Dan’s Camera City invested heavily in e-marketing tools and is reaping the rewards. Its multichannel approach enables customers to shop any way they want, from walk-in and curbside pickup to order online/pickup in-store or pure e-commerce.
Dan’s Camera City in Allentown, Pennsylvania, is misnamed. Dan’s is a “city” with a lot more than cameras. “There’s no more core business,” Mike Woodland, Dan’s co-owner says. “We’re into as many profitable areas as possible that deal with our core skills and values: framing, aerial photography, education, school portraits, large signage down to wallet prints, and various other services. Of course, we’re very much into hardware sales.”
Dan’s doesn’t appear to be a strong e-commerce company because it isn’t. They use electronic and digital tools to improve customer experiences and the productivity of 30 full-time and seven part-time employees, both online and in-store.
Photo Trade News’ named the retailer Dealer of the Year back in 2002. “That’s what provoked our founder, Dan Poresky, to sell Dan’s, which he started in 1977,” explains Mike. Poresky often admonished the team: “IQQPBE: Increase Quantity and Quality of Positive Buying Experiences.” The company was at its peak, but Poresky had neither the strength nor passion to fight the digital revolution.
Consequently, Kevin Harayda joined Mike Woodland in a unique management buyout. Fred Beste, a longtime Dan’s customer, said at the time, “Dan’s doesn’t have customers. They have cult members.” Fred helped Mike and Kevin find investors, plus bank financing, to buy the business. All the original investors or their heirs are still Dan’s directors.
Steve Olock, a 20-year veteran, says, “Kevin’s and Mike’s families risked their homes so Dan’s could continue and we could all have jobs. They’ve continued to build this company and make it a great place to work.”
The Management Style at Dan’s Camera City
Dan’s management style includes many people in the planning of new concepts. Social media coordinator Ben Marcus says some outsiders think this leads to “paralysis by analysis.” Ben believes it’s the opposite. “Dan’s mission statement requires going to others to question what we’re doing and keep moving forward. We consider what could go wrong and prepare before it happens, so neither customers nor team members are disappointed.”
Scott Piccotti, director of Photo Education, adds: “The boys (Mike and Kevin) enable flexibility. The team’s empowered to make decisions with minimal oversight, which keeps things moving. There’s universal trust among team members. It’s not a common work environment.”
Emily Glose, director of Photo & Imaging Services, is a newer team member. She left FedEx’s management track for a different cultural experience. “I chose Dan’s because you can see Mike and Kevin’s values throughout the team. I worked here part-time as a student, and I could feel the difference just walking into the building.”
Emily stresses the company continues to improve operations and embraces technology. However, it still has “a human checking every photo order to be sure we’re proud to put Dan’s name on it.”
In addition, the company uses Google Docs and other electronic communication to stay in touch with team members, management and customers. Each employee has an e-mail address and phone extension that are available to customers, vendors and team members. If the phone isn’t answered, the caller may leave a message or have the employee paged. Rather than sound like a train station, pages are customized for each team member. Some members use five seconds of music or even birdsongs to summon them.
A Motivated Team
Dan’s culture also results in low turnover. Applicants seek employment without aggressive recruiting. Dan’s website omits the traditional Help Wanted section. Instead, it asks, “How does your job compare to working at Dan’s Camera City?” It challenges other employers to care for and listen to their employees as well as Dan’s does.
Furthermore, rather than use Indeed, ZipRecruiter or similar services, Dan’s is successful posting openings on Instagram or Facebook. Customers who know Dan’s culture are predisposed to view the retailer as an employer.
Dan’s also promotes AOR (Areas of Responsibility). Employees are responsible for certain functions or product areas. They embrace them as if they own them, because they do.
As a result, Dan’s team is more committed than at normal retailers. Retail Supervisor Jim Didyoung acknowledged the pandemic stretched everyone to keep their AORs up. The team rose to the occasion. They’re ready to tackle the new post-pandemic world using even more technology to be efficient and continue to exceed customer expectations, while remaining down home and personable.
Meeting and Exceeding Expectations
Dan’s has a reputation for doing things on time, as well as meeting or exceeding customers’ expectations. A customer once told Steve Olock he needed a flagpole; Steve’s response was, “Yes sir, how high?” He researched the installation process, got help from Dan’s team and erected the 40-foot-high flagpole as scheduled. It was a five-figure print and signage job. This customer has other facilities that likely will need prints, signs and flagpoles.
In 2011, the principal of the Grace Montessori School told Mike Woodland, “The school photographers we’ve found are unprofessional. We need Dan’s to do our school pictures.” Mike declined. The principal insisted. “You have a year to figure out how you’re going to do it. Get it done!” Dan’s school portrait business is now very significant.
Creating a Service from the Ground Up
When the school portrait business was under consideration, Dan’s decided to forget how others did it. Rather, they started from scratch to structure the service. Much of the brainstorming was done by Jen Harayda, a longtime employee and Kevin’s wife, along with Matt Churetta and Diana Doll.
