DEATH OF THE CAMERA STORE




EDITORIAL

🌇 THE STATE OF THE CAMERA INDUSTRY

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO IT…


IN THE BEGINNING - BAD KARMA OF CAMERA SALES
I worked, besides the .GOV-Ops guys in Photography, my first jobs were in the camera industry in New York, the Mecca of the retail camera business.   It was not so different from buying a car.  Creative cheating produced profits. It was prevalent in the entire industry… It was not my way and I passed on retail sales, as and because the way it was being conducted. You needed to lie… 

LENS SWAPPING -  A NOT SO BETTER LENS    You wanted a camera and then you were pitched on a “ Upgraded variable lens which was junk they sold you on”,  and costing about 19 dollars and it was the switch. If you bought a Nikon or Canon, Pentax, you gave up the 50 mm F.2 superbly sharp and fast lens and got a junk Japanese or Chinese “ Knockoff lens”    

Result: Bad pictures, slower lens… And then the dealer ordered in a body only for your good authorized lens he now owns and had a factory camera and lens for sale at full price and the game started over again with the next customer. The mail order guys were not your friend.

THE BIGGEST LIE  — The next step was the ten dollar protective filter on the cheap  “ Upgraded 28-80mm variable junk lens”,  from the knockoff companies they talked you into.  The cheap glass filter that cost 87 cents just made 9.13 profit and you now had a great camera body with a crap lens and a crap filter.  In mathemics, crap plus cra equals crappier.  The broken dropped lens on display on the counter was supposed to ward off bad spirits and to persuade you to buy the filter.

No one in particular, all the dealers in NYC were doing it. It was a huge mail order rip-off.   Then they ordered bodies, no lenses,  they had plenty of base lenses from the victims and made a second killing.

DOUBLE DIPPING  —  A cheap price for the camera, the newspaper and magazines were before the internet,  but did you want the strap, lens caps and other accessories ( which came in the box) extra?  It was like buying a car and being charged extra for the tires and then they sold you undercoatings and protective sealants for the paint. 

GREY MARKET PRODUCTS MADE THINGS VERY BLURRY  —  It was very competitive and there were Grey market  ( products brought in from other than factory distributors, in a  sense Black Market stuff ) dealers all over the place.  Even film destined by KODAK to go to “ Slobovia”  got dragged off the docks and sold to US retail stores. The grey industry much owned by the one of the Hasidic tribes ran the operation. 

When we attended the PMAI shows in Las Vegas three decades ago, ( we and 35,000 others) they literally climbed on you and bugged you to buy from them.  One gentleman got very pushy, got too close, to my wife and in my face,  almost aggressive to me.

I told him “ NO” four times… He was going to be my friend  “my friend” and giving me a great deal on Kodak. Then he put his hand on my shoulder.  Good old sentry removal hand to hand training from the service.  Face, block, drop, twist wrist enough that he got the message, the fifth time was the charm.  He left.


KODAK CHEATED

KODAK NEVER PLAYED STRAIGHT or EQUAL WITH DEALERS  —  One day in the store the UPS truck pulled up and dropped a carton of film off.  We received our film and chemicals from Kodak as a franchisee and expected to pay the same as everyone else who was on the “KODAK PLAN”.  That was what we had been told was the process, equality for all dealers.

Down the street a K-MART had opened and advertised it’s new Camera and Film Processing department. So I decided to see what they were up to.  Film, namely KodaColor was $2.00 wholesale a roll and retailed at $3.19.  Thats what we paid for it and thats what it was supposed to sell for.   At K-Mart I bought two rolls for four dollars.  Everyday low pricing…  They were selling at my wholesale cost.

Back to the store and that package that came that morning, the driver saw Kodak and thought it was for us.  But it was for the K-Mart Store.   Low and behold the invoice said ten bricks of twenty rolls = 200 total.  But there was twelve bricks in the box.  240 rolls.  Thats how Kodak cheated the smaller  and independent dealers.  Invoice correct, over packaged with additional merchandise.

