We recently asked photo specialty retailers for an update on customer photo education during the current climate. How has Covid changed consumer education? What’s today’s secret for effective education? Here is what they had to say.
Burke Seim, Service Photo, Baltimore, Maryland
“We’re doing fewer traditional classes than before Covid. We promote special events and trips. The one-on-ones, which we call Concierge Service Education, are growing. We provide exclusive, personal instruction as well as guidance before or after the camera purchase. New and seasoned photographers remain excited about taking pictures and expanding their image-capture capabilities.
“For those seeking virtual classes and exotic photo experiences, we have partnered with Mark Comon and refer our customers to his Creative Photo Academy. This keeps customers excited while they await the restart of our live events.”
In addition, Service Photo took three busloads to the 2019 PhotoPlus Expo in New York City. The customers enjoyed being with the store staff and other people with similar interests. They also knew Service Photo would likely meet or beat any show deals. Moreover, the sales after the event were significant, while the occasion’s excitement gave everyone a lift. They want to go again in 2021. Unfortunately, Covid uncertainty makes this year’s trip doubtful.
Service Photo customers are also looking for the restart of photo walks and “Drink and Click” events. Because Baltimore is within Washington, DC’s sphere of influence, many area customers are more reluctant to join crowds than elsewhere in the country.
Also, Service Photo likely won’t do their multi-rep show this year. They’re considering a weeklong event with one factory rep daily. Smaller crowds will allow more personal service. Their goal is a more pleasant experience than customers could get online.
Stephen Weiss, St. Louis School of Photography, St. Louis, Missouri
Stephen Weiss, formally of Creve Coeur Camera, opened Photo Pros and the St. Louis School of Photography. This unique organization offers digital lab services, photographic accessories, as well as a wide variety of educational options.
Originally opened as St. Louis School of Photography, customers called asking if students would be handling the restoration of family heirlooms. Consequently, Weiss assigned the name Photo Pros to lab work and camera accessories, doubling sales within a month.
The “school” name refers to events. Covid brought much of the school online. Those classes will continue. Trips, photo walks and other events are resuming with careful attention to keeping group sizes smaller. However, they are still economically viable for the school. Additionally, the school’s photographic experts are hired to accompany trips organized by travel agencies, guiding tourists in capturing priceless vacation memories.
Fun and social camaraderie are necessary components of all events. Most photo walks cost $39–$69. Many participants return on the same walk for both photography and social interaction. More exotic walks, like the Sunflower Fields or an evening photographing the Milky Way, are $99 with restricted enrollments.
Definite subject winners are drone, car and drag race photography. Drones lend themselves to the one-on-one format. And most customers can’t access the drag racing action on their own. Social media posts of “Look what I did!” drive awareness of photography’s gratification. The school’s specialty is putting photographers in the right place at the right time.
Mackenzie Hughes, Fort Worth Camera, Fort Worth, Texas
“We don’t do classes, seminars or lectures. We have education disguised as a party. People are so done with Zoom calls!” says Mackenzie.
Fort Worth Camera offers fun, semi-unpredictable and diverse social events generating excitement and community as well as building photographic skills. Since 2015, the Fort Worth Foto Fest has been a collection of events built around image capture and fun. Experiences available during Foto Fest aren’t accessible to the average customer. In 2021, FW Foto Fest set records for customer attendance and the number of different events, as well as ticket and product sales. It’s an immersive photo experience generating enthusiasm year-round.
Customers and event staff come from long distances. Most of the “staff” are volunteers or Fort Worth Ambassadors who thoroughly enjoy being part of the excitement. Fort Worth Camera generally doesn’t pay them cash but expresses gratitude in more human ways; some as simple as frequently saying “thank you.”
Customer Photo Education with a Twist
Want to learn about aerial pictures? How about learning from a real U.S. Air Force U2 pilot? Fort Worth Camera’s reputation for off-the-wall adventures generates a stable of people with unique backgrounds who enjoy helping others enjoy photography.
In addition, the retailer feels differently than most about “one-on-one classes.” It’s like a swing doctor at the golf course with continual-improvement coaches offering private tutorials and coaching sessions. Everyone on the sales floor may give private tutorials. They receive a $25 bonus for each hour they teach, plus their hourly rate and any commissions they earn from product sales.
Fort Worth Camera did a live virtual event. Glynn Lavender is a well-known Australian photographer with a unique sense of humor. The store sponsored a live telecast from Australia to be watched in-store as a group or online at home. The title was “Places, Faces and Dad Jokes,” which captured the customers’ imaginations. Setting up the event to be uniquely amusing, Glynn shared his images and international travel techniques, interspersed with groan-worthy Dad jokes. The audience enjoyed learning a different perspective.
Further, store personnel are attuned to social media, which is 90% of the ad budget. They frequently hear, “I want one of those things I saw on your Facebook page.”
