Rumors of camera store deaths are greatly exaggerated. Some stores that didn’t keep up with contemporary retailing have closed. However, in the last three years, individuals with new energy and new money from outside the industry have bought camera stores, bringing fresh perspectives, passion as well as focus.
A Case Study of Three Camera Stores
2021: Justin and Deb Price, Armadillo Camera
Deb Price needed a specific lens cap. Armadillo Camera, the only camera store in Lubbock, Texas, didn’t have the one she wanted. Lubbock, population 340,000, is “centrally isolated,” approximately 325 miles from each of three major cities: Albuquerque; Oklahoma City; and Dallas.
A professional photographer, Deb knew the store was missing significant business by not being properly stocked. Little did she know the issues store owners face obtaining inventory. She told her husband there was potential to grow the business if they could buy the store and run it differently.
As a certified financial planner, Justin understands financial statements and return on investment (ROI). He also believes in faith-based decisions and felt an urgency to visit the store. He met the owner, Steve Smith, looked around the store and agreed with Deb.
Steve had long run a successful business, and Armadillo Camera was a staple of the community and region. However, the store and its merchandise looked tired, anything but contemporary. Justin told Steve, “If you ever consider selling, please let us know.” Steve’s surprising response was, “My lease is up in two months, and I am planning on just closing the store. I didn’t think anyone would buy it.”
Justin and Deb worked hard and fast, considering how to capture the potential they envisioned: a larger store in a better location with improved lighting, display, ambiance as well as product offerings. Moreover, they arranged a month-to-month lease on the current address and started the relocation process into a space that new and existing customers would appreciate and patronize.
A Soft Launch
They wanted a win-win deal with the owner. Steve was going to liquidate. The Prices gave him an offer of market value for inventory and fixed assets with a generous offer for the business itself.
They had a “soft launch” in the new facility, trying to stay open during construction and moving to serve customers who couldn’t wait a month for equipment. Looking back, they think it might have been better to close and reopen a month later in the new location.
The new owners started buying more current inventory in substantially larger quantities. To their surprise, the company’s change in ownership caused delays with suppliers. A further surprise was the variety of distributors they had to deal with and the abnormally low credit limits, regardless of their credit histories.
“We were able to become PRO members immediately. This helped us immensely to understand sourcing products and eased our ordering frustrations. PRO’s delivery was swift, despite the supply chain frustrations. Ironically, the former owner had kept major hardware in stock. However, he didn’t stock the accessories needed to maximize that equipment. With ProMaster, we could stock literally hundreds more accessories and get additional stock promptly. This allowed us to double our sales over the prior owner while being more profitable.”
Deb summed it up: “Owning a camera store isn’t for the faint of heart. We need to get the basics under control. Then we’ll look at the other potential opportunities, such as services, rentals, classes, etc. The response and sales from the community are beyond our wildest projections. What a fun time we’re having!”
2022: Will Lange and Samantha Maclaren, Nelson Photo & Video
Well-meaning friends and colleagues tried to talk these partners out of buying a San Diego camera store. They told them Amazon would crush all retail and non-Amazon consumers were aging out.
They responded, “We’re not trying to be Amazon. We’ll focus on San Diego clientele and let Amazon have the rest of the world. This is more than a camera store. It’s a fun place to come and buy photo gear from people who like their customers and love what they’re doing. Listen! That sound is customers and salespeople laughing and having fun.” This sentiment carried through everything Will Lange said about taking over the photo retail store.
The pandemic allowed Will and his business partner, Samantha Maclaren, to look around and find what they really wanted. Having worked with Hollywood organizations like the Muppets and Disney, Will was tired of big, impersonal corporations. Samantha spent 15 years managing Gap stores. They spent two years looking at companies that were falling apart. From their first step in, Nelson was different.
The partners also didn’t buy into the PR department’s “Our team is our greatest asset” assessment. Will had never really looked forward to going to work. Then they found Nelson Photo, which “never had a day without talented and dedicated people.” The partners felt they’d come home, though they’d never seen the store before.
Originally, Larry and Nancy Kuntz built the store to put what’s best for customers first. Consequently, customers kept returning. Today, Will and Samantha’s customers say Nelson is a place where they like to go.
Furthermore, a review of the books showed it was a growing, profitable business. Its growth in film processing is fueled by young customers, many of whom drop off 10 or more rolls of film at a time.
Will is also tech savvy. His view of a camera store is a place that can expand into separate markets for various creators. “We’re moving beyond dancing in front of your iPhone.” Nelson serves all aspects of creativity, whether still, video, audio or some hybrid.
The store’s continued focus on customers is the ultimate success. Will observed customers coming into the store, being served, writing superlative reviews and returning to buy more products as well as services. “We sell online, too. We offer support instead of the eternal run-around customers get from many websites. Remember, customers first.”
Neither Samantha nor Will wanted to change the customer connections. They did see opportunities to reduce customer service friction and make the staff’s life easier. Almost immediately they introduced barcode labeling for photofinishing. Now the salesperson only inputs a photofinishing order once, regardless of the number of rolls being processed or the order’s complexity. Customers are automatically notified by text or e-mail when the work is ready for pickup. This improves customer service, reduces lab mix-ups, eliminates manual order entry, streamlines the process, plus reduces tedious staff work.
The store originally opened as Nelson Photo Supplies in 1950. Will and Samantha will carry it on as Nelson Photo & Video thanks to their investment with support from an SBA loan. They found the store through a business broker. Nancy Kuntz said, “The broker was worth every penny with the handholding they did to get this deal completed. We couldn’t have done it without a reputable broker.”
Will and Samantha are learning every day. “It’s really enjoyable most days. The next couple of years will be a wild ride,” says Will.
2019: Phil Livingston, Precision Camera & Video
Precision Camera has changed its product offerings over the last three years; it will continue to change as new technologies take hold. In 2019, Phil Livingston and a group of investors without camera store experience bought the Austin, Texas, store.
Despite the pandemic starting in 2020, Precision Camera didn’t slow down. It opened a new 5,000-square-foot store in South Austin. This April, Precision opened another new store in Houston, not quite a three-hour drive east of Austin.
What’s more, Precision Camera was named Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2020 Dealer of the Year. Phil acknowledges it’s challenging but also fun and rewarding.
“Those who told me photo retail is dead didn’t foresee how communication has shifted. We attended the SXSW conference. Most VIPs attending had an entourage of content creators following them around. They weren’t using phones. They were using sophisticated audio gear, cine cameras, still cameras as well as other capture devices that Precision sells.”
Moreover, what hasn’t changed is Precision’s profitability and management style. “Three of our original investors were paid off early, with a three-year total return of 85%. Two investors wanted to stay in because they’re committed to photography and enjoy the relationship. It’s financially better than we projected. The future looks better than the past.”