FUJI FILM DROPS IN
About two weeks later a representative from FUJI came buy. We had met at the PMAI and sampled his film and I liked it and was compatible with our chemistry.  We then became one of the first Fuji film dealers in Florida and sold a lot of film and the customers liked it too.  Better pricing too.  We told many of our other dealers…

Fuji handles greens well and Florida had a lot of green and great skin tones.  Then we investigated a new chemical company that was producing chemicals for the giant labs and we cut most of Kodak’s chemistry out when they agreed to sell in smaller quantities to dealers.    And we sold more processing, better chemistry and the proof of the pudding is Kodak is gone now, many said they got too arrogant and Fuji is very healthy and doing well world wide. And Rochester is gone… some of the land is reclaimed but nothing great.

BAIT AND SWITCH  —  There was so much bait and switch, and there were twenty dealers to choose from by mail and those camera magazines. It was an experience, I was brought up differently,  I did not care for it and made some new friends.  I met a real gentleman  by the name of  Joseph Ehrenreich from a place on 17th street In the City, with a brand I had not heard ofNippon Koyagaku who was selling optical gear like telescopes, binocs and microscopes, eventually getting into being the US  distributor for Nikon and Nikon Cameras.  I carried Nikon for fifty-seven plus years till I went with SONY.

Another wonderful guy by the name of Marty Forscher, the Dean Of Camera repairs and alterations. You had a Nikon and wanted a certain Minolta lens to work with it?   No problem, see Marty.  Thats what it was like before the internet, it changed all things, some for the good, some for the bad and there is the whole story of the industry as I saw it in the beginning years. 


   

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

CHANGE IS BOTH GOOD AND BAD  —  The entire industry as we knew it has died with the demise of the retail camera store.  We went from selling product, teaching, training, seminars, comforting mess ups, fixing bad work in the lab, passing knowledge on to customers with classes and a learned higher level series improving the people skills and their science of photography, the art of light...

Went to Cellphone Photography, the popularity... selfies... who doesn’t love one self? And the ability to show the world.
We became the 
Buy it, Use it, Abuse it, and Throw it out generation.  I simply do not buy high end anymore on some items.  On my last trip up north by car I counted as many BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Honda and Toyotas dead on the side as Fords Chevrolets and Chryslers.  My friends high end car had more things wrong with it than my simple one.  And some things like 1200 dollar Bose radios aren’t warranty safe.

For the ten thousand dealers, closed doors and for some bankruptcy.  We had many customers and friends, photo trips and seminars, thats all gone now.  

Twenty years ago the average attendance at the PMAi trade only show was 35,000 people from all over the world, and took a week to go through it in Vegas. Five days on the floor which took the entire LVCC both levels and no computers or cell phones in those days. Radio shack mini-walkie talkies were the communication.  I still have mine.

Few independent Camera stores without a lab survived the onslaught of the big box, the web and cellphones. Something like less than 650 independent stores are left in the entire country. The pic at the top is from my last convention and roundup…thirty-three trips there.


TRADE SHOWS  —  The Photo Industry Vegas Trade Only shows are gone, replaced by the CES, which is all cellphones, TV’s, toys, computers and gaming in addition to about 50,000 companies selling cell phone covers.  Photography is now a state of electronics, where at one time it was a country all its own and covers and extra batteries are hot. 

Basically it is China on display

The majors (Nikon and Canon, SONY and Fuji, Panasonic) knowing there aren’t enough dealers to support the thousands of dollars it cost to do a show went to retail shows, smart move.  One day of the usual three day show is dealers ( maybe) the next two or three are open to the public.

The retail shows allow the reps get to talk to thousands of end users. To my knowledge the public or retail show at the Javits in NY and one in Anaheim are whats left in addition to trade specific (Wedding Seminar - Kelby Photoshop - and Pro Organizations) which are shrinking in attendance as well.  


