Surviving the demise of the one-hour lab model and the digital revolution, this photo specialty retailer maintained a customer-centric focus while evolving a savvy e-commerce business.
Family-owned and operated, Jack’s Cameras is a full-service camera retailer based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The company’s roots go back to the early 1950s. Today, the three-store chain is a successful e-commerce business. Moreover, its experienced and knowledgeable staff work as an extended family.
“The golden age of photofinishing was upon us. We grew up with a central photo lab costing $2 million and more than 100 film drop stores. Today, it’s three stores with a myriad of different businesses. Consistent change is fun for my brother and me,” says Jim Contoudis.
“Dad raised us to work hard, play hard as well as value family time. My brother and I play golf together, share the same office and keep out of each other’s way—most of the time,” brother Chris Contoudis adds.
Chris is the “back-end guy” overseeing operational/financial areas; Jim is the company’s more visible (and outspoken) marketing leader. The brothers are quick to recognize they couldn’t manage without their family’s support, especially their wives, Eleni (Chris) and Leslie (Jim).
The brothers are also united in 99% of what they do. Their overarching attitude is: “What does it take to make the customer happy?” And “You can talk yourself in or out of anything. Focus on making any decision successful and it will be.”
“Change is constant. Fight it and get frustrated. Use it, adjust to the change and be happier,” Jim explains. This attitude is evident when discussing one complaint of retailers. Amazon customers use retailers as a free rental department, returning “new” cameras sometimes after thousands of shutter activations.
“Look at your total sales and margin; recognize it’s the cost of doing business through that channel,” Chris says. “When it becomes untenable, quit the channel. Focus on maximizing results, not complaining about what you don’t like and can’t change.”
Jack’s Cameras: Early Restructuring
Chris and Jim took over the business during the first big industry upheaval, the shift from central labs to one-hour on-site facilities.
“When we first converted drop-off stores into one-hour labs, we saw roll counts increase 20% to 30%, while the drop-off locations had stable volumes,” Jim recalls. “Soon the drop-off locations were losing volume as we were installing expensive one-hour labs which were no longer increasing volumes. The central lab financial model was crashing around us, while the costs of converting film-drops to one-hour labs was not sustainable.”
Jack’s Cameras, founded in 1951, was closing when Jim and Chris’s father, John J. Contoudis, bought it for $5,000 and retained the name. Furthermore, the retailer has closed more than 100 locations, retaining only three stores. The Delaware Camera store (Buffalo, New York) was purchased decades ago. It maintains a very strong local reputation, so the old name stayed. Jack’s Cameras’ locations are in Exton (west of Philadelphia) and Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania (northeast of Philadelphia).
What’s more, the company’s e-commerce website, CameraSpot.com, was named in the late 1990s because it resonated with people outside the geographic area. First-time site visitors knew the company was committed to the camera business at a time when most consumers were wary of online merchants.
Navigating the Changing Retail Environment
The road from then to now was difficult and often dangerous. As it became apparent the drop-off locations wouldn’t survive the one-hour onslaught, negotiations with vendors as well as landlords were complex and challenging. Nancy Muller worked with John Contoudis and stayed on when his sons took over. She was the front person on negotiations, leaving the brothers in the background as potential final negotiators.
The company was just coming out from under the one-hour shift when the digital tsunami hit the organization with an almost fatal blow. However, surviving the cataclysmic industry upheavals, the brothers maintained a positive attitude. “We’ll get through this by taking care of customers along with open, candid conversations with employees, landlords and vendors.”
They also embraced a variety of “new businesses” or niches. This was a significant factor in generating the cash that kept creditors happy and powered additional investments in the company.
The Philadelphia area is unique for photo retailing; it was once home to more than 300 camera-related stores. The Camera Shop and Jack’s each had in excess of 100 locations. Today, the PRO buying group has seven independent PRO members in the area. However, the brothers believe the cadre of retailers advertising and promoting photography aren’t competition. Instead, they grow the pie for all photo retailers. Additionally, PRO’s ProMaster brand is more visible to consumers because of its wide distribution.
In retrospect there were four major decisions the brothers made around this time.
- Embrace the new technologies of online selling.
- Automate where possible, avoid burnout and make the company scalable.
- Consolidate locations using the “superstore” concept.
- Empower brilliant people.
Embracing New Tech: Early Internet Forays
At that time, one of their employees asked if they had heard of eBay. Neither brother had, but that didn’t slow them down. They told then Buffalo store manager Jim Janson to check it out.
Like many eBay pioneers, they started by selling dead inventory. However, that spread to selling everything they could. They realized some customers wanted to sell their “garage sale items” on eBay but were uncertain how to proceed. Jack’s experimented with “We sell your stuff on eBay.” While they didn’t profit for the effort expended, the experience taught them how to be effective online.
Moreover, the brothers quickly challenged the things they could change. eBay tends to have more price-sensitive shoppers. Currently the sales costs are the same percentage as other marketplaces. However, Amazon has auto-fill information about many products. Consequently, it reduces uploading costs and increases the speed to get new listings posted.