Mike Dobson, Mike’s Camera, California and Colorado
As Mike’s Camera came out of the pandemic, it built a successful and expansive virtual and in-person educational platform. The virtual aspect taught them a lot about how customers think about education.
“Mike’s has always offered multipart workshops but modified them for this new climate. Our former three-part wildlife workshop with Denver Zoo had been a live class, an on-site shoot and wrap-up critique (with wine and cheese) of each person’s best image.
“Due to Covid, the seminar and critique became virtual. The workshop remained live in small groups. This single in-person day appealed to out-of-towners who would make one trip to Denver for the workshop only.”
The first post-Covid event sold out 45 minutes after announcement. A second date was added to support the demand. The zoo promotes it to their customers to gain a larger audience for all. Mike’s also runs a similar program with Denver Botanical Gardens.
Covid concerns caused Mike’s Camera to be firmer on capacities. Guided photo walks in metro areas like San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge or the Palace of Fine Arts are normally limited to 24 people. These two-hour walks constantly sell out. Moreover, Mike’s has always limited the size of some groups to maintain intimate relationships with the instructors. For instance, “Yellowstone at Night” provides three nights of astrophotography with a maximum group of six; it’s the third series of astrophotography workshops Mike’s has hosted this year. To simplify things, the fee includes one welcome dinner and the instructor. Food, lodging and transportation are attendees’ responsibilities.
Mike Dobson’s summation: “At the beginning, too many retailers were afraid to charge the value these trips represent. Get excited. Put value behind them. Your customers are hungry for them.”
Ken Lewis, Midwest Photo, Columbus, Ohio
Midwest Photo is straying away from virtual as much as possible. They believe education is “having the customer in our ecosystem, beyond having a great experience with the best salespeople and instructors possible. We want every customer to learn enough to understand how little they actually know. We have an incremental learning path for customers. What’s more, we break it into smaller, digestible pieces in-store or in the field.
“We’re also offering shorter classes, making one class into two, and charging more for the two classes than the single one. Customers appreciate the bite-size sessions. We nurture attendees to the next level where they say they want more.”
In addition, Midwest’s exclusive on-site Learning Studio comfortably seats 80+ students. Their customers strongly desire going outside the studio to places an individual photographer can’t easily access.
Midwest has also worked with the Columbus Crew soccer team for years, getting their customers onto the field with loaner gear to shoot amazing images. The customers go onto social media to brag about their photo successes, touting both Midwest Photo and the Crew. However, Covid has put these events on hold. Midwest keeps in frequent contact with the team to assure they can resume these highly visible outings when conditions permit.
The Relationship Bank
In addition, Ken is a firm believer in “making good deposits into the relationship bank.” Be open-minded and flexible; consistently show your partners the mutual value of having your photographic customers build awareness through their personal networks. Don’t bring tension or frustration into the relationship. Keep a submissive role while always asking for something more. Many of the partners’ employees are avid photographers themselves, so occasional swag or a courtesy pass to a photo event can go a long way.
For a certain animal-oriented photo shoot, Midwest always had the same bus driver. They gave the driver a $50 Starbucks card as a thank you. The grateful driver spoke to a friend at the venue who made sure the animals weren’t fed until the Midwest bus arrived. This ensured everyone got the best shots because the animals were active and prowling for food.
Moreover, there’s high demand for video education by people who want immediate coaching devoted to their needs and frustrations. Consequently, Midwest offers $100 one-hour individual sessions. A few minutes of preparation by the instructor allows the customer’s gear to be instantly put on the screen. Immediately the customer makes new things happen because the instructor has at hand every conceivable cord or connection capability, tripods and lights. Customers get 100% intensive coaching the instant they sit down.
Making the equipment dance in front of the customer also leads to longer sessions with higher perceived value. The second hour is half price; the conversion rate is high so long as there are no lulls in the process. Each instructor’s passionate and fun personality drives the repeat requests.
Gregg Burger, Precision Camera & Video, Austin, Texas
Precision tried instant online consultations. They gained some usage during Covid. Soon Texans wanted to come into the store. The investment in people and equipment standing by wasn’t warranted anymore. Precision has redeployed those resources.
Precision Camera University (PCU) has pent-up demand for events. Gregg committed earlier in the year for the Kalahari Resorts Water Park. The earlier commitment got a good rate for Saturday/Sunday, October 2/3 with four instructors and a goal of 80 customers, 20 per group. A fee of $239 gets the customer four half-day sessions—a 40-minute intro plus three hours shooting time with each instructor. There will also be loaner equipment and a small trade show. Students receive a $50 Precision Camera gift card.
Putting a Value on Education Is a Win-Win
The common theme among all these retailers is the pent-up demand for in-person events with like-minded people who want to grow their photographic skills. Costs for sessions are rising, as are customers’ expectations. Exciting options await the inquiring consumer patronizing an engaged camera store.