In 2006 I realized our photo distribution business at Unique Photo was in serious jeopardy. The conventional model of selling film, paper, chemistry and photographic accessories to photo retailers was no longer working. The number of photo retailers had dramatically decreased over the preceding decade from more than 10,000 down to a mere few hundred. The future for us was bleak.
In 2008, we opened the Unique Photo Camera Store in Fairfield, New Jersey. There were many doubters who did not believe we could be successful—inside and outside the company.
After all, we were just miles from New York City and the world’s largest photo retailers. All of our potential retail customers either bought from them, big-box stores like Best Buy, Walmart and Target, or from Amazon, which back then didn’t have to collect sales tax in New Jersey.
However, Unique Photo wasn’t built on the concept that for every picture taken, a customer has to make three trips to the store: 1) buy film; 2) develop film; 3) pick up pictures—and then repeat. Film was gone and that method of getting customers into the store was gone, too.
Instead, I decided to build our store based on an education model. The idea that digital photography was complicated and positioning ourselves as educators meant we would change our relationship with the customer from a salesman/buyer one to a teacher/student one.
The sales relationship in today’s world is not compelling since goods are available everywhere, and it doesn’t provide experience or build trust.
However, when you teach customers, you become their mentor and they develop a greater level of trust and attachment to you. And teaching them about the techniques and beauty of photography creates an experience they will enjoy and remember and tell others about.
Today, Unique Photo has one of the largest and most successful camera store education programs in the country—Unique University. So based on my experience, here are some pointers that will help you build a (more) successful education program, which will help make your store a big success.
Education Part 1: The Classroom
1. Having a dedicated classroom space is a must. It’s better to have it as close to your store as possible. You want customers going through the store before and after class as well as during breaks.
Furthermore, the space should be bright, clean and comfortable—and look like a classroom. If it smells bad, has mismatched chairs, bad lighting or poor sight lines, it’s going to ruin the experience. The space should not be in the store as that makes customers feel like it is a selling attempt. And if you can have high ceilings, it will give you more flexibility for workshops with lighting.
2. Your education space has to have top-notch audio and video. This is not a place to skimp on quality. We are trying to create an experience, and we want the photography to look beautiful. So, order a quality Canon or Epson projector and have fixed speakers installed; bring all of the connections together in the front of the room.
Make sure there are connectors for all types of computers and laptops (not just Mac). There should be several people in the store who know how to work this equipment. There’s nothing worse than when an instructor shows up 10 minutes before class, you have 30 people sitting in their seats and she can’t get her presentation showing on the screen.
3. The room should be decorated with photography (preferably from your instructors and store staff), how-to tips and information about how to register for classes and future workshops. We want customers to walk in and be “wowed” and want to come back to that room often. Think experience!
4. Make sure the room is soundproofed well enough so that noise from outside the classroom isn’t a distraction. And make it possible to control the lighting in the room, as each instructor will have a different need. If your room has a window, that’s a plus for workshops involving natural light.
5. Your classroom space should be big enough to hold at least 30 people. Getting 25 on average is the goal you should set for yourself.
Education Part 2: Instructors
1. Just because someone is a good photographer doesn’t make him or her a good instructor. Be sure your instructors have good communication skills, have had teaching experience and are people persons. I would have instructors present to me the class they are teaching before I let them near customers.
If they are not regular store staff, it’s a good idea to have them work behind the counter in the store first to see how they react to customers.
2. Two is better than one. It doesn’t matter how good your instructors are, they won’t work for everyone. An instructor whose teaching style is wonderful for one person may be hard to follow for another. Being able to offer a particular class with two different instructor personalities is a plus. Also, if one is unavailable, you always have backup.
3. You should have regular dedicated instructors, as customers will identify with them as individuals. The instructors, if they are good, will build relationships with your customers. I would be extremely happy if a customer wanted to take the next class simply to get that instructor again. This means we have provided an experience they can’t get by buying online!
4. All instructors should give their contact info to students and make themselves (reasonably) available to answer questions in the future. We are building a bond with our customers, and being there for their photography questions is something we can do as an independent retailer that larger stores or Internet houses can’t. And your customers will tell many others about you when you help them like this.
5. Outside instructors should be booked on a regular basis to provide variety, and they usually bring in their own following. Vendors are usually happy to supply instructors, which becomes an endorsement for your store.
Additionally, another good place to get outside instructors is from your professional customers. Many are willing and able to run a workshop (usually for free) for the exposure and cache that comes from being a featured instructor.
Those are the techniques needed to build your in-store classroom and place quality instructors in your education program. In future articles in this series, I’ll provide the techniques to build your curriculum, market your program, operate it on a day-to-day basis, turn it into a profit center for your store and help your store become a bigger success, too.
Changing your selling relationship with a customer to a more trusted one as a teacher is key to having a successful photo retail store. If you don’t have an education program in place, you must start one now.
If you have one but it’s not as successful as you like, follow my techniques and they will definitely help you grow your program. In either case, feel free to reach out to me. I am happy to help.