Photo dealers are scrappy people. They cherish their independence. But there comes a time when going it alone isn’t the best idea, especially when it comes to choosing new photo products. That’s where experimentation and idea-sharing can make a big difference. Retailers who are in touch with their markets instinctively know what products work and what don’t, but there are still room for surprises. That’s where the Photo Finale Marketplace program can come in to play. Photo Finale customers can set up wholesale relationships with other customers, either as a service provider, as a buyer or as both.
Let’s take a look at how some Photo Finale customers are working together to build their markets through these wholesale arrangements.
Fred Kuhn, L.A. Cameras
Fred Kuhn, of L.A. Cameras in Chambersburg, Pa., is one of those photo retailers with a penchant for photo product innovation. The store has served the community for more than 30 years, and Fred and his wife, Lynnette, have owned the business since 2005. Beginning with film processing services and studio photography, L.A. Cameras has embraced the digital revolution to the utmost. (And, despite the name, the store does not sell many hardgoods.)
The 8,000-square-foot store has 10 kiosks, with most sales volume walking in the front door. Customers appreciate the knowledgeable staff and personal attention that’s long been the company’s main attraction. The Kuhns have been Photo Finale customers for a decade, with 10 in-store kiosks and a robust online business.
L.A. Cameras has participated in the Photo Finale Marketplace Program for a year and a half.
“It’s a good way to try a service, to find out if a product works for your customers,” says Kuhn. “It doesn’t cost you anything and it helps find niches you never knew about.”
Just “turning on” the marketplace isn’t enough, advises Kuhn. Marketing is still needed to introduce new products to consumers: “Feature two or three products and do an email campaign,” he says. “Soon you find out what takes off and what doesn’t. In our store, metal prints didn’t take off right away; you just keep plugging away.”
As Kuhn notes, trying out new products via the marketplace means your store isn’t tying up cash in unproven or unproductive equipment. As for L.A. Cameras, Kuhn has built a successful business providing products for other retailers, regardless of their size, like jewelry, folded cards and stationery, license plates, bottle cozies, key chains, and more. Traditional digital print products include canvas, metal prints and posters up to 44×72 inches in size.
“We have smaller dealers who don’t have the ability to make products are doing more volume than larger dealers,” says Kuhn.
A surprise success for L.A. Cameras is a metal print mounted on barn wood, called “Barn Wood Collection.” Images are printed on HD Metal then float-mounted on top of reclaimed barn wood to create three-dimensional wall art in a choice of sizes and shapes. This product has successfully been sold by other independents (as we will soon see). Another niche product category for L.A. Cameras are quilt squares, marketed through the Portrait Quilts website. Images are put on squares that are then sown into quilts as large as 20×40 squares. The site also makes images on pillows.
Mugs are another popular product category. Kuhn says creating custom templates and designs is one way to keep up with customer demands for more customized product, including collages, text, monograms and more; not just single photos.
“The industry is starting to change,” says Kuhn. “Photo Finale is making it easier for us to offer different templates, and to work with different retailers. We have a line of spiritual cards, with custom templates with bible verses.”
About the only product not made in-house at L.A. Cameras are photo books. “We just decided not to invest in the equipment,” says Kuhn. “We’ve used Prestige Books, and customers really like them.”
Mark Bute, Paoli fotobar
Across the state, in Paoli, Pa., Mark Bute operates the 2,700-square-foot Paoli fotobar store. He opened the business three years ago, and employs two other people. Bute has a lifetime of retail and business experience, which serves him well when looking at adding new services.
“Our goal is to provide customers with the out-of-the-ordinary, not just 4×6 prints and photo gifts,” says Bute. The store does have some in-store print capacity, for smaller prints and canvas, including a Canon 8300 wide-format printer. To supplement the offerings, Bute works with a lot of vendors in the Photo Finale Marketplace.
Bute decided to outsource after some investments in production equipment didn’t pay off. “At first, I wanted to go out and buy everything and do it in-house,” he says. “We did photobooks for a while, but the staff and myself weren’t concentrating on the customer as needed. We started outsourcing the books and calendars, and to focus on customers. Also, I noticed pretty quickly, when I had the photo book machine there, the materials were just sitting there not moving. I can put my money into other things.
