Magazine Article


Hip to Be Square
Distinct styles drive albums and frames in an increasingly commoditized on-demand market

Creative Frames

The phrase "odd man out" used to be a pejorative. When it comes to contemporary albums, it's increasingly a compliment.

This desire to stand out owes to the general commoditization of the album business, says MARK ZUCKER, founder of Zookbinders: "Some album companies are promoting unique colors and outrageous cover treatments to draw attention to photographers at trade shows, who are hoping that brides will be equally ‘wowed' by something different."

The nontraditional approach has carried over into prints, with square print formats outside the conventional dimensions growing in popularity, he adds.

Unusual approaches, such as a calendar-style opening, have been very well received, says JAN SEIFERT, owner of Albums Unlimited: "We make the calendar-opening style in any size. There's a lot you can do with acrylic covers, etchings; step away from traditional album page sizes. Start thinking outside the box."

Photographers are increasingly embracing flush-mount albums vs. more traditional pieces, she adds. "Those that didn't start in that direction have found their business hasn't held up as well," she says.

While an out-of-the-ordinary piece won't lead sales, it's likely to attract customers, says Seifert. "When the photographer goes to the bridal fair with an unusual album, they'll get noticed--even though their customers will probably still order the plain old 12x12," she says.

In Style

Weddings remain the album industry's biggest driver, says CLARE KUBOTA, co-owner of AsukaBook: "We see a lot of demand for our EX line with the embossed slip case or our leather books with a custom-printed image on the box."

"In the last couple of years, it's all about the covers," Zucker says. "They used to be boring; the photography is what separated one album from the next. Now customers are increasingly looking for albums with full-bleed images or wrap-around covers. We're seeing leather and fabric, metal and wood, clear or Lucite materials."

The danger, he adds, is that in the rush to stand out, covers can be over-designed. "For maximum impact, I much prefer to see very simple designs with only one image, and minimal--if any--special effects," he says.

Interest in eye-catching covers has grown in part because "the insides of the album have become generic," Zucker says. Thanks to Photoshop, designing albums is easier. "Photoshop has leveled the playing field, so the insides are the same," he adds.

The market is also dividing between photographers who want to design and assemble the album themselves, and those looking for a turnkey solution. "We've seen a big growth in self-assembled albums, the fastest growing being our self-adhesive page products in both albums and folios," says GLEN CLARK, VP of marketing for The Chilcote Company.

This do-it-yourself trend is prevalent for all sizes, he adds. Digitally produced albums are eroding the market for mats. "What's replacing those are slip-ins, the easiest and most forgiving format" for the DIY crowd, Clark observes.
Other photographers continue to value a full-service approach, Seifert says: "Our customers are looking for a turnkey solution--a place to upload their images, walk away, and get their album back. They don't want to go to the lab."

For album companies to remain competitive, particularly against labs that are encroaching on the album market, they must offer printing services, Zucker says. This way, "photographers don't have to work with two companies, thus increasing the ‘ease of use' to the album-buying photographer," he explains.

Thanks to a slowing economy and rapid technological change, there's also been a modest bump in traditional proofing and printed products. "It's harder now for photographers to keep up," Clark says. "The traditional products are cheaper to produce, and there's no learning curve.

"We saw a big decline in folio sales to high schools once digital came out," Clark recalls. "In a year or two, school photographers' gross sales were dropping because they used folios to sell. Now we see folio sales back up, because photographers needed them."

No matter the product, that history is applicable. As Kubota observes, "People don't buy what they don't see."

How PhotoBooks Fit

The rise of photobooks hasn't diminished demand for the traditional album, Kubota says. What it has done is open the door to more ancillary gifts for friends and family. "Many brides still really want the leather-bound, heavy-page album," Kubota says. "That's what they've been exposed to for so long. Moms or other family members order the coffee-table book." "A bride will always want a book like mom had," seconds Seifert.

"Our average sale is a bride who buys one leather album, one mini for the purse, and a 6x6 photobook for the grandparents," Zucker says. What photobooks offer is a new revenue stream. "Our 9x9 photobook won't eat into our high-end bridal market business--it's a switch from the peel-and-stick and slip-in that looked cheap," he says.

For the cost-conscious, the book can be a better bargain.

"The album is still regarded as a premium product, with an embellished spine and a thicker page substrate," Clark says. Nevertheless, "there's a huge influx of people producing books," Kubota says. Yet photographers are also capturing far more images...and books have allowed them to monetize those extra snaps, both for weddings and for family portraits.

Photobooks are conditioning end users to expect products that are increasingly customized and on-demand, Clark says. Chilcote will address the on-demand market with its distributor partners. "We're targeting a niche between a consumer-grade book and a pro album," he says. "It will take advantage of digital and on-demand with better packaging presentation and a pro finish." The product line will be targeted for bridal party gifts, relative gifts, and "watch me grow" products.

Shoot and Burn

Albums and frames continue to be a key profit-generator for photographers. According to a study from the research firm InfoTrends, the top money-makers for digital photographers were, in order, albums, greeting cards, and frames.
Professional album companies have long valued their B-to-B relationships with pros. Yet that model is increasingly under siege. One of the bigger forces shaping albums is how many "weekend warrior" photographers are reshaping the business. Armed with a DSLR and low price, these "shoot and burn" folks undercut the prices of an established pro, leaving the bride with nothing but a CD of files--no proofs, prints, or albums.

"A lot of brides are going on consumer websites and ordering $50 photobooks, that's their wedding package," Zucker says. "It's the biggest challenge for our industry going forward," concurs Seifert.

"Photographers need to get back into producing the albums," Seifert says.

Though there are still significant opportunities in the album market, many involved in capture and output are hurting. "You're going to see about 55% of the wedding market fall to shoot-and-burn photographers," Zucker predicts.

The migration of brides away from full-service pros has made album companies reexamine their B-to-B model. "We used to have a pact to sell to pros only; it was an unwritten law. I know we're all talking about how to handle it," Seifert says.

"We only offer our services to pros," Kubota says. "As a fellow pro, I know they appreciate that their clients can't get online and get exposure to our pricing."

"The professional vendors are not interested in dealing direct with the bride--it's a lot of work for one order," Zucker says. Nor is it wise to "sell to your clients' client." Nevertheless, he adds, "we're looking at ways to reach the end user through other channels."

To reclaim lost market share, photographers must offer "professionalism, from capture to output," Clark says. "Does the photographer control the output or not? That's their value--that they can maintain the quality throughout the chain and deliver a superior product that will last for a lifetime. People do understand quality. They know that immediate isn't always lasting. At the end of the day, it's not about what technology can do, but what people will buy."

What's in a Frame?

Frame vendors, like their album counterparts, are pushing unique designs to entice buyers.

"What we're promoting is odd-sized prints," says RICHARD WILLIAMS, owner of Creative Frames. "Instead of a 16x20 or an 11x14, we tell the photographer to make the prints square. Make it unique."

There has been a trend toward custom frames, said Joel Levin, founder, Levin Frames. However, end users are also trying to match their frame to their decor, and not the image. "In photography, that's backwards. You use your image to enhance your environment and you match the frame to the image."

Levin said that photographers who try to unbundle their services miss out. "You only get your free advertising if the frame goes on the wall," he said. The key, he added, is that photographers have to really master the art of selling. "You have to make yourself indispensable to your client. Once price becomes the determining factor, you've lost them on any sense of quality or skill."