(A few facts I picked up about our post office while researching this article: with 700,000 employees, only Wal-Mart has more employees; with annual sales of $70 billion, it would rank in the Fortune top-20; it isn’t government ‘owned’ but is a self-governed business under the executive branch; processing almost five million passport applications a year.)
Just how significant is the post office in the passport photo business? The only thing I learned for certain when I talked with a spokeswoman for the postal service was that there were about 37,000 post offices in the country.
Asked how many took passport photos and what was the postal service’s revenue from passport photos she said she had no idea as it was a local option matter and they kept no tally. She “guessed” there were about 5,700 post offices that handled passport applications and when pressed as to how many would be taking photos, she “guessed” it might be about 2,200. In other words, it wasn’t very important to their big picture. (Polaroid’s Bruce Lazarus, a major supplier to the post office, feels there are about 1,800 passport-equipped post offices.)
That lack of interest is definitely reflected at the local level in my personal experience as well as reports from dealers around the country.
I called my local post office which has a large banner hanging outside its brick edifice offering passport photo services. I was told that photos are taken only between 11am-1pm each day and the price was $15 for a set. The postal lady responsible told me I could get it a lot cheaper at CVS. Now, that’s a friendly competitor.
Dealers who contacted me on Bestphotolist had the same general impression of the post office as a competitor.
Gerry Wagman, Verona Camera, Verona, NJ, said, “the local post office shoots with Polaroid and charges $18 and when people complain the post office sends them to me.” Gerry said he’s been shooting passports for 35 years and at $11 for the first pair and $5 for an additional set, he is doing about 50 a week. He will also shoot about 50 on the day the county clerk comes to town to process passport applications. He shoots with a Fuji S1 digital camera and prints on a HI-TI dye-sub printer. Gerry’s only advertising is a large window sign offering “quality passports in less than 5 minutes.” He estimates his cost at 20-cents a shoot and the process takes three minutes.
Erik Joyce, store manager at Potomac Photo & Digital, Potomac, MD, charges $13 for a set of four prints using a Fuji digital camera and the template on his Noritsu 3011. “We have a post office across the street that charges $17 for two Polaroids. They send us customers because they are usually out of film.” Erik also has an arrangement with a group of local immigration lawyers to refer his service. He said he shoots about 250 passports a month. Alone, it could pay a good part of his store’s rent, I bet.
Michelle Hecht, Photo Center, Scarsdale, NY, prices passport photos at $9.95 while her local post office is at $15. “We charge $16.95 for Canadian passports because we have to digitally remove the lines under peoples’ chins. It’s ridiculous.”
Mitch Goldstone, 30 Minute Photos Etc., Irvine, CA, looks beyond the passport customer as one who will be traveling, taking pictures and has disposable income. He uses the digital image he makes to create an additional 4x6 card to personalize the order and if there are children involved, Mitch hands out Haagen-Dazs ice cream bars and other treats. All for $10.05 for two prints and an extra pair.
Being in the passport photo business doesn’t mean that every order is only for two prints. Renée Crist, Photo Pro Film & Digital Imaging, Gig Harbor, WA, said that he shoots teachers going overseas on government contracts and they might require between 50 and 100 images for various applications. Renée is one of the more promotional dealers I heard from on Bestphotolist: telephone book listing for passports; counter brochure called “Travel Tips and Passport Photos;” passport page on his website; window signage. Results? “We do hundreds each month.” At $10.99/per, that is.
By the way, my thanks to the surprising number of dealers that responded to my request for information on the Bestphotolist. Though I could not mention you all by name, the direction you all gave proved valuable in my preparation of this column.
While I don’t see the passport business as a sleeping giant, it certainly is sleepy and for those retail executives who decide to spend some time and energy to look under the mattress, they are liable to find some big dollars hiding there.