Growth in the portrait business has been double-digit since they moved to the new location in 2003. “Each year we try to add new services to the studio,” he reports. “We added live Easter bunnies in 2003, so children could be photographed with them, and our Easter portraits have been through the roof ever since. It’s become a trademark for us in Knoxville and the surrounding areas. It helps keep families coming back each year.” The studio uses special promotions like that during the Christmas season, as well as around other holidays.
In the studio, there is an Epson 9800 wide-format inkjet printer, digitally compositing images for posters, portraits, and some commercial work. They work closely with Fuji Hunt, which is a supplier of Epson equipment for the photo lab market. “We were a very early adopter of wide-format printing,” he says. “We purchased the Epson printer from Fuji Hunt. They came in, set up the machine, trained us on it, and also continue to provide tech support. They have been great to work with.”
With the 9800, they have the ability to produce up to 40x60 inkjet prints. They also have the option to print on a number of different media types, including canvas. “Occasionally, we’ll get some really big jobs from local area businesses for signage,” he adds.
Customer Education Is Key
Gerwels is doing what he can to educate consumers about in-store digital photofinishing. But he’s not going to depend entirely on them, so he is pursuing a multitiered photofinishing strategy that includes not just consumers, but even more increased emphasis on the pro photographer.
“I’m getting a lot of my customers, including pro photographers, to switch to digital,” he says. “I consider our retail location to be a true pro lab.”
Gerwels is starting to see more pro photographers coming back to him to process their images. “We are beginning to see more pros coming back to us with many questions on digital and color management,” he says. “The trend in the industry a few years ago was seeing a shift of many pros turning to mass merchants to process their digital images because they offered cheaper prices, like .19-cent prints. There is a certain stigma for a print that has the Wal-Mart name on it. I mean, if you are a photographer and your clients are paying $30 for an 8x10, and they see that if they went to Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club, they’d only be paying .19 cents, how are they going to react? Wal-Mart doesn’t have the quality and service factors that we can offer. Quality is a big advantage for us. We clearly show our customers that there is a big difference in quality when they go to a big-box store versus going to a pro lab location. From this we are seeing more photographers starting to come back to us.”
Secrets to Success
When asked how he has made some very smart moves in the last few years, Gerwels credits the IPI Group as a good sounding board. “Having an IPI membership has been a big plus,” he says. “They provide us with large amounts of information. Being a member of IPI also gives us the opportunity to talk with large groups of independents out there that we can all bounce ideas off of. It’s like a brotherhood—they were key in helping us make the right business decisions.”
Another reason for Gerwels’ success has been his marketing partnership with Marathon Press. “They are a company that helps photographers with their marketing programs,” he says. “They designed my website and logo. They also print my custom mailer cards. They helped us give our studio the high-end look we wanted.”
When asked how other retailers can succeed in this market. Gerwels offers the following advice: “If you aren’t 100 percent digital in your workflow, get 100 percent digital. You have to be ahead of the curve. If you’re going to be successful today, there are only a few business models that will work with digital. You need to have a portrait studio, you need to become more of a pro lab operation, and you need to get involved in wide-format printing.”
Gerwels’ advice for people opening a portrait studio: “Start small. Just do head-and-shoulder shots at first, and then move into other markets as your business grows.”
A lot has changed for Memories Photo & Digital over the years as the business continues to evolve. But some things will never change. “We’ve always offered the best in photofinishing and a wide range of services in this part of the country. That’s true and it always will be that way,” he concludes.