Magazine Article


Passport Business Ready to Kick Into High Gear

According to a Sony spokesperson, the cost for a 250-pack of 4x6 paper and ribbon is about 75-cents per sheet, though it could be less for a volume dealer. Sony is about to introduce a new printer for its passport lineup, but would not reveal any details at this time.

Polaroid lost a lot of momentum as it went through the travails of its 2001 bankruptcy and it probably cost them the leadership in the field as Sony made its digital move. However, “we are absolutely” still alive and kicking, according to Bruce Lazarus, Polaroid’s director of marketing for peel-apart products (like in Polaroid film).

The old standby, the mini-portrait 203, is still being offered at a list price of $699 and uses type 669 film, which runs about 75-cents a print if bought right. At PMA 2003, Polaroid introduced its Digital MiniPortrait camera which Bruce said sells in the $1,500-$1,800 range. The unique feature is that, unlike Sony, the camera not only captures the image but outputs it as well, onto its proprietary thermal media. It can print anywhere from one to six images on a sheet, and output in about 90 seconds, at about 45-50-cents/sheet.

Bruce said that Polaroid products can be purchased through its distributor network or its e-commerce online site.

Olympus and Mitsubishi have had dedicated passport systems in the past but have withdrawn from this market—Mitsi, as recently as this summer. Mitsi recently began shipping a new dye-sub printer, DPS Click 5000, that has passport templates.

Noritsu and Fuji are also in the passport business, in a way, by having passport templates built into the software of their minilabs that allow the lab to shoot a subject on any digital camera and output the 2x2-inch images onto a 4x6 sheet. No doubt this is the cheapest solution for dealers as the total cost is only the price of a single print, maybe 5-6 cents. Many have taken this route.

Passport Photos Are Profitable

Manny Park, owner of Pro Image Photo, NYC, is a Sony user, and he feels that a dealer shooting and printing on his minilab is penny-wise and pound-foolish. “Yes, he’ll save a few cents, but he loses out in terms of the cost of labor and the displeasure of a customer who has to wait for a print to be made.” The flip side is that if a customer has to hang around the store, she may buy something

I can attest to the turnaround matter. As I was preparing this column I dropped in at my local Ritz store to see how passports were being done and was told that they could take the picture immediately on their digital camera and that “the print would be ready in a half-hour.” At a second Ritz I was given a 10-15 minute wait time. Ritz uses a Fuji Frontier for passport output.

Then there are the folks that are trying to save a few bucks in the passport process by taking their pictures on their own digital camera and printing at home. The State Department specs for the passport image are rather precise and it takes a certain amount of skill and patience to get there with a home system. But, try they will—with some applications being returned.

The pricing of the passport service is an interesting study. There seems to be little time spent on shopping the competition as to what to charge for a set of passport prints. They are all over the lot. I did my own telephone survey of local stores and found the following: Ritz Camera, $14.95; CVS, $7.95; Target, $14.99; Costco, $4.99; Walgreen’s, $7.99; Eckerd, $8; Kinkos, $14.95; and a UPS store, $9.58. That’s quite a spread of prices. Obviously, no collusion here. In case you wondered what the prices were at Rite-Aid and Sam’s Club, forget it: neither offers passport services.

Hey, what about Wal-Mart? The largest photofinisher in the world, the number one competitor for everyone in every category, just doesn’t seem to be in the passport business right now. I telephoned three local Wal-Marts and was told that passport photos were not done by their lab folks but rather by their portrait studio which had its own telephone number. I received voicemail messages at all three telling me they would call me back for an appointment (an appointment for a passport picture?), but none did.

The problem, it turns out, is that the Wal-Mart portrait studio is a concession run by Portrait Corp. of America (PCA) and serves the chain’s stores in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, UK, and Germany, and it filed for bankruptcy on August 31. They owe Wal-Mart over $5 million in rent and royalties, according to website information.

As for passports it looks as though Wal-Mart will have to regroup. For now, at least, they are not a competitor in the passport segment. Maybe they’ll find a way to do it with their lab people—no appointments, please.

When I first heard that the U.S Postal service was going into the passport photo business some years ago I was struck with two emotions: first, how dare the U.S. government get into competition in the private enterprise arena against the on-site photo lab; second, it was the end of the passport photo business for the lab since there would be no way to compete with the post office.