"Your cell phone is probably with you more than your camera," says Hoff. "You need to wow your customers with some of the new things that are out. Verizon, for instance, now offers VZ Navigator, a navigation system like your car has, only it's in your phone. You can be in your friend's car or on vacation and find out what restaurants are nearby. Informing your customers about features they didn't know were out there—that's what they remember."
Most of Tilben's customers are from Long Beach itself. "We're very local—we're a barrier island joined to the mainland by three bridges," says Sedlik. "Our customers are all from the neighborhood."
And it's that neighborhood feel that Tilben's customers are seeking. "It always feels like home to people," says Hoff. "Even though the store has gotten more modern and the town is constantly changing, you still have those old-time residents that continue to come in. Kids who were dropping their pacifiers in here are in college now."
Tilben's employees pride themselves on the rapport they have with their customers. "We show them how to crop, zoom, lighten, darken; we advise what to do and what not to do, and they appreciate that," says Hoff. "Someone will come in and say, 'I went to CVS and had pictures made from my memory card, and my head was completely chopped off,' because the machine just centered it and there was no one taking the time to tell the customer to move the image up."
While they've firmly established their presence in Long Beach, Tilben still has to face the same challenges many retailers are encountering around the country. "We didn't have that much competition 20 years ago," says Sedlik. "Now, right around us we have a CVS two blocks that way, an Eckerd two blocks that way, and a Walgreens coming soon. We've learned to adapt, however, and people can see that we do a better job."
Because of this competition, Tilben has had to deal with pricing issues. "We have had to counteract today's price structure—the 19-cent print seems to be the watchword," says Sedlik. "So we've had to adapt in that 19-cent world. It's brought down the profitability, but it's easily made up with the enlargements and other things people do with us."
Hoff concurs: "That part of the business is rough. Some of those internet prices are crazy, and you're not always getting what you think you're getting. You can get a refurbished item and they won't tell you, or get gypped on the accessories. But the reputable internet businesses we can compete with."
Tilben's employees also fight the trend of shopping at big-box stores or on the internet by making it their mission to provide the best customer service. "No matter what it is you want to purchase, you can get it on the internet," says Hoff. "So even though we price them right, our customers don't always assume we're the lowest price. They're coming to us because we'll explain the camera to them; and once we show them the camera, hopefully they'll come back and do their printing with us.
Then we can see full circle what's going on with the camera and explain how to improve on their pictures. A lot of customers are afraid to even read an instruction manual. A lot of people refer to me as 'Chet Support' because I'll help them through all that."
And this knowledge benefits Tilben's customers over the long haul, as well as in the short term. "With technology moving as fast as it does, I like to say that electronics is like dog years: every one year is equal to seven digital years," says Hoff. "When a customer comes in with a two-year-old camera and you tell them it's an old camera, they're like 'But its only two years old.' I have to say, 'Yeah, but it's really like a 14-year-old camera.' They want to know the technology they're going to need to get them through the next 10 years. We get them into something we know will meet their needs."
On Top of Their Game
While a couple of the five employees are cross-trained to handle most of the store's needs, most specialize. "Luis [Almodovar], for example, is very savvy when it comes to different aspects of photography," says Sedlik, "while Chet is more tech-savvy when it comes to actual digital photography, like explaining the menus within your camera."
"I'm in my 22nd year here now," says Chet. "I started here shipping out UPS packages. When I got here, people would ask me what f/stop they should use, but I didn't know an f/stop from a bus stop! I took two semesters of photography classes at Nassau Community College and bought my first manual camera for that class. Today I'm strictly digital; in fact, [the main part of] my email address is 'nomorefilm.'
Interacting and sharing their specialized knowledge with their customers is the fun part of the job for Tilben's staff. "There's a lot of personality here," says Sedlik. "We're all pretty outgoing when it comes to that." "I love getting feedback from the customers," adds Hoff. "I had a girl the other day come in with a camera, and every time she turned it off, the flash kept resetting—so we turned the reset functions off. When people come back with their problems, I can help them so they don't make the same mistakes."
The education ventures outside the store's walls as well. "We offer in-house instruction by the hour, which the employees do on their own time," says Sedlik. "Chet says that you need no more than two lessons with him until you've got the hang of it."