An early decision was to avoid hiring photo geeks for school pictures. It’s the kids’ expressions that make successful sales; so, Dan’s only hires people who like kids. Moreover, Picture Day is disruptive and shouldn’t need rescheduling. Camera gear redundancy ensures no delays. The school rarely sees anything but calm professionalism.
Schools reported kids’ names got mixed-up with pictures misidentified. Subsequently, Dan’s established a barcode system that downloads each school’s files, attaching data digitally to every exposure.
What’s more, they tether the camera to an oversized laptop. This results in a significant-sized image where the team can see every hair out of place or other things impossible to see looking at a camera’s tiny LCD screen. And Picture Day ordering and payment are online. Dan’s also added the electronic capability to buy photo gifts with keychains, mugs and magnets, generating significant revenue.
To streamline the workflow, photographers, Santas, Easter bunnies and assistants for the photo sessions are all assigned through Google calendar. Dan’s team can adjust work schedules and confirm coverage online.
B2C and B2B Marketing
In addition, marketing school pictures is both B2C and B2B marketing. Without the B2B connection there’s no opportunity to market to the end consumer. The team gives Mike Woodland time out in the community as the face of Dan’s. Mike meets influencers or B2B contacts leading to future business.
Dan’s also has special website pages called Build Your Business that generate leads for numerous lab services. Services aren’t always price-driven. Reliability and ease of project completion are priorities. When customers know the supplier’s owner, they’re more likely to believe in the firm’s reliability. Word of mouth and referrals are also important.
Moreover, Dan’s started a Student Publishers program. As part of their classroom curriculum, students create individual books that include their writings, photographs, drawings and other images. Dan’s publishes these as hardbound books. Friends and family are invited to a Barnes & Noble book signing where the books are sold for $35 each.
The Urban Photo Park
Brainstorming also created the Urban Photo Park (UPP). What motivated the discussion was an answer to the question all retailers should ask: “What assets do we have that aren’t being used effectively?”
Dan’s owns an acre of land behind the store. After discussions with staff, manufacturers, trainers, landscapers as well as customers, Dan’s is fulfilling an array of ideas, some of which will take years to realize. Here are some examples:
- Life-size cutouts of athletes and wildlife placed at various distances to allow customers to evaluate equipment.
- Native plants and wildflowers that provide a shooting venue and opportunities for macro photography.
- Landscaped features to capture outdoor portraits.
- Birdhouses and feeders that draw in colorful feathered subjects.
- Lattice panels covered in climbing plants that will act as portrait backgrounds.
- Photography blinds that enable filming the various hawks and foxes nesting nearby.
Outsourcing as an Asset
Despite its superlative team and its capabilities, Dan’s also recognizes that sometimes it’s better to outsource.
The store has outstanding graphic artist competency. They’re an active member of IPI and heavily use their IPI-MSP materials. They could create similar assets on their own, but not without dedicating significant resources. By buying IPI’s cost-effective marketing services, Dan’s stretches its budget, giving the creative team time to do more local, personalized projects.
They also use dakis for their website data download and product images. Moreover, for additions to the store’s extensive website, there’s an online form where the staff responsible for the product goes through a list of questions. This ensures Dan’s publishes all relevant information accurately.
“They’re successful working with us because we jointly set goals and timelines,” says Eric Lubar of Digital Adhesion, Dan’s outside digital media agency. “Dan’s is after relationships, not transactions. Relationships take longer for fruition than one-and-done transactions.
“We meet frequently to adjust as needed. Business owners wear too many hats. Rarely are they able to stay up with current digital usage or facts. Most overworked business owners rely on old data and obsolete facts they think are still meaningful. They don’t know the market has passed them by,” he adds.
Additionally, Dan’s joined the Photographic Research Organization buying group in 1991. “We rely on PRO’s warehouse for quick resupply,” says Kevin Harayda. “As other vendors have withdrawn retailer support, PRO has increased theirs. The warehouse dropship program lets us have thousands of products on our website we don’t stock. PRO quickly ships them directly to our customers. PRO’s centralized billing, online ordering and distribution increase our efficiency.”
Dan’s has delegated many purchasing functions to PRO. As a result, Heather Loughran [lead buyer] can use her creative skills in non-routine, higher value tasks.
E-Commerce Tools & Social Media Bring Results
Ben Marcus believes Dan’s digital marketing plus aggressive social media have broadened their customer base. “In the last few years, you can see diversity in racial composition, age and gender. The mix is closer to our population base. It’s no longer concentrated on older white males.
“We ask customers to ‘tag’ us in their postings and we’ll repost them. When customers post stories that might expire, Dan’s archives them so they live forever online, making those customers feel part of the store’s community.”
What’s more, the Wednesday Night Photo Show by Ben and Scott continues live online every other week, even after pandemic quarantines have eased. It’s free to tune in, and participation is growing.
Additionally, as coupon use deteriorated, Dan’s used digital coupons delivered both by them and by other e-mail services, like the local newspaper’s e-mail list. Hailey Audenried designs four weekly e-mails that go directly to new hardware purchasers, giving them incentives to return to the store. The customer should receive high value just opening the e-mail.
