In his 1940 classic novel You Can't Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe laments about not being able to do just that, but for Unique Photo's Matt Sweetwood and his brother Jonathan, sometimes you can.
Unique Photo, one of the leading photographic distributors in the country, just celebrated its 60th year in business. The photographic company is kicking off 2008 in style with a move into a new 55,000-square-foot facility in Fairfield, NJ, that also houses their new mega retail camera superstore.
"Before our parents opened Unique Photo, they also had run Hoboken Camera in New Jersey, in addition to operating 35 camera stores in the Kresge and Valley Fair department stores in the New Jersey area," says Matt Sweetwood.
"It's amazing how life has run full circle," he points out. "Before we were a full-fledged distributor, we were a full-service camera store. Yes, you can go home again."
In 1947 Bernard Sweetwood and his sister Roz opened a photo studio called Ranbi. From the studio they started to sell photographic equipment. Forged by their hard work and fueled by Bernard's lifelong passion for photography, the small Brooklyn storefront quickly blossomed into what it would become. Bernard and his wife, Harriet, founded Unique Photo in 1963 and set forth the business acumen that would help them grow into the successful distribution business they are today.
In 1965, the company moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey. Both Matt and Jonathan started working full-time in the business in the 1980s. In 1996 the company-now headed by the sons-moved to a state-of-the-art facility in Florham Park, NJ, where they remained until January of this year.
"In the early 1990s, we took the business to new levels by selling to professional photographers and independent minilabs," says Matt. As Unique Photo continued to grow and prosper, Jonathan and Matt maintained the prescience and determination exemplified by their parents. "We still proudly remember that little storefront in Brooklyn, and we strive to match its excellence in service," says Matt.
He stressed that one of the reasons for the company's longevity is taking care of the customer. "Customer service is the heart of Unique Photo," says Matt. "We are a direct link for orders, questions, concerns, and advice for all the products we carry. When customers call our toll-free number or visit our website, they're connected with highly trained, professional, and personable associates knowledgeable in every aspect of photography. That drives our company to constantly maintain the standards for which we are famous. Our satisfied customers know that they have done more than purchase the best-quality goods at the best price-they have become part of the Unique Photo family."
It is that formula for success that the Sweetwood brothers hope to transform into their new retail location.
Currently, he said that Unique Photo is comprised of three major businesses. "We have the distributor business, which is going strong," he report. "We supply the vast majority of minilabs and photo stores throughout the country. We are probably the largest seller of minilab supplies in the country in sheer volume alone.
"We also sell directly to the professional photographer, in particular the wedding portrait studio photographer," he explains. He adds that they provide a little extra customer service to their pro photographer customers.
The third level is the new retail superstore that they just opened in February. [Editor's note: as of press time, the retail store hadn't opened, but it is scheduled for a soft opening by the time this issue reaches our readers' desks.] "For years there has been a huge void in the Northern NJ area for a large photographic retail presence," he says. "There are a number of excellent smaller camera stores in the area, but they only serve their local towns. Our goal with this new location is to fill an educational need that the big-box stores don't offer consumers. To them, a camera is a box. To us, the camera is an important instrument that leads to a host of other photographic options.
"I believe there is a place for this type of store," he continues. "In this part of the country, there is a very highly educated, affluent population that feels like they aren't being serviced. They don't want to go to Best Buy. They want to have a better shopping experience. We want to be the ‘photo-centric' store that will meet all their imaging needs."
Last month they moved the entire operation from Florham Park, NJ, to Fairfield, NJ. The 55,000-square-foot building houses their warehouse and retail business on Route 46. Matt explains that Route 46 is a major artery in New Jersey, so they expect to get a lot of drive-by traffic.
"We are not just selling customers products, but also a photographic philosophy on how to better use these products," says Matt. "We feel that there is no one in this part of New Jersey doing this-and there's a huge need for it. Within our new store we have an area called the Unique University, where we'll be offering a complete photographic education for the customer."
The education and retail space is about 8,000 square feet. In that space is a 2,500-square-foot classroom area. "We're offering classes to anyone that buys a camera or printer," he says. "We're creating a meeting place for people interested in photography. It's not just about selling product-it's an education-motivated facility."
Matt says that they'll run basic classes in photography, all the way up to more serious classes for the pro. "We have a lot of vendor support for this and have also engaged with some programs with the local universities," he says. "Montclair State University has a large photography program and we will be running some programs with them. I have hired a university professor to be in charge of the education curriculum. We will give manufacturers a place to offer demos and special presentations. It's a chance for the camera companies to reach out and speak directly to the consumer.
"In a sense, we're on a mission to teach people about photography and what it can do for them today," he adds. "Whether they want to shoot digital or even still film, it doesn't matter. They just love photography-and that's what matters. I've gotten a lot of kudos from people in the industry over reopening brick and mortar and what we are planning to do with our retail business."
The Sweetwoods also hope their educational approach will help them sell more printers. "I think printing, particularly printing at home, is still a confused marketplace," he says. "There are some excellent products out there, and [we] feel the consumer doesn't know what to do with them. We're going to work hard to sell print at home. Users need to think of the camera as a computer. And this presents us with an opportunity to teach them how to use this ‘computer' to open up their world of photography."
The superstore offers a very modern environment with a coffee-bar lounge, Wi-Fi, and a meeting area with comfortable places to sit and shop. It also houses a processing and output area. "We want to make our customers feel comfortable," he says. "We are providing more sitting areas for the customers. We will have an area where we can sit with a customer and go over features of a digital camera that they might want to purchase or how their print order came out. We want to make the customer feel like they are in their own home."
The store carries a full boatload of photographic merchandise. "We offer the same products we sell online-more than 20,000 brand-name cameras, printers, inks, papers, and other photographic items in stock," he says. "We carry tripods, bags, lights, electronics-you name it.
"It's a really nice place to come and purchase photographic equipment and supplies," he continues. "We want to make the purchasing experience a special one. What really blows me away is that we are doing exactly what my parents did more than 60 years ago. We want to be New Jersey's premier camera superstore. When you are looking for a camera, we want you to be thinking Unique Photo."
- Store Name: Unique Photo
- Location: Fairfield, New Jersey
- Owners: Matthew & Jonathan Sweetwood
- Years in Business: 60
- Claim to Fame: Business incorporates a successful mix of distribution and retail sales of photographic products to consumers and pros.