“Photo Finale connected me with Prestige Books, which go beyond what the customer is used to in our area,” he says. “The higher price doesn’t faze my customers. I was concerned over the lack of control and the quality, at first, but that’s not been an issue.”
How does Bute know what to offer or to try?
“I ask customers and let them know, I’m thinking about this new product,” he says. “My market is a higher end market, but they want their hand held and want service.”
Sometimes adding those products can lead to pleasant surprises.
“I put a sample in of Fred’s Barn Woods, and that really took off into a top-selling item, especially for people with beach houses,” explains Bute. “This was a way to offer unique metal prints without buying a bunch of metal first.”
Merchandising and promotion is key to promoting new products. “The key is to have samples on the wall, the way it would be seen in the home,” says Bute. “With my retail background, people notice merchandising. Products are displayed the right way.”
Customer contact is key to the success of Paoli fotobar, and outsourcing provides the new business a chance to develop clientele. With only three employees, Bute would rather they interact with customers than be “back in the lab.”
Part of that contact is ensuring customers, especially the older clientele, know how to use the Paoli fotobar’s four Photo Finale kiosks – which in turn, leads to online print sales. “That’s one of my key points: Teaching people how to order,” says Bute. “We like them coming in to the store, but if they order from home, that alleviates needing more staff.”
As of now, Bute is not looking to add more production while the outsourcing program has been so successful. Business has been building the first three years, and Bute prefers to spend time with the customers.
“I am seven miles from nearest competitor, but it’s tough drive in traffic,” he says.
“Once I get customers in details and show them our customer service, we have them for life.”
Lynette Kitt, Unforgettable Memories
In Canada, the 21,000-person community of Fort St. John is served by Unforgettable Memories, the hub of all things photographic in the region. Lynette Kitt opened the store in 2001, beginning with paper crafting, rubber stamping and scrapbooking.
By 2008, adding photo printing seemed like a natural adjunct, with the addition of Xerox, Epson and silver-halide printing equipment.
“All the equipment arrived two weeks before Christmas, -40-degrees out,” says Kitt. “We had to remove the doors off the store to get the equipment in. It’s been a dream.”
Since then, Unforgettable Memories has expanded lab operations, now doing 98-percent of their product in-house. Soon, Kitt was offering services to other photo retailers, too.
“We’re a ‘yes’ store,” she says. “Our natural reaction to a request is to say ‘yes,” and then figuring out how to do it.”
Kitt says “yes” to about 30 wholesale accounts, most of which are Fotosource stores, but some are also in United States. She also leverages Fotosource’s negotiated rates for Purolator and Canada Post to offer prompt and affordable shipping. Typically, orders are shipped in 4-5 days.
Offering wholesale services is a natural direction for the business, Kitt says: “We were breaking into the b-to-b business anyway – with photo books and cards and brochures – so the evolution was simple. The challenge was setting prices for wholesale. How do you leave enough margin for yourself and the customer?”
Kitt says offering a breadth of products not only benefits her store, but also other retailers who may offer similar products, but don’t want to carry every single size and shape possible.
“We can fill in the gaps with retailers who have a mug press, but may not have the sizes we do,” she explains. “This gives those retailers more reasons to talk with customers.”
In the two years, Unforgettable Memories has offered wholesale services, Kitt says her business and profitability have improved. “We are doing more volume, so we can buy bigger better and faster equipment,” she explains. “I can just can justify the ROI if I am looking at selling to 30 other stores. The speed of return is there.”
The expanded capabilities have also led to interesting product development, including 16×20-inch personalized floor mats for hockey locker rooms. Skaters place personalized mats by their lockers, which are changed every season. The mats are sublimated printed on material similar to mousepads.
Unforgettable Memories has even extended the outreach, including exhibiting at a local home show which attracts 20,000 people and 300 retailers.
“We display our gifting and home decor products,” says Kitt. “It’s a fantastic fit for us.”