Everyone has opinions about what the e-mails should offer. As Hailey is a professional, she is able to take input. Rough drafts of the e-mails are posted so involved employees can offer suggestions or critiques.
Event Booking Tools
Furthermore, booking and tracking dozens of open events led Dan’s to use Eventbrite. As a result, those in Eventbrite’s data base are alerted about photographic events like Dan’s. Eventbrite adds the ticketing cost onto each ticket. Dan’s revenue per ticket doesn’t change. Sites like Ticketmaster have made customers used to the ticketing fee. They can also avoid the booking fee by mailing or delivering a check to Dan’s.
To augment Dan’s reputation, Ben and Scott usually respond to every social media post. Mike Woodland, who identifies himself as co-owner, normally answers customer reviews. Customers are more likely to emotionally bond with a human, especially an owner, than answers by a suspected robo-responder.
Innovating for Success
Moreover, Dan’s has learned when to move out of a flat category and turn it into a parallel revenue stream. The retailer was an early adopter of selling drones. When margins disappeared and manufacturers neglected customer service, Dan quit selling drones. Instead, management decided to open another successful division: Dan’s Aerial Images.
Custom framing also continues growing at Dan’s. Ken Doan is an expert framer. Some artists leave their works, just saying, “You frame it. You know what I like.” Ken can fully use his creativity while providing the customer with a truly unique job. And with all the new construction in the Lehigh Valley, Mike Woodland recognizes the opportunity. “Think of all those bare walls needing frames,” he says. “We’re focusing some digital ad dollars to reach new homeowners.”
Delivering the Experience
Manny Brodt, director of Retail Operations, is a 23-year Dan’s veteran. “It’s wrong to say younger shoppers don’t appreciate the face-to-face experience. More accurately, they haven’t experienced it, so they don’t know what they’re missing. Dan’s is very effective in delivering that experience when our digital advertising or social media efforts bring them into the store.
“We are also very thrilled with the support we get from Tamron and our rep, Patricia Gregitis. Our Tamron webinars attract worldwide audiences. We’re more successful than most in converting the audience to buyers by offering seminar audiences 10- or 30-minute free, private online consultations.
“When we book these online consultations, we ask the customer what they want to accomplish. Before the call, we prepare all the images to illustrate the points. This makes the customer’s time more effective plus introduces new equipment to help them.”
Manny counsels, “Don’t start talking until you know their exact problem. Then make only suggestions that solve that problem until the customer has complete faith in your recommendations.”
Photo Education & Excursions
At Dan’s, when classes are stretched over multiple sessions, each session starts with a review of customer images from prior lessons. Interactivity is important. Whether online or in-person, customers are told to have their cameras ready, fully charged and with a high-capacity memory card.
Dan’s also seeks out interesting field trip topics, like the very popular Falconry field trip. This excursion is the result of Dan’s reaching out to falconry hobbyists who like to talk about their favorite pastime and share it with others.
Dan’s blog also brings ideas for services and products. A series of Best Places to Take Pictures around Western Pennsylvania led to numerous posts: “Why don’t you have a picture-taking trip here?” Hailey coordinates information on potential new photo trip sites with an online form that seeks planning information and recommendations that would make the event successful.
Growing with Ancillary Services
Historically, Dan’s has led camera stores in adopting new finishing services, especially large prints. They opened a FastSigns franchise where their “on-time, as envisioned by the customer,” culture spread to new B2B customers.
“People have a million problems,” summarizes Danny Drzewiecki, designer and manager. “We solve one of them by being on time, as needed, with no surprises. There are cheaper options out there, but not better options when the customer considers what’s important.”
In addition, Mary Johnson loves working at Dan’s FastSigns. “Customers come in asking for something they aren’t certain about. We educate them on the options and solve their problems. It’s fun to deliver what customers need rather than what management dictates we must sell them.”
“Dan’s devotes significant time to introspection,” adds Scott Piccotti. “What things do customers assume any competitor would have? Where are our points of parity with competitors? What are our points of differentiation? Removing the price discussion also allows us to develop more points of differentiation. Some customers think we should be like a Shutterfly or Amazon. We must exceed expectations in the areas we can. We can’t be what everyone wants every time. In addition, we must articulate why the customer should use Dan’s.”
E-tailer of the Year
It is just this introspective thinking that has contributed to the success of Dan’s. Its team is both forward-thinking and broad-minded, able to embrace new avenues that make the retailer both more efficient and more accessible to its customers.
As a result, its multichannel approach goes beyond pure e-commerce. It has enabled its customers to shop any way they want, from walk-in and curbside pickup to order online/pickup in-store or pure e-commerce. And that is why Dan’s Camera City is reaping the rewards of a business model that is solid yet flexible. That is also why the retailer is Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2021 E-tailer of the Year.
Dan’s Camera City’s Mission Statement and orientation are comparatively thorough. These partial excerpts indicate the direction:
To be the best specialty retail business in the country by developing and maximizing systems for continuous improvement utilizing full staff participation.
Our success is measured by the degree of delight and duration of the relationship of our customers and staff with Dan’s Camera City. Question management on any policy, operations or instructions that appear contrary to this.