The digital print studio at Grins 2 Go offers prints via a Lucidiom APM, with printing done on Mitsubishi printers. "We offer this service as a convenience to the customer," says Babla. "The thrust of our business is portraiture and custom framing. We have automated mat cutting, electronic pricing, and a large selection of framing and matting options."
And besides the current 18 franchise locations, there is also the Grins 2 Go On Location concept, which uses a franchise van to deliver mobile services. "Our franchisees are focused on three different market segments: portraits, organized portraits (faith-based and preschool portraits, for example), and events (business and consumer)," says Babla. Each on-location van is equipped with lights, cameras, and a complete computer setup.
It's the customer-service value, however, that Grins 2 Go stresses the most. "The Grins 2 Go studio revolves around the customer," Babla explains. "Our studios are located in neighbor shopping centers where a mom is likely to shop. Everything we do in the studio is for the customer. The environment is warm, inviting, and different. We take time on stage and in the viewing, and the customer has complete control over the choices they want to make."
For example, Grins 2 Go offers three different styles of photography, allows customers to select the images they want for their portraits, and touches up every portrait that is sold before delivering it the next day. "No customer will ever leave our place unhappy," says Babla. "If for some reason they are unhappy, our simple Grins guarantee kicks in: we will reshoot, reprint, or refund, no questions asked."
His devotion to the customer may seem like common business sense, but that's not what Babla found when he was researching the Grins 2 Go concept – and it's something that any retailer or photographer planning on starting their own portrait studio, franchise or not, should heed. "People can get hung up on the craft and might forget the business aspect or the customer aspect," he says. "When we were doing our research, we dragged our kids to probably 16 or 18 studios; we went to places like Sears and JCPenney, as well as to independent portrait studios. And out of all of them, in not a single one of them did they ask me my name, my wife's name, or my son's name. My daughter was accidentally asked her name in one studio after she glared at a photographer who called her 'honey.' Calling a customer by their name is the number-one rule of customer service! And yet I don't think this is unique to the photo industry: merchants in our society have made the customer accept mediocre or poor service as being acceptable. I don't believe in that – I believe the customer should be put on a pedestal."
Grins 2 Go also carefully hand-picks its franchisees, and potential buyers must by into the franchise's overall philosophy before signing on the dotted line. "A potential franchisee first and foremost needs to share our vision and our values," says Babla. "Our company prescribes to a code of conduct based on the 'Six Pillars of Character,' and we have a mission statement and our Grins guarantee. Once we get past that, we are looking for people that are financially capable of doing the business, as well as people that are passionate about customer service, interested in being immersed in their communities, have a creative bent, good with employees, and, above all, willing to work within a system."
A note of interest to photographic industry retailers: potential franchisees also don't need any photography industry experience. "One of the hallmarks of running a successful business is not necessarily knowing the craft," says Babla. "We are not looking for people with photography experience, since our franchisees are not the ones taking the photographs—we want them working on growing their businesses. Besides going through our one-week certified photographer training program, our franchisees hire people who are trained in photography. In fact, we insist they have at least a college-level education in the field."
So where does this leave those retailers who do have years of photo industry experience under their belt and who knows the ins and outs of the equipment and the marketplace? Does a franchise portrait studio operation make sense for them? "The answer is a cautious yes," says Babla. "It will depend on the person and their willingness to say 'OK, I've been an independent business owner and now I'm thinking of joining a franchise.' With that comes the requisite boundaries. Just because you know how to make burgers doesn't mean you should necessarily buy a McDonald's; your expertise at making burgers is certainly valuable, but at the same time, you've now got to do everything their way. And at Grins 2 Go, we're building a brand, and we want that customer brand promise to be consistent. You have to be comfortable working within the franchise parameters. We are huge proponents of franchising—a franchise provides training, support, peer interaction, ongoing research, and negotiated purchasing that an independent business owner is likely not to get."
So is owning a portrait studio franchise a viable option for you? Only you can decide after asking yourself some of the questions posed in this article. But whether you buy a franchise or choose to venture off on your own, treating employees like the important resource they are, offering high-quality products in lickety-split time, and keeping the customers' needs and wants as your main business mantra are valuable lessons that everyone should take home.