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Does Your Minilab Need a Makeover?



There isn't an independent minilab operator in the country who hasn't asked this question of himself, his spouse, his MBA-son-in-law or his priest (maybe his rabbi): What do I do to change my business and get into the digital world?
Those who never asked it are now helping a friend put a new roof on his house or sitting at a desk in the local real estate office. There's hardly an independent operator who doesn't think about selling or closing his lab.

The reality of the condition is supported by PMA figures that show there were about 3,800 free-standing minilabs in 2002 (no doubt fewer today), almost half of what existed 10 years earlier. The remaining labs, according to PMA, accounted for about only 1.3% of all film processing for the 12 months ending February 2004, and falling, compared to discount stores with 38.7%, and rising. (Some 3,000 camera stores with labs do about 3.2% of the processing.)

Cal's Camera & Video in Costa Mesa, CA before it was redesigned (below) and after (above).

The independent minilab is undoubtedly an endangered species. Is extinction likely?

The folks at PMA, and this includes those industry members serving on important PMA committees, decided it was time, finally, to address the matter and see what could be done to assist the independent minilab operator in this time of transition. From this came the decision to conduct a series of 10 regional seminars that they call the Digital Minilab Makeover.

Will Holland of GIA is leading PMA's Minilab Makeover seminars.

The program kicked off with seminars in Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale, FL. I attended the third one in Woburn, MA. By the time you read this the Dallas, Los Angeles and New Jersey meetings will have concluded but if you're in the neighborhood you can still catch Minneapolis on June 22nd; Cleveland, July 22nd; Denver, August 10th; or San Francisco, Sept. 14th. Check the PMA website for details.

The creative force behind the Makeover is one Will Holland of Graphic Intelligence Agency, Akron, OH, a firm that promotes itself as a "leading provider of training and support in the visual communications industry." Will said he's been doing work for PMA since 1997, creating programs for DIMA on such subjects as large format printing and color management for presentation at night school during PMA conventions.

Looking at the plight of the independent minilab, Will feels the minilab owner goes through a process, first of denial of his business condition, then the realization and acceptance phase followed by the gathering of strength and will to fight it. Of course, some never advance to stage 3, opting instead to lock the doors.

It's Will's feeling that the operator has one of two choices: either compete on the same footing as the mass merchants—and dwindle; or, compete as a specialty boutique. The fighters were at the seminar.

His aim for the talk: "To encourage labs to think a new way about conducting their business." Will acknowledged there was "no silver bullet or magic formula" to dealing with today's minilab condition.

There is no way to adequately cover the program that takes Will almost an entire day to present. I'll try to highlight some of those points that especially hit home for me—along with my wife, a former owner of eight minilabs.

He opened the meeting stating that his objectives for the group was to show them "how to make more money," communicate "new ideas as to what others are doing," and "to think about being an independent photo finisher in a different way." Will had everyone's attention.

He challenged the group with this thought: "If you're not going to change: shut down your business, close the doors, go home, game over; you can't beat Sam Walton."

Will presented the concept of the boutique shop and discussed the success of such firms as Barnes & Noble, the Apple store and, especially, Starbucks. Why do folks spend $3 for a container of coffee from Starbucks when they can grab a 16-ounce container from the local convenience store for 89 cents? Will's answer is that the customer experience and the quality of the product is the key.

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