"We also had to learn how to talk about price, as in negotiate and instill in the minds of our customers the value of shopping with us," she continues. "In an internet-informed world, customers have ideas of their own about what is a fair price." "In addition to the big-box stores, I think that every independent camera store's main competition is websites like B&H and Amazon, because customers don't have to pay sales tax when they buy online," adds Kaplan.
Waicukauski continues, "We may not always meet the lowest price, but we'll often take a step in the customer's direction to demonstrate that their business is important to us. Usually our superior service and wealth of knowledge is worth the few extra dollars when they're reminded of the added value they get when they shop locally. Price is a big issue, especially on pro equipment where people may be investing thousands of dollars, and we truly appreciate and acknowledge that our customers continue to bring their business to us."
Branding and Promotions
Another major reason for the store's success in the past few years has been the promotion of its brand identity. "We started doing our own print ads, creating a distinctive look and feel to [them]," Kaplan says.
"We also started sending out a monthly enewsletter, written in a personal style, with store offerings and items of general interest," says Waicukauski. "We have almost 5,000 opt-in email names, and get about a 35% open rate. It's an incredibly cost-efficient way to reach existing customers.
"And even though we sell plenty of digital cameras, we still sell plenty of film, though not like the old days," she adds. "We adapted our product mix to a strong student and fine-art crowd." The store carries all the Holga and Lomo cameras and accessories, as well as hot new products like Lensbabies.
They made some other tweaks. "We started renting the basics, like lighting setups, tripods, a few lenses, the popular DSLRs," says Waicukauski. "We made back 100% of our investment in 12 months. We then added a repair department, in-house scanning services, wide-format printing, and retouching. Photographers come in requesting 10 to 20 giclée prints for their photo exhibits. It has been a nice service offering for us that continues to grow.
"We have a dedicated person for the used-equipment department, which is one of the highest-margin areas in the store," she says. "We provide in-studio or in-home consulting on color management and just added traditional darkroom classes in addition to the Photoshop, color management, and digital capture classes that dominated our old curriculum."
Today, Looking Glass partners with Swan Photo Labs in San Clemente as one of their lab service providers. "We have two kiosks," says Waicukauski. "We've always outlabbed our processing and have been quite successful with that." "Outlabbing allows you to control your margins," Kaplan adds.
Looking at Students
Located near the U.C. Berkeley campus, Looking Glass gets the lion's share of students. "The thing that all our customers have in common is that they all can be called photography enthusiasts," says Waicukauski. "Photography is very important to most of our customer base. We still get neighborhood customers, from young families to hippies, hipsters, and rocket scientists. The store surges with knowledge on the process of making prints. That's how the camera specialty dealer is going to survive in this business: as being the place you can come to to get knowledgeable help. That and customer service are our strongest selling points."
Looking Glass offers equipment and know-how for all different levels of users. "Because of where we're located, we lean toward fine art and aesthetics," she adds. "We even sell refurbished SLRs from the '70s and '80s. To young college students, these cameras are retro and provide them the opportunity to learn photography from the traditional side. We even run an annual event for Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day that had more than 50 participants making homemade cameras and printing in the darkroom this year. Many people think that digital may have killed traditional photography, but I think differently. It's just changed the dynamic. Digital has opened up photography to all ages and incomes. The more you take pictures, and the more accessible photography becomes (whether digital or film), the more interest there will be in the medium as a whole."
Looking to the Future
"I've been lucky to have my (ex) sister-in-law, Julie Donohue, in charge of payables and accounting, with Jen and Cha doing the buying so I could focus on marketing and new service development," says Kaplan. "We've been fortunate to have some other very strong managers. Mike Reed, who used to run his own store, is in charge of our Nikon programs and pro services.
"There is no single model for a successful store (each market is different), but there are essentials that work everywhere, like listening to your customers and employees, and trying new things--in a fast-changing industry, it's innovate or die," he adds. "Most of all, you have to care. We certainly have a lot of young female customers, but we're a million miles from the PMA ‘Jennifer' model. Our store would fail in a suburban environment; a corporate store would fail in Berkeley."
After many years, Kaplan finally felt it was time to hand over the reins to his "‘right arm.'" "Jen has plenty of ideas and energy to carry it into the future," he explains. "Having her take over the business seemed like the best thing for the store. Just as my leadership helped transform the store into the digital age, I think Jen will be the one to lead the store into taking better advantage of online marketing and social networking. She's very passionate about photography, cares a ton about employees and customers, and has a need to lead, which bodes well for Looking Glass."
Waicukauski is very excited as she plans to chart a course for Looking Glass into the future. "Even before I'd graduated from school, I was considering buying the store one day," she says, adding, "I was fortunate enough that my dad was looking for an investment, and he's chosen to invest in me. I don't take that lightly--I've been here a long time and I know this business very well. I know there continues to be a place for the camera specialty store in the future--because the camera specialty store still has something to offer. There's a reason why we're still here and will continue to be here and thrive."
Store: Looking Glass Photo
Location: Berkeley, CA
Owner: Jen Waicukauski
Years in Business: 37
Claim to Fame: Former "old-school" location expands upon its renowned product offerings, turning its focus to customer service and technology.