Readers from the Field & Stream subscription list, die-hard Major League Baseball fans, and fanatical star-gazers may not be the visitors you’d normally expect to see in front of your photo specialty counter. But add binoculars, telescopes, and spotting scopes to your retail repertoire (or pay more attention to the ones you already may be selling), and you could enjoy increased profits and a whole new customer base to target.
Expert Advice, Increased Sales
For Roger Rivers, president and owner of Rivers Camera and Telescope (www.riverscamera.com) in Dover, New Hampshire, adding these types of products to his full-service photo specialty store makes perfect business sense. “We stock all the major brands of binoculars,” he says. “And as for telescopes, we’re probably one of the biggest distributors in the country. We even recently changed our name from Rivers Camera to Rivers Camera and Telescope to better describe what we sell.”
Sales volume from binoculars and telescopes is strong at his store. “Binoculars make up a good portion of my sales,” he says. “And telescopes are a majority of my business, being that we’re committed so deeply and even work with telescope manufacturers for development of new products.”
The consumers who come into Rivers Camera for these advanced optics aren’t your typical camera enthusiasts. “Most of the binocular people are birders, hunters, or target shooters, and the telescopes are for individuals who are into astronomy,” says Rivers. “My competition in selling binoculars would include sportings goods stores and nature stores, and general telescope retailers.”
There are a few advantages to expanding beyond digicams and accessories on store shelves, says Rivers. “Binoculars are a nice profit margin item, and if you stock a wide variety of them, you won’t have a lot of competition—not a lot of people stock a wide variety,” he says. “With telescopes, we can price-compete with anyone, and generally we do a lot of mail-order business, as well as a lot of regional business. People will travel as far as 400 miles to visit us as a telescope destination. And with astronomy sales, they usually end up visiting other parts of the store.”
Rivers spends the majority of his advertising budget on astronomy optics, and has special displays set up in-store as well. But having a well-trained sales staff is really the key to growing this product niche. “You need trained experts with this equipment,” he explains. “Binoculars and spotting scopes, for example, lend themselves to outdoor tests. We’re on a main thoroughfare, and on the weekend, there are always at least one or two of my salespeople out on the sidewalk with a bunch of binoculars or spotting scopes. It’s a common site in downtown Dover!”
Finding out what customers are looking to do with their new equipment is crucial before making the sale. “You have to start by asking the simple question: ‘What do you want to use the binoculars for?’” says Rivers. “With telescopes, in general, the bigger the aperture, the better, up to a size that’s either out of their budget or too big for them to move around. We always try to match people to the biggest telescope that they’ll be willing to take out for 15 - 20 minutes at a time and bring back in, and be willing to do that on a regular basis. Selling them anything bigger isn’t really doing the customer a service, and if you sell them anything smaller, they’re not getting to see all the things they’d be able to.”
An Enhanced Lineup
Stephen Weiss, president and owner of Missouri’s Creve Coeur Camera (www.cccamera.com), also puts stock in his newly enhanced optics lineup. “Sales in this area have really picked up in the last few months,” he says. “We just revamped the whole lineup, and we’re putting in almost a full line of Pentax binoculars. We also carry Nikon, Canon, some Bausch & Lomb (depending on what deals there are), special-order Leicas, and Meade and Celestron telescopes.”
Creve Coeur stocks everything from $15 binoculars all the way up to $1,000 models. “A better lineup of product has helped our sales, and there’s been more traffic in our store for hard goods, so there are more people in here looking for things like that,” he says. “Plus, besides a sporting goods store, people don’t know where to go to get binoculars, and they’re a terrific add-on sale for us.”
His customers for these specialty item run the gamut. “It depends on the store,” he says.
“We get a lot of sports fans wanting to buy binoculars, because the Cardinals are in St. Louis. And two of our outside stores, for example, do a lot of nature, hunting, and birding business.”
Like Rivers, being able to show (and tell) his customers the benefits and features of each piece of optical equipment is important. “Most customers don’t know much about binoculars, except for the ones who had already had a pair that may have worn out or disappeared, so we just try to walk them through everything and explain the product to them,” he says. “We want them to try a product that’s good and trust us, and they generally do. We’ll explain to them about phase coating, for example, and then tell them to take the binoculars outside, where they can really see the difference. We also have a chart indoors, in a dark corner, that they can use to test the binoculars.”
While he doesn’t spend a lot of time marketing binoculars and telescopes, there’s careful attention spent to in-store displays and special promotions. “We just opened a retail superstore in Illinois, and we have a huge display of these items,” Weiss explains. “People walk in and go ‘Wow!’” and they’re confident we have a little bit of everything, so they buy them. It’s our displays and the depth of what we have that helps drive sales.”
A little bonus cheer around the holidays doesn’t hurt, either. “At Christmastime we sell a Promaster 7x21: buy one for $29.99 and you’ll get the second one for a penny,” he says. “We generally sell abut a thousand pairs around the holidays. People love them—they’re great stocking stuffers.”