Photographers and photo enthusiasts in Southern California proudly proclaim, “I want to go to school!” when it’s going to class at Paul’s Photo, that is. Specialty retailer Mark Comon puts his heart and passion for photography into everything he does, whether its helping a customer behind the counter, offering advice to fellow retailers, or leading a group of photo enthusiasts on photo workshops to such varied destinations as Yosemite National Park or halfway across the globe, as for an upcoming jaunt to Kenya. The “bread and butter” business comes from the family hobbiest and Mark is very happy with that type of customer.
Mark is a second generation owner of Paul’s Photo, which was started by his dad Paul Comon in 1961. Paul’s Photo is a member of the Southern California Photo Dealers Guild and a PRO member. “This is ‘a great family business,’” he says. “It’s a great family affair, for us, our staff, and our customers.” Mark has built strong relationships with many of his customers, some of whom he sees as often as three times a week, or even daily. He tells us that his wife has often wondered why he feels so strongly about the relationships he’s built in the store, telling him that the people aren’t his friends. “But how often do you see your friends?” he asks. Not as often as he sees some of his loyal customers.
“We see the kids [of our customers] grow up,” he says. Mark explains that many of his loyal repeat customers would bring their kids with them to the store, but the kids would whine that they didn’t want to be there while mom or dad shopped. Until he began giving away lollipops, that is. Now the “sucker man,” as the kids fondly call him, is popular with the youngsters. “Every kid gets a lollipop when they come in,” Mark notes. It’s the little things like giving a fidgety kid a lollipop to calm them while the parents run errands that specialty retailers can do, and the big chains can’t. “We’re doing everything we can to build customer base and loyalty; to have them come here so they don’t go anywhere else,” he adds.
Getting to the Head of the Class
Paul’s Photo originally opened as a small camera store that also sold Hallmark greeting cards. The business has moved its physical location three times since then, and has been at the current location for the last 20 years. Mark began working in the store at age 15, and has spent the past 30 years working alongside his father.
Paul’s Photo’s staff began teaching photography because they saw a need, and wanted to give their customers what they wanted—in education. At the time, business was slow, but because students would get excited during class and want to make purchases, it helped bring in additional revenue. “All want something. The majority of students are clamoring to buy something right after the class,” Mark says. When classes were only given at night, he’d turned away business after classes, not wanting to begin ringing up purchases at the register. He’d tell students to come back the following day.
When we visited Mark earlier this summer, he told us the store averaged about 125 students per month, at night. He was in the middle of a renovation which included the addition of a dedicated photo gallery/classroom. It is now August, as PTN goes to press, and the gallery and classroom are up and running. With the daytime classroom operating, Mark expects 250 students coming through the doors each month.
There is no limit to the future of the classes and workshops that Paul’s Photo offers its customers. Where do they want to go with it? The popularity of the classes snowballed, and at one time Mark says they looked for an outside space to hold the classes in, but it wasn’t viable—either financially or geographically. Their vision is to have three classes every Saturday. “If I can have 30 people in, three times a Saturday, the worth… [is immeasurable],” says Mark.
“We bring a lot of guest speakers in. We’re now offering lectures from manufacturer’s tech reps and “big name” photographers to offer a different voice and vision to the photography.”
Mark’s secret: having fun in everything he does.
The Advanced Photography Class has been part of the store’s offerings for the past 15 years, with some of the students attending the class for 12 of those 15 years. Recently, Mark says he became frustrated, feeling that the class was becoming a little stale.
Mark and the students were frustrated, so they sat down together and came up with a completely revamped style, giving it a “shot in the arm.”
The staff sees Paul’s Photo more as a center than just a store. “We have the guru advantage,” Mark notes. Associates who know photo inside and out, and make shopping an enjoyable experience for their customers.
“We want to be the store that helps people make better pictures,” Mark says. In addition to teaching at the store, and leading off-site workshops, he also gives talks to the local camera clubs and Rotary club. In addition to teaching, Mark often reminds the club members of the value of the specialty retailer with its knowledgeable and dedicated staff. He tells them, “You have to vote with your wallet if you want a camera store left in the South Bay Area. You need to give me business.”
“The specialty retailer with everything in stock can’t cut it anymore,” he notes. Although Paul’s Photo still has a darkroom section, it has been shrinking in size each year. “You have to make the decision to carry what turns, what people want and are looking for. You can’t keep the esoteric items in stock anymore, but if customers are willing to pay a premium, you’ll get it for them,” he adds.
Mark’s biggest fear is that one day he’ll wake up and find no camera stores left in the local area. There are only two stores left, including his, in the immediate area. Around the Los Angeles area, there’s a handful, but he says a local customer would have to travel a bit to get to them: Trader Joes, Samy’s, and a couple others.