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Retailers: If You Teach It, They Will Come
Retailers are a quick study—and they're learning that educating their customers goes beyond directing them to the owner's manual.


Creve Coeur Camera's School of Imaging
Customers learn the ins and outs of their new digital cameras at Creve Coeur Camera’s School of Imaging.
The Camera Shop's digital SLR class
Bilbo Blanchard teaches The Camera Shop’s digital SLR class.
Illustrating photographic point
Apertures Photo store manager Toby Gregory (r.) illustrates a photographic point during class.

So you’ve just moved a good portion of your new DSLR stock off your shelves and into the hands of enthusiastic customers. But over the next few weeks, these same customers are starting to filter back into the store, new cameras in hand, with nary an image on their memory cards and panic-stricken looks on their faces: “I don’t know what that pesky symbol is that keeps flashing on my LCD, or how to save my digital files—and by the way, what’s a JPEG?

You can fumble with the owner’s manual to try and help your customer decipher his new toy, or you can do what an increasing number of retailers are doing these days to ease their customers into the world of photography: Offer a little education as a purchasing incentive. Whether it’s a general class on the intricacies of digital photography, an on-location workshop, or a one-on-one tutorial session that focuses on a particular camera brand and model, today’s educational alternatives provided on the retail front can help your customers conquer the learning curve, and can help you retain those customers.

Creve Coeur: Geared Toward the Customer

Consumers who purchase equipment from Missouri’s Creve Coeur Camera don’t have to worry about buying an expensive camera from the store, only to get it home and not have any idea how to work it. Since president and owner Stephen Weiss bought the store seven and a half years ago, Creve Coeur has been offering free and paid instructional classes that have been “knocking them dead.”

“We’ve always offered a ‘Thinking About Buying a Digital Camera’ class, a generic ‘digital 101,’ so you’ll know how to use a digital camera after you buy it,” Weiss explains. “And we’ve always offered an advanced digital class, which gets more into Photoshop, as well as portraiture and scenic classes.”

One new option Creve Coeur has been offering: classes designed for specific cameras sold in substantial quantities at the store. “Let’s say we buy 150 of a particular brand of camera,” says Weiss. “We’ll then have our teacher, Paul Bailey, put a class together. He’ll take some of the basic lessons from the beginning classes and make them more specific.” The instructor will take screen shots from the camera, bring them up in a PowerPoint presentation, and demonstrate how to use the camera in a two-hour class. “We’ve had as low as 30 percent of the customers who bought the camera taking the class, and it’s gone as high as 80 percent, though it averages around 65 percent,” he says.

This has translated into a nice revenue stream for the store. “When you buy the camera you get a coupon, so it’s a net amount of around $44,” says Weiss. “We get 200 people at $44, and it makes that camera hugely profitable. The teacher is paid a salary and doesn’t get commission—we bonus him based on how well he does. It’s a very profitable department.”

Creve Coeur posts class schedules on its website, sends out a monthly mailer via email, and places posters prominently throughout the store. But just as critical is keeping an eye on what works for its customers. “Initially we thought that the Photoshop classes would take off, but they didn’t—until this year,” he says. “And we’ve had pretty good success with our real-estate photography classes, where we teach real-estate people how to shoot pictures and upload them to the Multiple Listing Service system.”

In the end, Creve Coeur’s mission to educate is easily understood: “We’re not selling cameras, we’re selling complex computers, and people want knowledge. Creve Coeur Camera probably has the best reputation in the Midwest, and our customers have always expected more from us.”

Promoting Return Business: The Camera Shop

In Bryn Mawr, PA, The Camera Shop also aims to keep its customers in the know when it comes to their gear. “We’ve been offering free Digital 101 classes for a couple of years with the purchase of the camera,” says vice president Kathy Bogosian. “When you buy a camera, we offer free prints, free Photo Finale software, and a free ticket to a Digital 101 class that teaches you how to handle your files, what a digital file is, etc. It’s an added-value item we give with the camera, something that Circuit City or the other big boxes don’t offer on the same level.”

Plus, because The Camera Shop’s staff is highly trained in photographic issues, customers can feel comfortable they’re getting expert advice. “Many of our staff have degrees in photography—the person who started our educational program and wrote the course is a graduate of RIT,” Bogosian explains.

Last year, the store started expanding into other areas, due to popular demand. “We’ve gone into having classes specific to, for example, a Canon or Nikon SLR,” she continues. “Every now and then, we’ll bring in the tech reps from Canon or Nikon.”

While they don’t rake in a ton of money off of the classes, it’s the customer retention rate that makes educational efforts worthwhile. “The classes bring people back to the store,” Bogosian says. “We also stress printing pictures and archiving your files, and we have a lot of kiosks set up in the store and a children’s play area nearby.”

Meeting customer expectations can sometimes be challenging when you’ve got a roomful of patrons who all own different cameras. “Many of them expect the class to be a course specifically geared to their camera, and it’s not—it’s an intro to digital photography,” says Bogosian. “We tell you what the terms mean, where the generic symbols usually are on the camera. So sometimes people expect you to be one-on-one and they can try to take over the class.”

As a response to that, The Camera Shop has instituted paid tutoring sessions, where customers can get the one-on-one attention they want. “Each session is about an hour with one of the salespeople,” says Bogosian. “They can answer your questions and go over the entire camera specifically tailored to what you need to know.”

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