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07-22-2009, 09:42 AM   #1
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When the Camera Store Dies, What Next?

Warning: this is long-winded, amorphous, and almost certainly critically flawed in some way. I still hope it's worth reading, and I'm interested in the feedback.

I'm looking at the plight of the bricks'n'mortar camera store, especially the local shops but also the camera-specific chain stores, and beyond lamentation I think there's ripe opportunity. In the two or three weeks I've been a part of this Pentax forum, I've been amazed at the volume and quality of posts, so the communities will almost certainly continue to exist, notwithstanding fiscal pressures. There are several of us, for instance, still using film in some capacity long after its heyday has passed.

In the photographic ecosystem, we have a few mostly distinct elements:
  • camera manufacturers
  • camera retailers
  • camera buyers
  • photographers

The last two overlap some, but not completely, I argue, due to defining a "photographer" as someone--independent of profession--who diligently applies photographic equipment toward some specific creative result. That's overly pompous, but I think it works for now. Since I don't know of a camera-brand storefront, I'm not assuming much overlap in the first two.

So, many camera stores are, or have been, staffed with photographers, photographers who will in the relatively near future cease to be available as walk-in resources for technique and equipment recommendations. Photographers, having or not having worked in camera stores, make up a valuable community for the camera buyers who aspire to become, or even merely mimic, photographers. And camera manufacturers arguably need these communities to maintain the profitability mid-level equipment: professionals who use high-end gear and folks who just want to take a snapshot are two consumer groups largely unaffected by the fiscal pressure manufacturers are feeling. At least, that's my hypothesis. My cousin in the Associated Press isn't going to touch a K-7, nor, probably, a D90; and neither is my mom.

In addition to those concerns are a few others important to me, and I assume, many people on this forum (among others). For instance, I'm a fan of manual film cameras, for practical and aesthetic reasons. That expands the context here beyond the newest DSLRs and P&Ss, and stretches across decades of products and technology-specific techniques.

There's an opportunity here for a new business model. The idea's still nebulous in my head, so I'm posting all this blathering to frame these questions:

If you could join a community that included manufacturers and photographers, in a way that provided some of the benefits of locality (what the bricks'n'mortar stores provided, but which shouldn't necessarily require an old-form storefront), what would you want from it? What might you miss from the local shop, whether it's part of a chain or independent? Where did the camera-store model fail you before, that might be improved upon? Is there something already that fills, even partially, the void of the camera store?

I know there are local camera groups in several cities; I'm in one in Cincinnati, though I haven't had the opportunity to physically attend a meeting. I know there are camera swaps, and there are still, in some places, local, even independent, camera shops with lots of inventory crossing several modes and elements of photography (35mm film, large format, digital, developing, lighting, etc.). Additionally, there are forums, and blogs, and Twitter et al, and they all provide access to information. I think, though, my idea is of a service that eschews storefronts, makes use of technology but is not beholden to only Facebook (ugh), or only a forum, and somehow provides a bridge between the buyer, the neophyte photographer, the experienced photographer, and the manufacturer, in a way that allows the user community (comprised of the consumers and photographers) to exploit greater access to manufacturers, as well as allowing manufacturers to exploit an invested user community.

This isn't a new phenomenon; this is precisely what storefronts provided, harking from days before widespread phone use and to-your-door shipping. Amazon provides the same function, except it ignores the value of the knowledgeable store folks in lieu of reviewers of sometimes-incredible authenticity. There's more that can be done, some curation of the commercial and community interactions. Just as a newspaper is more than a bunch of storywriters, but rather includes editorial oversight, whatever it is I'm driving at seems like it's more than a bunch of people posting links on blogs and sending email newsletters. I'm hoping your points-of-view will help shape this idea into something useful.

That's all for now. Thanks for humoring me. I'm curious to see what you think.

Daniel

07-22-2009, 12:27 PM   #2
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Camera stores don't die, they simply evolve to meet the demands of an ever changing market-place. Those who cant or don't, get left behind.

