“One of the things I would like to see industry-wide is that we all stick together,” Mark says, “whether manufacturer or retailer.”
Not only is Mark Comon a photographer in his own right but so are many of the people who work at Paul’s Photo. “You need to be an enthusiast to work in a camera store,” he says. “And like what you do, like [being around] the equipment. When you’ve got personal experience [with photography], it certainly is the best way to relate to customers.” Staff members include photographers: Rebeca Baylis, who staffs the processing counter, and has been with Paul’s Photo for 16 years; John Eckmier, sales, for four years; Kevin Clay, who works in the used department and sales, for five years; Bob Garrett, sales, for four years; Carmen Curry, also sales, with Paul’s Photo for the past five years; and John Davis, sales and webmaster, for the past eight years. Other members of the Paul’s Photo staff include Margo Hendricks, shipping; and Ron Evans, books.
In fact, the Paul’s Photo website features photos taken by staff, including Mark and his dad Paul. The website also features the winners of the various contests that Paul’s Photo has run as well as some of the best images from the off-site photo treks. Check out the website at www.paulsphoto.com to see the variety of images taken by the staff, as well as images from past photo trips, contests, and the store’s range of educational offerings.
“I wanted to do trips from the very beginning, and in 1991, everyone began to ask, ‘when can we go take pictures?’”
Since the workshops have started, they’ve headed across the Atlantic Ocean to Germany twice, (first in 1991); and to Sierra Nevada numerous times (the first time was in 1993). The photo treks are so popular that Paul’s Photo organizes 5-6 trips a year, with close to 15-25 people attending each trip.
Mark says it was his students who asked for the trip to Africa that’s planned for this fall. “They know they’re spending so much money and want to make sure they have fun,” he says, “in addition to getting good photographs.” Its not always easy to set up trips like the one to Kenya, but if people ask for it, Mark knows he’s got the installed base of customers willing to sign up.
Mark sets out on each trip with the goal that even if he and his students go on a photo trip and don’t get even one good picture, they’ll still have fun and feel their money was well spent. “The photography is a bonus,” says Mark. He works hard to make the classes and trips exciting, accessible, and enjoyable. And his reputation for leading great photo trips has grown so that other retailers have joined him to learn in a hands-on setting. He’s even led trips for other photo specialty retailers.
Join ‘Em If You Can’t Beat ‘Em
In addition to the classes that are taught on capture techniques, the Photoshop classes also instruct students on how to make their photos and prints better. The store sells a lot of photo printers and inks/media. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” is Mark’s answer to home printing. But he also points out that no home print will look like the LightJet prints that he offers his customers. For the retailer, it’s a fine line between wanting your customers to understand how they can print high quality images at home versus educating them that the ideal, true “lab quality,” long-life prints are what they’ll receive when printing at retail.
Paul’s Photo doesn’t have an in-house lab. At the moment, Mark says they don’t need one and don’t want one, because he feels a lab would keep him “tied to it” and unable to focus on what’s more important to running his business. Enlargements, as well as canvas and paper posters are outsourced.
What would he like to get into that he currently doesn’t offer? Framing. “If we do put in a lab, if we have to, if the wholesale labs go out, then we’ll add framing. It’s a natural fit for photo,” says Mark. As for scrapbooking, Mark understands that for scrapbooking to be successful, you need the dedication as well as the clientele, and he’s not sure that it’s currently a fit for his store.
Mark’s list of things to do includes expanding the kiosk area. He’s been thinking of designing it with a theme, calling it “Paul’s Digital Bar,” and using neon to dress it up. There are currently three “kiosks” in place—computers utilizing Silverwire software with a Kids Area that includes wooden trains and a VCR to make “Jennifer and her family” comfortable! Plans include adding more kiosks as needed. Mark says he likes the fact that the same interface is used for the in-store kiosks and online services, so his customers will only have to get used to using one interface for everything.
After that, its adding e-commerce and eBay, just because “we have to do that to keep competitive” with all the selling that goes on, on the web.
Listen, talk, revamp when necessary. “I think I’ve been good at listening my whole life. I listen to my customers, trust my instincts for what’s going to work, and just go for it,” Mark concludes.