In addition, eBay is much more labor intensive. Due to these increased costs, many items, especially used, won’t make it to eBay unless they haven’t sold quickly.
In addition, Jack’s, through their CameraSpot.com online persona, built up a good consumer reputation. They also gained institutional knowledge on how to thrive, not just survive, online. Through trial and error, they learned better and more efficient ways to photograph things for eBay, as well as the best wording for descriptions.
However, product selection online was a big challenge. Jack’s joined the PRO group with a warehouse 15 minutes from one of their stores. They would take each day’s orders for ProMaster and other PRO warehoused products and feed them into the PRO system at night. The next morning, they would do a will-call pickup and ship the products. As a result, Jack’s could display a large inventory and grow sales with positive reviews on minimal inventory.
However, camera sales soon turned unprofitable with marketplace fees growing and margins shrinking. The online business became one of a hundred niches. Hardware in short supply but in stock at Jack’s is a brief and constantly changing niche.
Another niche is “long tail products.” Jack’s would warehouse accessories or products less in demand nationally or internationally, offering them directly to the consumer through their website. Soon marketplaces drove more volume to CameraSpot.com than Jack’s own website promotions generated.
Jack’s still promotes its unique website but realizes things change and they must change with them. A niche might be an accessory for a discontinued, but formerly very popular, camera. Or an ancillary item used by many photographers but not readily available.
Meeting the Challenges
A long tail example is the APS cartridge holder. Jack’s bought a large quantity on close-out. They set a price slightly above market. After cheaper sites sold out, they quickly sold out. The higher margins allow for holding inventory longer. When it’s gone, it’s gone; the company moves onto other opportunities.
The company also found another challenge was low-priced items with high margins that weren’t economical to sell and ship. They resolved this by bulk pricing. They offered some products only in packages of 5–10, increasing customer value.
Like most camera stores, Jack’s also maintains a list of customers who want back-ordered product. It’s kept on Google Docs so everyone in the company can see the status. A deposit isn’t required; however, it fast tracks an order over those listed without deposits.
Additionally, supply shortages create interesting challenges to online sales. Jack’s strives for great personal relationships with suppliers. When they have a customer need, they seek support from manufacturers, especially regarding deliveries to customers with legitimate deadlines.
Jim adds they’ve often purchased items from competitors, either online or in their marketplace, to immediately resolve a supply shortage situation. “We must solve our customers’ problems for their continued loyalty. It’s an investment we know pays off over the long term.”
Jack’s Cameras also has bought film from various eBay sellers. “No film for our customers means no processing. Film’s necessary, almost regardless of the price,” Jim explains.
And when it comes to photofinishing. Chris says, “I love waking up in the morning to see how much photofinishing we sold overnight. The Photo Finale system allows that. We’re also expanding our roll film processing not only locally but telling potential online customers we can handle it by mail. Mail order is the same price as in-store,” Chris adds.
What’s more, some manufacturers restrict retailers from reselling products on marketplaces like Amazon. “This is self-defeating, especially for a new line,” Jim says. “If we bring in a new line, it’s because we think it’ll sell. If it doesn’t or if a certain model doesn’t sell, we unload the dead stock on Amazon.
“When the manufacturer denies us that escape route, it makes us question if we should take the risk on new lines. We brought in a line of video accessories to sell in-store and through marketplaces. It was growing to the level we could reorder every 10–14 days as certain SKUs sold through. The manufacturer’s policy changed to prohibit selling through marketplaces. Our in-store volume wasn’t enough to keep reordering, so the line languished. We replaced it with a more astute supplier.”
Automation a Key
Helping the Visiting-to-Buying Conversion
Website or marketplace conversion from just “visiting” to buying is also a critical step. Jim Contoudis says another benefit of PRO membership is getting ideas and trends from fellow retailers.
Kurt Seelig (Cardinal Camera, Lansdale, Pennsylvania) told a recent PRO convention how the widget, Share Me.chat, turned website visitors into online or in-store customers. Representatives were at the PRO convention and Jim signed up. The experience was even better than he expected.
Jim is the main contact for incoming Share Me.chat messages. Other team members can also answer chats, texts or social media inquiries, which arrive at all hours of the day and night. Jim reflects, “You’d take a text from a friend at 10 p.m., wouldn’t you? Aren’t our customers our friends?”
Current chat volume is 10 to 30 a day, while customer inquiries via phone and e-mails have fallen to below 10 a week.
Further, the brothers know the secret to the chat experience is a personalized, sales-oriented response. “Customers avoid the telephone, favoring text and chat. You must give the right responses so the customer says ‘yes.’ Engage them as if they were in front of you. Never say no to any question. Offer alternatives and options. Let them know you care and want to help. It’ll make you incredibly unique in today’s marketplace.”
Checkfront.com: Rentals & Used Gear Sales
Additionally, the Buffalo store uses Checkfront.com for 24/7 rental reservations. It also identifies which products aren’t generating enough revenue to retain, so they’re sold off in the used department.
