jump over to the PMA scene as both are conveniently held at the same hotel, the Manchester Grand Hyatt.
The agenda is structured to include general sessions, break-out meetings, evening receptions and combination events with PMA and DIMA activities culminating with a PMA Big Night dinner cruise on Saturday.