THE WEDDING MARKET - CELLPHONES  —  The wedding market is crippled too.  I never took on low end Weddings, left them to the warriors, the cheap 100-300 dollar end of the business is not a means of survival.   If you did fifty-two weddings a year at $200 dollars you didn’t make the poverty level.  Thats a part time job, and if you edit a lot it’s a five dollar an hour job and a lot of liability.

Then you walk in the hall and see disposable cameras on the table, and everyone has a cellphone.  The millennial’s, brought up on smart phones are not traditionalists.  Few aftermarket sales of albums and coffee table books cut into profit.  You give them a decoded disk and they will make their own or not care at all.

The better cellphones have cameras equal to the point and shoot which killed that market.  We sold ten point and shoots to one DSLR.   People spend 1000 dollars for a phone they’ll dump in two years but won’ t buy a decent camera for a lifetime. The camera was inconvenient and the phone glued to their head is their communication lifeline.  


 🌇   BREAKING NEWS   

CANON IS DOWNSIZING AND PUTTING DEALERS ON NOTICE  —  Canon USA has updated its authorized dealers list, removing dozens of dealers from its network. According to Canon Price Watch, this change took place on February 13 and initially involved 86 authorized dealers; however, Canon reached out on February 18 to clarify that certain dealers had been removed due to 'administrative errors' and that they had since been added back on to the list.

Sources speaking to the website claim the changes were made as a way to cut Canon USA's operating costs. Online-only dealers and small stores were primarily affected by this change. Canon says that it added back in some dealers, including military exchanges, which were initially removed by mistake.

As of February 18, a total of 71 authorized dealers had been removed by Canon, including destinations like 33 Street Camera, Maui Digital Imaging, Rochester Institute of Technology, Santa Monica Camera, Camera Center of New York, B&C Photo and more. New York and California experienced the largest number of removals.

LIST OF REMOVED DEALERS WE ARE FAMILIAR WITH  —  Johnson Photo Service  Rochester Institute Of Technology   KEH Camera Brokers  Mack Camera Service  many friends there.


ELECTION WORK, SPORTS, POOLING and RETAIL  —  Time to punt.  After the really sick two election cycles, I am off the list for working with politicians. No more election paid work as a shooter.  Getty and others get the gigs.  No mas, No mas…   It’s a circus, competitive even with credentials.  Don’t think for a second when a critical shot can happen you don’t get bumped, pushed or shoved out of the way.

Several years back I covered  Sara Pain-land, a VP candidate for a month, on tour in Florida.  Never again, you learn a lot backstage, the things voters don’t get to see.  I have never witnessed a more dysfunctional screwed-up family like this one.  

I thought I was filming the sequel to “ One flew Over the Cuckoos Nest”.  Her tribe was like that TV show the Beverly Hillbillies who found oil on their land.   She found a GOP credit card and blew 150,000 dollars of voter money on her wardrobe. An estimated 50,000 was wasted on other crap for her tribe.  In my final story on her it all gets summed up

Really sick and just when things went back to normal, T-RUMP came along and the Democratic party called me. It was a mistake to answer the phone.  As someone put it mildly , “ He could suck the air out of the room and then in a massive explosion blow it out his ass.

We have little or no Major Sports coverage anymore as it is all contracted, as it is all Press pools, Getty, REUTERS, etc, and  frankly when I covered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during preseason my temperature gauge attached to my shirt registered 115 degrees and at my age now (77)  thats asking for a heart attack and thats not joking. The kids can have it and I might add what it pays.  

Our hockey team is closed environment and pooled, and our baseball team is so screwed up, and more shooters than customers.  And they are fighting for a new stadium, a joke, you win first then ask for a stadium. 

And what newspapers?  Printed media is a lost art and papers buy from the pools.  I survived because I was able to go out get the story and the pictures instead of a two person crew.


WHERE HAVE ALL THE CAMERA STORES GONE?

Business wise a camera store can be a financial disaster these days.  At one time Pinellas County,  FL  and Hillsboro County, FL  had eleven full line camera stores surrounding Tampa Bay including mine.  Almost one camera store for every gun shop.  