Case in point: I live in a place where there are a few Pentax dealerships. I frequent those places and give them a fair shot at earning my business. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't or cant. The benefit we as consumers have in this age is when the local cant or does not meet our needs, we can now reach out to other sources. If a dealership has something I want or need and the local guy does not or cant compete, I buy from another source. If I need service, I send it in for service at the closest place. If it needs warranty repair, I send it to Pentax. If I am not satisfied with the product within a reasonable period of time, I ship it back for a refund.

Does this mean Photography is dying or the Photographer is at risk, certainly not. If anything, it enables, not disables.

Believe me, I am all about the little guy and only visit the category killers when the need is there as a consumer. Depending on your relationship with the local place, you may be surprised on what they can do if it's just price shopping. They may not be able to meet it dollar for dollar, but sometimes they can or get awfully close. The shop is a shop and the people behind the counter are what makes the place. If they are capable and knowledgeable and want to keep the relationship strong with their community, they will make the right moves, or...go the way of Wolf/Ritz.

My .02

Jason
07-22-2009, 02:11 PM   #3
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Original Poster
QuoteOriginally posted by Jasvox Quote
Camera stores don't die, they simply evolve to meet the demands of an ever changing market-place. Those who cant or don't, get left behind.
Precisely. My hypothesis is, if my local (midwestern U.S.A.) experience is remotely representative, that most if not all competently staffed stores will be left behind. Especially considering the propositions I forwarded, which include experience and even inventory beyond the last generation or two of DSLRs, the fact that no local shop I know of carries anything except late-model DSLRs seems to support my hypothesis.

QuoteOriginally posted by Jasvox Quote
Case in point: I live in a place where there are a few Pentax dealerships. I frequent those places and give them a fair shot at earning my business. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't or cant. The benefit we as consumers have in this age is when the local cant or does not meet our needs, we can now reach out to other sources....
My inquiry has less to do with brand availability, though legitimate competition from someone other than Canon and Nikon is a part of the business climate, and more to do with how a local scene depleted of easy access to knowledgeable people makes the endeavor if hiking up the learning curve quite a bit harder. Yes, there are local user groups, and yes, there are forums and blogs; but the local store exists at a unique intersection between vendors and consumers, and the ease of walking into a store and talking to knowledgeable folks with deep market perspective, and physical hardware to hold, is unmatched by forums and blogs.

QuoteOriginally posted by Jasvox Quote
Does this mean Photography is dying or the Photographer is at risk, certainly not. If anything, it enables, not disables.
Note that I wasn't suggesting photography is dying, nor that the photographer is at risk. Specifically, I maintained that the professional is largely unaffected by where the entry-level market and its pedagogical implications shake out. Except that those photographers started somewhere, quite possibly with the consumer or "prosumer" gear of yesterday, and almost certainly with hints, tips, and recommendations from local staff.

QuoteOriginally posted by Jasvox Quote
Believe me, I am all about the little guy and only visit the category killers when the need is there as a consumer. Depending on your relationship with the local place, you may be surprised on what they can do if it's just price shopping.
This continues to presume that there is a local place.

QuoteOriginally posted by Jasvox Quote
They may not be able to meet it dollar for dollar, but sometimes they can or get awfully close. The shop is a shop and the people behind the counter are what makes the place. If they are capable and knowledgeable and want to keep the relationship strong with their community, they will make the right moves, or...go the way of Wolf/Ritz.
The first two sentences dovetail with my points here; the latter misses the point that capability doesn't create demand or consumer traffic. Several smaller businesses, of all types, have folded at the business end of economies of scale.

But I do agree that there's room for local business here. It needn't involve a classic storefront. That's hidden somewhere in all the meandering of my OP. +)

QuoteOriginally posted by Jasvox Quote
My .02

Jason
Appreciated.

Daniel
07-23-2009, 05:15 AM   #4
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If there is not a local place, you think the competition between online retailers goes away?

Jason

07-23-2009, 11:00 AM   #5
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QuoteOriginally posted by Jasvox Quote
If there is not a local place, you think the competition between online retailers goes away?

