I had always thought that photo gifting involved putting images onto mugs, mouse pads, men's ties, and baby bibs. Imagine my surprise one day about three years ago when I was told about photo images being printed onto men's boxer shorts.Now really!!!
At the time I must have chuckled (politely, of course) to my informer at the absurdity of this idea, but I never gave it much thought after that. Gifting, after all, was such a fringe segment of the business. To me, anyway.
The man who told me about it then was Al Steinman, vice president of marketing and business development, District Photo, Beltsville, MD, which bills itself online as "the world's largest direct-to-consumer photo service"—though it does pretty good on the wholesale side of the business as well. I was with Al at one of District's Snap Shots One Hour retail stores for an interview. He said District had recently purchased a small interest in a firm called Photo This, Chambersburg, PA, and Al was suggesting I might find it a good subject for a column. I deposited it into my mental suggestion box. That was 2004.
Then, recently, two things happened to stimulate my antenna. A week before PMA's Las Vegas show, a firm I had never heard of, Photo TLC, Petaluma, CA, had abruptly put up an "out of business" sign without giving notice to its customers. (Closed with it was its online photo service, Club Photo, and tens of millions of stored customer images that some thought might never again see the light. The Club Photo files were recently purchased by Winkflash, North Kingston, RI; see story on imaginginfo.com.)
Firms can go out of business with little notice. But when Photo TLC shut down, it was a near calamity for at least two major retailers, Walgreens and CVS, who depended on them for the fulfillment of its broad line of photo gift items and had countless customer orders in the pipeline that would never be filled by the locked-down Photo TLC. If you look at the websites of these two retailers and see how many pages they devote to photo gifting, one can only imagine the orders they generate and how the loss of the fulfillment house could cause major agita. Scramble time.
Enter Larry Rife, a Chambersburg native and the founder of Photo This, who was already serving as the fulfillment house for just a few of the other majors—Rite Aid, Ritz, Wal-Mart, Costco, Kodak Gallery, Shutterfly, Duane Reade, Eckerd—plus others, big and small. Larry was both willing and able to jump into the void left by Photo TLC and, because of his reputation and the credibility brought to his firm by the part-ownership of District Photo, deals were quickly struck with Walgreens and CVS.
(The only other account of magnitude that prevents Larry from holding a royal flush in photo gifting is Target, which is being served by EZ Prints, Norcross, GA.)
The other event that took place, only weeks after the Photo TLC demise, was the announcement that District Photo had shifted its position from a small investor in Photo This to the 100 percent owner of the business. Al Steinman is now the CEO and Larry Rife is the president. Both men indicated that the purchase by District was in the works before Photo TLC put the padlock on its door. Nevertheless, the stars were aligned, and the result is that Photo This is clearly Numero Uno in the field of photo gift fulfillment.
However, to me at least, photo gifting was still operating below the radar, and three years after Al Steinman's suggestion that I might be interested in taking a look-see, I was now properly stimulated. Off to Chambersburg, PA.
A Photo This Tour
From the outside, Photo This' building looks like it might have once been a 40,000 sq. ft. Lowe's location—which it was. Inside it's a hustle-bustle of activity as about 145 full-time employees (increased by 100 temps during the Christmas holiday season) move about filling thousands of orders a day.
Larry Rife was an eager host and guide as he walked me through the plant, but he was very protective of what he was showing for fear that details of his unique equipment and production systems would be leaked for others to use. No cameras and only limited notes were his rule. His motto: what happens at Photo This stays at Photo This. Not to worry, Larry, your secrets are safe with me.
Walking through the plant, I was impressed that Larry would address each worker at the various production machines by his or her first name. I was also impressed to see machines with the capacity to output 20,000 mouse pads and more than 34,000 mugs in an eight-hour shift. Other machines were printing men's ties, ladies scarves, towels, and hundreds of other items. Most of the machines in the plant have either been altered or designed by Larry for the special needs of photo gifting production. All use a combination of heat, pressure, and time to transfer and embed an image onto a piece of fabric, ceramic, metal, or other surface through a sublimation process.
There were literally rooms full of large-format, up to 72-inch, and small-format printers that were originally standard inkjet machines but were redesigned by Larry to do what he wants them to do (but he won't let me tell you what that is).
Yet the thing that impressed me the most was the fact that Larry was in the "onesies" business. While most manufacturing plants are geared to make many thousands of the same thing in a day, Photo This was making many thousands of individual things, each with a personal photo embedded on it. In high season, as many as nine trailers a day would be loaded and shipped with about 60% of the orders going directly to the consumer, and the balance back to the customer's distribution center or place of business. Only the store's brand, not the Photo This name, would be reflected on each item.