Today there are NO camera stores, but hundreds of gun shops.  Both retail and pawn stores selling guns.  I was in my prime an active wing, skeet, trap, and competitive IPSC three gun combat shooter, but thats not what the bulk of these gun stores are selling today.  War weapons, killing tools

At the yearly trek to Vegas, for the PMAI trade show we met with our Nikon Representative, who became the US sales manager.  He told us about “Big Box Stores” and the effect they would create eventually dominating and controlling the US retail market.  For every flagship pro camera level sold, the big box stores sold a hundred newbie or entry level cameras.  

He was right…And then came Amazon and shopping changed.  Needless to say, what I spent on gasoline, finding a parking spot  a mile from any stores front door and mixed shopping meaning five stops and starts, and that parking on a 95 degree day with a heat index of 105 was no fun.  The gasoline saved is enough to pay for my prime membership.  Heatstroke avoided, thats just age. 

QUALITY IS DOWN, AND THE CHEAP COMPETITION HAS RISEN  —  Buying on the web is where the money went.  B&H and Adorama own the industry, a billion dollar one.  Also the market items are not the same stuff made in the USA years ago. The last independent retail camera store dealers, are mainly selling Chinese disposable products to maintain profit but those customers are dwindling as the cellphone allows cross shopping and seeing who has the best pricing.  Most eBay stores are shells, just order takers, no warehouses, no facilities, no staff, no overhead.

CAMERAS REACHED A PLATEAU OF “SUFFICIENCY” SEVERAL YEARS GO  —  Almost any camera released in the last 5 or so years is more-than-good-enough to capture almost any subject, and do it extremely well.

INTEREST IN PHOTOGRAPHY IS WANING   —  There was a time when peer pressure and curiosity had everyone out buying their first “real” camera, but almost anyone who wanted to try photography now has, and most of those people won’t feel the need to buy another camera for a very long time (if ever) because they’re not actually interested in photography any more.

SOCIAL MEDIA CHANGED THE LANDSCAPE OF PHOTOGRAPHY  —  Elevating self-documentation into the main photographic “art form,” social media made proper cameras less necessary for the kinds of photos that most consumers want to take. As Wong puts it, “You don’t need 61MP for your selfie photographs, you don’t need ISO100,000 to shoot that slice of cake, and you certainly don’t need a super-telephoto lens to shoot your cat licking her paws or you dog licking his butt.”

PHOTOGRAPHY IS STAGNANT  —  In my view, the vast majority of modern-day photographers are doing what is safe and known instead of breaking new ground. In what is probably the most controversial point of the Wong’s whole video, he says, “I don’t see anything truly thought provoking and revolutionary from the work of today’s photographers.”


SURVIVAL VS SLOW DEATH  —   John Williams - MANUFACTURERS REPRESENTATIVE
“People come and ask me what happened with Showcase, an ATLANTA company who’s been in business for 40 years, and the answer is that the curve between making a little money and losing money has intersected, so now we’re at the point we’re not making but losing,” says Williams. “And a business can’t be sustained very long if you’re losing money, so that’s kind of where we’ve arrived.”

“It’s a very interesting from an economic view-point where you have essentially a city of almost 5 million people and here we are the only photo-video specialty store in the city with a 40 year track record and we found that we are unable to sustain our business in a profitable fashion.” 

“Now, I often think to myself maybe it’s something we’re not doing or something we did wrong and so forth. But we have a lot of experience and I have spent my whole career in the photo business, and that’s about 50 years. I’ve seen from both sides of the desk not only this position but out on the road and I visited hundreds of dealers (as a manufacturer’s rep in the past) and did business with them so it’s a very difficult position.”

The state of Georgia has not done itself a favor. Georgia is not only going to lose the sales tax that was generated on a regular basis out of this location, but also there are other fees and taxes that they collect during the course of the year which is immediately going to drop to zero.”