Jason
Certainly not. But that's tangential to point, really. Here's what I said:

QuoteOriginally posted by muraii:
[T]he local store exists at a unique intersection between vendors and consumers, and the ease of walking into a store and talking to knowledgeable folks with deep market perspective, and physical hardware to hold, is unmatched by forums and blogs.
I'd add "online retailers" to "forums and blogs," in that there's still little that Amazon or Walmart or--from what I've seen so far--Adorama or B&H that matches the experience of talking to knowledgeable staff. I can imagine sitting and chatting online with B&H customer service for hours isn't precisely what they had in mind.

Once more: photography isn't going anywhere, the photographer isn't going anywhere, and there is no credible hypothesis supposing an imminent monopoly among manufacturers and/or vendors.

I'd make a comparison to libraries or local (even chain) bookstores vs. Amazon & online chain stores, but the critical pieces are missing: librarians and booksellers don't often make recommendations, at least in my experience; and there's little risk in buying a book, even an expensive book, whereas with a camera you're spending vastly more and buying into a system. Still, both libraries and bookstores provide an opportunity to browse, to handle, to try out these things, and for some may also provide a kind of community, if they're "regulars." But that's only a piece of what I'm inquiring about.

Maybe, though, there's no real void. Folks are perfectly happy looking only at the likes of DPReview, Amazon reviews, and posting to forums, in the absence of local, corporeal stock and the archetypical "knowledgeable staff." Maybe I'm attached to some sentiment that's misplaced. I'm not convinced yet, though.

Last edited by muraii; 07-23-2009 at 11:09 AM. Reason: Added clarification/expansion
07-28-2009, 12:19 PM   #6
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Message from Helen at Adorama Camera

QuoteOriginally posted by muraii Quote
[b]
If you could join a community that included manufacturers and photographers, in a way that provided some of the benefits of locality (what the bricks'n'mortar stores provided, but which shouldn't necessarily require an old-form storefront), what would you want from it?
Well, this community already includes retailers; although we don't meet face-to-face, I think (I hope) most users of this forum know that they can contact me at any time for advice and / or information that relates to the products sold by Adorama. If I don't know the answer, I will do my best to find out.


Sincerely

Helen Oster
Adorama Camera Customer Service Ambassador


helen.oster@adoramacamera.com
Digital cameras, all other cameras and everything photographic from Adorama Camera
07-28-2009, 01:27 PM   #7
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The way I see it, we as consumers are the primary reason for the changing climate in the photography industry because we demand the lowest price for our consumables. Now that is a broad generalization, of course but if you look closely, it is more true than not. Wal-Mart succeeds for a reason, Target, Amazon, and ebay in large part, all succeed because of our desire to consume at low prices.

How many of us are guilty of going to a camera shop to look at equipment and test it out only to buy online? I have done it and sometimes I feel bad about it. This attitude is the reason (current economic climate not withstanding) that a lot of our favorite shops are closing. It is really unfair to use the camera store as a demo facility for your online purchases. That being said, if my local shop can "come close" on price I will buy from them, just to support the environment I value so much.

It's when we stop valuing the experience and service of these stores that we start to shop online. I tell all my salespeople (unrelated industry) that "people will only buy from you when the value of the purchase outweighs the price of the product." So who is at fault, the shop for not truly helping us realize the value of their shop, or us for not putting any value in anything but price?

I think you make some valid points about where the industry is headed and what we as hobbyist's and photographers will do when the only channel that exists for us is manufacturer --> discount retailer--> online forum...

We NEED to support our favorite camera shops and value what they do and hope for their success especially for Pentax's long term health. But more importantly it needs to be real support, not just a "moral" support. Understand that these stores have a very difficult time competing with the high volume low margin (HVLM) outlets of today and that they may not be able to ever "meet or beat" the HVLM guys. If you go to them for help/advice/demos and they "come close" on price, for crumbs sake buy from them, they can't survive otherwise.

For all those that believe in "survival of the fittest" that's all well and good, but when Amazon sells a product for less than the neighborhood camera shop buys the product, no amount of "evolution" on the part of the shop will help. That is all on Pentax/Canon/Nikon for creating such an environment.

