Magazine Article


'New' 1 Hour Photo Via Online Uploads
Mini Lab

It was just 25 years ago, in 1980, that the concept of one-hour photo processing broke onto the scene. Before that the photo shooter was accustomed to waiting a full week to get prints from a roll of film left at the local drug or grocery store. (Just a little background for the newbies.)

From one week to one hour, just like that. (All it took was an investment of $125,000 for my Noritsu QSS-II on a lease that, in 1981, cost me 22% annual interest for the first of my eight labs. Ugh.) It was almost too good to be true.

In fact, customers were very skeptical. Were we resorting to some sort of trickery with that fancy equipment that might harm their film? Could we really return their prints in an hour? So many times, in those early days, customers would drop off a single roll just to see what their prints would look like and if you could fulfill the one-hour promise. Only after they were satisfied that this wasn't some sort of a scam did they take another six rolls from the pocketbook. This was an oft-repeated scenario.

This was the beginning of a monumental shift of photo processing from the central lab to on-site as the availability of one-hour turnaround has become the de facto standard. That and the cataclysmic decline of film has brought the huge Qualex empire to its knees as it has seen its number of wholesale labs in the United States dwindle from over 50 only a few years ago down to 11 at latest count.

In the real world, though, one-hour eventually became more of a generic term to represent there was equipment on-site to handle the processing. While most labs offered one hour turn, relatively few customers took advantage of it choosing, instead, to being comforted in the knowledge that the order would be ready whenever they returned—sometimes later in the day and, more often, the next day. Sometimes never.

But we are now in a digital world and a 'new' one hour service is breaking into the retail scene: upload your images from your home computer directly to the store's minilab system and your prints will be ready for pickup in an hour. It is currently being offered by Ritz, Wal-Mart, Sam's and Costco.

Uploading images to various websites is certainly not new. Shutterfly, Kodak's EasyShare Gallery (the formerly named Ofoto), Snapfish and many more all have high nationwide profiles. However, all orders are returned by mail, a process that takes many days, a downer for some consumers. Then there's the shipping charges.

Some photo specialists also offer upload services using software programs and infrastructure created by Fuji and Agfa for labs that have their respective digital equipment. There are also independent software programs available. Typically, these labs offer same day pickup though some promote a one-hour pickup.

A one-hour upload service is another tool, a strong one, in the arsenal of the photofinishing retailer in the challenge with the home printer for the digital print business.

From day one, consumers elected home printing as their choice method for prints from digital. In truth, retail options had been scarce.

However, this has changed dramatically as sites multiplied, retail prices continued to decline and as the early adopters, probably somewhat more techie, have been numerically superceded by mainstream shooters who lack the time, patience, or talent for home printing.

According to Dimitrious Delis, PMA's director of marketing research, March represented the first month of statistical parity between home and retail printing. He said that March '05 vs. March '04 reflected only a one percent increase in home printing while retail printing from digital has increased substantially—up 106% on minilabs (including online and kiosk); up 152% via internet uploads to both retail stores and fulfillment sites.

Now that retail printing seems to have put home printing in its place for the future, new industry battle lines are being drawn as uploading to the internet gains hold: upload to fulfillment sites (Shutterfly, etc.) and mail delivery vs. upload to a retail location for store pickup. The option to upload for one-hour store pickup may give that program some traction over mail delivery.

Ritz Camera was the first major player to measure the value of fast turnaround of uploaded images. Rich Tranchida, executive vice president, said that Ritz began promoting 4-hour pickup in July 2003. As the learning curve for both Ritz and its customers flattened out, they were able to accelerate to 2-hour last Spring.

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