Used equipment is always available to rent; however, customers can’t reserve gear too far in advance because it sells out quickly. If a customer wants to rent a piece of gear that’s in new inventory, the store manager sets the price so the rental income will cover the lower price that gear will bring used.
“People want to rent otherwise unobtainable equipment,” Chris reports. “The days of renting a camera, lens and flash because someone’s getting married are gone. Today’s rental customers want more exotic, newer and more expensive equipment they can’t justify buying.”
What’s more, Jack’s Cameras posts used gear online by Friday night because traffic on “used pages” is highest on the weekends. Despite the retailer being an aggressive buyer of used gear, they annually invite keh.com to do a used equipment buy.
Chris says, “They have an immense mailing list that reaches customers who otherwise wouldn’t know we’re here. They get to buy some fantastic gear we’d like to buy, but we’re pragmatic. They’re giving us visibility and we’re giving them the chance to buy great gear. It’s a series of trade-offs and we both win.”
Every used camera gets a complete check and sensor cleaning. Jack’s doesn’t want anything coming back due to quality. They also don’t keep customers’ collections together after they’re traded in. Every accessory is sold separately.
Salespeople use the extensive used gear to match with new stock. A customer can buy a new body with a used lens or reverse. Tying a piece of used gear into the new sale creates urgency on the customer’s part, as used gear doesn’t hang around long.
Leveraging Social Media
True Believers Tech Talk is a weekly, livestreaming show hosted every Tuesday at noon by Mark Miller, Delaware Camera’s store manager.
Each week’s multi-camera session is archived on their YouTube channel. A loyal customer, Will Holton, is the producer. He effectively runs the live, multi-camera show with interspersed videos and commercials. Mark stresses Will’s ability to keep the show technically superb, so he can focus on content.
They open with happenings around the store; for example, new rental products, classes or upcoming events. Then they move to other tech content or talk to guests. After 12 successful shows, Mark says the most important lesson he’s learned is to be more concise.
Furthermore, the brothers don’t censor or preapprove each show’s content. Chris and Jim agree, “Our people are brilliant. We trust and empower them. They won’t let us down.”
Each store location also has its own unique social media pages with the local team responsible for content and upkeep. The Buffalo store is miles ahead of the others in terms of social media. In large part that’s because they started first and had passionate people who wanted to launch early as well as a larger employee group.
The Exton store has adopted a localized professional display program. Aspiring local photographers display their works at Friday night showings where 100+ people come to see and buy their work.
The “Superstore” Concept
The Contoudis brothers also know that even a decade ago customers went to a chain store’s “warehouse location” thinking inventory and prices were better there. Chris says that’s another Internet change.
“The customer believes almost everything can be delivered tomorrow. So, going to a store adjacent to the company’s warehouse no longer has the same cachet. Additionally, products are smaller and don’t need much warehousing space. We’re fine with our stores being self-standing for walk-in customers.”
Empowering Employees at Jack’s Cameras
An empowered staff is another secret to Jack’s success. The company should total around 20 full-time employees. Currently, they have an opening. However, posting job openings on social media creates a challenge. Some regular customers, who the store wants to retain as customers, applied. But they didn’t show the personality or other characteristics of an optimum employee and had to be let down gently.
Moreover, having stores in affluent neighborhoods means the workforce likely doesn’t live nearby. Referrals from existing employees are the most effective recruitment process. The applicants, briefed by their friends, know what’s expected of new hires.
In addition, Jack’s doesn’t sell on commission. Manufacturer’s spiffs are allowed and paid directly to the employees themselves. The only permanent spiff is on PROtection no-fault warranties. Jack’s will run some spiffs on a monthly basis, for instance $20 for each ProMaster HGX filter sold this month.
Moreover, employees figure into pricing considerations. “When it comes to pricing, if the sales team isn’t on board, we’ve got a problem,” Chris explains. “We have Zoom meetings to talk about the company’s increasing operating and inventory costs and how to survive these pressures.
“Often, the salespeople suggest pricing higher than we originally thought. They talk to customers every day and understand the economic realities of today’s world. Our team is very smart and attuned to what’s going on. We value their perspective. They want us to stay in business, so they’re extremely focused on making the right pricing decisions.”
The Future for Jack’s Cameras
The Contoudis brothers say they’ve never been as excited as they are today. Their customers are also more appreciative than ever. Their team is skillfully functioning as well as focused. In addition, they recognize areas that need improvement and are concentrating on them.
They’ll also do more to reduce repetitive tasks for the team and continue to adjust to the technological shifts. “Most importantly,” they say, “our team will continue to be here to help our customers with their imaging and memory-keeping needs.”
Over the years, the retailer has demonstrated an uncanny ability to embrace change. It survived the big industry upheaval—the shift from central labs to one-hour on-site facilities and their subsequent demise. Then it thrived following the digital revolution. Through it all, Jack’s Cameras maintained a focus on its customers and evolved with new technology and new business models. For these reasons, we congratulate Jack’s Cameras as Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2022 E-tailer of the Year.