They will reap what they sow soon if they continue. I predict in the future we will see Manufacturer stores in the vein of Apple and Sony. Apple killed it's dealers with it's long term neglect of the channel and so had no choice but to sell it's product direct as the BestBuys of the world only sold customers what was popular but not necessarily what was a better value.

So the question is simple, the days of the neighborhood hardware/garden/grocery/camera store are numbered, because we don't value them anymore, so ask yourself what is more valuable, a low price or a good resource?
07-28-2009, 01:29 PM   #8
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you guys should real william gibsons "spook country"

07-28-2009, 02:05 PM   #9
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Personally, I think the demise of Ritz and Wolf as a homogenized national chain might just save photo retail.

Let's not forget they pretty much got that way by buying up smaller outfits or driving them out of business, only to end up serving only the most lucrative parts of the market. May as well have driven people to Best Buy and the like, the way some of them were stocked and run.

If local outfits get to be the ones doing the retail selling of the entry-level DSLRs and accessories and P&Ses, it 'd certainly help a lot of the often-struggling businesses that serve a bigger and more locally-responsive segment, though.

There could be room for some more viable business models in a lot of towns, with Ritz gone: ones that don't involve funneling the bottom line into other ventures. Let's not forget that in spite of all else that's going on, that corporation imploded because of what they *did with their money,* not cause there isn't money to be made in photo retail.
07-29-2009, 08:10 AM   #10
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There are no longer any camera stores within an hours drive of where I live since Ritz colose. There are a few dept. stores and electronics stores delling DSLR's but only entry level models. If you want a higher end camera it's "You will have to go to our Albany store or order one online".

While I can live with mail order/internet with buying cameras and lenses although I would rather not, it's the small items I will miss not being able to get such as filters, replacing lost lens caps, etc. I think it is going to hurt the camera business as a whole. Digital cameras are becoming a disposable appliance that people use until they break and are thrown away. What I'm afraid the future holds is cheap plastic DSLR's that are thrown away and replaced every couple of years. The camera makers seem to be pumping out more and more "consumer grade" models all the time aimed at the dept. store shopper.
07-30-2009, 06:03 AM   #11
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QuoteOriginally posted by reeftool Quote
What I'm afraid the future holds is cheap plastic DSLR's that are thrown away and replaced every couple of years. The camera makers seem to be pumping out more and more "consumer grade" models all the time aimed at the dept. store shopper.
The consumer market is far larger than the pro market ever will be. There is a reason that Kodak sold many millions of point & shoot Brownie cameras over several decades.

The pro market is smaller, so you are either a niche player, catering only to pros (Leaf, PhaseOne, Hasselblad); or you use the pro line as a marketing tool to attract consumers to your brand (Canon, Nikon).
07-31-2009, 07:36 AM   #12
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QuoteOriginally posted by reeftool's grandpa Quote
What I'm afraid the future holds is cheap plastic Brownies that are thrown away and replaced every couple of years. The camera makers seem to be pumping out more and more "consumer grade" models all the time aimed at the dept. store shopper.
There we go.
07-31-2009, 09:01 AM   #13
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QuoteOriginally posted by Gooshin Quote
you guys should real william gibsons "spook country"
Then read the first two of his trilogies, and Burning Chrome. So you're not left with the impression that he always wrote novels for jaded Wired subscribers.
07-31-2009, 09:04 AM   #14
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Pattern Recognition was pretty damn good.
07-31-2009, 09:13 AM   #15
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I much preferred the Bridge Trilogy, where he peaked. But Neuromancer's the classic.

Gibson's about the only science-fiction author I can stand, as he's not some bleedin' only-the-left-hemisphere-of-my-brain-works nerd like most of them (Dear Stephenson: is explaining how a cipher or computer works at the machine-code level really necessary to advance the plot?)

Gibson's up there with Clarke, et al, in terms of vision, whereas your average sci-fi author's just screaming "Look how smart I am! I wrote a seventy-thousand word diatribe on physic at MIT, of course I can write fiction!"

The fact that most of them seem to be fans of Tolkien doesn't help...
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