“So the State is essentially forfeiting in excess of a million dollars, which is a small amount and before you know it is a 100 million and then 500 million and now it is almost approaching ‘real money’.”

“The decision to close the business is extremely difficult for a lot of different reasons most of it is that I’ve never done it before and there are no guidelines as to how to go about it. How do you deal with personnel, all kinds of issues and insurance? It’s kind of unfortunate especially when you have personnel who have been with the company, not perhaps for the entire forty years, but we have a number of employees that have been here over 20 years. And they didn’t stay here for 20 years because they weren’t good at what they did, but they happen to be very good at what they do.


#1: AN “UNEVEN PLAYING FIELD”  —  “The first thing is that we’re all operating in an uneven playing field which has been influenced by the failure of states, in this case Georgia, to require the collection of sales tax from retailers operating outside of state,” Williams says. “Failure to come up with a way of collecting sales tax has put a burden on our company and others in the state that is currently 8%, soon to be almost 9%, so I’m operating at an 8% disadvantage.”

“Now I can tell you that the state is collecting their 8% from me, and that in many cases far exceeds the percentage of profit that I’m making on merchandise. The state makes more (profit than Showcase) on many of my sales, which strikes me as being an unsustainable number.”

#2: INFORMATION BOOM  — “The second issue has to do with the amount of, shall we say, digital information that’s now available,” Williams says. “In the old days customers would sometimes seek information or seek pricing for a product by using one of the several photography magazines that were available, so they thumb to the back, find the product and see what the price was in the back of the books.”

“Sometimes that was reliable and many a times it was not. Well today the consumers do not have to worry about a magazine as they have a computer in their hand in their smart phone that will tell them instantly what the product sells for here and elsewhere so they have an instant comparison shopping. And well, I’m fine with that and we are very competitive with almost everybody else in the whole country.”

“However the consumer, more often than not, now is not coming in to listen to our conversation about the product, the value that we bring to the product and what special offers that we might have. What we’ve seen over the last couple of years is steadily declining store traffic and as the store traffic has declined the sales volume follows that and has been shrinking.”

#3: MANUFACTURER MARKETING —  “The third unsustainable issue is that manufacturers have come up with a marketing strategy that involves rebates, often referred to as instant rebates, when we take them out immediately,” says Williams. “As an example a $1,000 camera might have a $200 instant rebate so the way it is set up to work is that, I have a choice whether to offer the rebate or not. But I can assure you that the consumer knows there is a rebate and I’m having a gun held to my head and told by the manufacturer you basically have to offer this to your customers.”

“Here’s how it works: I sell the $1000 camera to the customer and then I deduct the $200 instantly, so $200 of my money is gone. In order for me to collect the rebate from the manufacturer I have to file various documents on a timely basis and hope that they honor and fill those requests in a timely basis. That could be weeks to months so in a fact they’re holding my money for weeks to months. Now when they reimburse me for the $200 instant rebate they do not reimburse me 100%. The way it works is they reimburse me 80%, so it’s an 80-20 arrangement where the manufacturer reimburses me $160 and I’ve essentially given up $40 of my money on the sale.”

“So as I said before, this is just another unsustainable proposition that’s going on in the industry and dealers are putting out tens of thousands of dollars and in some cases hundreds of thousands to support the manufacturers’ rebate programs, which are only being reimbursed to the tune of 80%. Once again, it’s an unsustainable model.”

“Unfortunately, the industry has become driven by-product, so that the manufacturer regularly introduces new products. Of course we see the pick up in sales but if they’re not introduced by the manufacturer then sales tend to tail off or decline at the end of the life cycle and that’s unfortunate.”

“Just as unfortunate is the beginning of the life cycle where the manufacturer introduces a product and is unable to supply the product in sufficient quantities to fill the existing demand. So not only are you unable to fulfill a sale but in many cases it basically stops the sale of other merchandise. The consumer decides I want that particular model so you have kind of a Catch-22 of not selling one cause you can’t get it and you can’t sell the one you have because it’s not the current model.”