Pixel Connection: Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2020 E-tailer of the Year

Pixel Connection: Digital Imaging Reporter’s 2020 E-tailer of the Year

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The Pixel Connection Team (L-R): Michele Schneider; Ihor Balaban; Abigail Ambruso; Kaitlin Owens; Rahul Tuteja; Sheetal Tuteja; Gage Green; Matt Swetel; and Timothy “TJ” Houston

Pixel Connection is committed to serving its creators and community with the best possible service—in-store and online.

Rahul Tuteja, founder and vice president of Pixel Connection in Avon, Ohio, says this story shouldn’t be about him. He believes it’s the team who bring heart, soul and passion to the company. The team disagrees. They say we should focus credit on Rahul. He’s the communicator, the trusting one who never says “no” to a new idea. Perhaps, customers and vendors alike sing Pixel Connection’s praises because nobody wants to take credit for the success. Pixel-Connection-Logo-in-laptopR

Rahul was working in a consumer electronics store when the retailer’s owner died and the business closed. He knew many in the industry, plus myriad customers. He opened his own store and, a year later in 2014, found an investor who provided necessary cash.

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Rahul Tuteja

When asked how to find investors, Rahul flipped conventional logic. “It’s not who you know,” he says. “It’s who knows you. You have to pass the ‘trust phase’ of a relationship in order to reach the ‘invest phase.’”

Pixel Connection focuses on what benefits its creators—the customers who rely on them. However, the form of being a creator is up to the individuals patronizing Pixel Connection.

They can utilize still photography, video, vlogging, podcasting or any audio and visual communication. Moreover, Pixel is dedicated to its creator community, providing both a satisfying in-store experience and an engaging online presence.

Creators First

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The website’s homepage, thepixelconnection.com, features rotating panels.

Pixel also pays close attention to online reviews and customer surveys. “Anything less than five stars is imperfect,” Rahul says. “Whether checkout took too long or a creator wanted a return beyond our policy, we want to know and solve it perfectly.”

Matt Swetel, Pixel Connection’s sales manager, is in charge of “Creator Happiness.” He encourages feedback and strives for the best possible customer experience. He’s had customers admit they like Pixel because “You’re human, not a computer. I get honesty from you guys.”

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Store manager Ihor Balaban; Timothy “TJ” Houston, business development manager; Rahul Tuteja, founder/vice president; and Matt Swetel, sales manager

Furthermore, this has increased dramatically since Covid-19 became a retailing reality. “Customers want to know there’s a real person on the other side of the computer screen, not a bot.”

Matt’s also clear on Pixel’s marketing goals. “We want creators who create what they want. Pixel Connection doesn’t care what media or hardware is used. We want to be the solution, the source for the creator’s joy.”

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The store has a professional but relaxed atmosphere; community members can hang and talk photography or use it as a learning center.

Additionally, Matt’s methodology is aggressively conservative. “We follow up by phone, e-mail, meeting people at our events or community events. We don’t wait for customers to contact us. And we don’t spam. We’re sensitive to who wants follow-up. When follow-up is done, the salesperson records the creator’s needs and desires. We have different contact protocols with members of our private Facebook group and other groups. We maintain a ‘Creator First Mentality,’ including our communications and follow-up.”

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Pixel’s robust Facebook page

In addition, Matt handles the team’s products education, utilizing all available methods: in-person, e-mail, links, vendor training—whatever’s appropriate. For the upcoming fall season, new products from Nikon, Canon, Panasonic, Sony and Fujifilm will drive conversations. Creators will visit stores to see and touch the products, creating conversations leading to purchases and enjoyment. What’s more, Pixel’s robust Facebook presence and virtual events will spur that excitement.

Pixel Connection: Team Culture

Matt also believes it’s the whole company of hardworking people that makes a difference. Nobody wears a boss hat too often. It’s not Rahul’s style, and that passes down to the team through the managers. Rahul recognizes hard work. He watches attitudes and actions, looking for a balanced workforce. If he senses someone’s stressed out, he suggests some time off, usually before the employee thinks about it.

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Strongly promoted on social media, Pixel Photo Fest is a big deal.

Store manager Ihor Balaban was Pixel Connection’s first employee. He’s an accomplished author and photographer with a local following. He’s involved with Facebook groups on various photographic topics, including birding, nature and waterfalls. Moreover, he travels to photo events looking for current and potential creators, whether or not Pixel has an official relationship.

Ihor works long hours, mornings, nights and weekends. When asked about the potential for burnout, he says, “Long hours and events are offset by time off to recharge. Everyone does informal job sharing by observing who’s overloaded and pitching in. When the job’s fun, it’s not the same as work overload.”

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Sale or promo items are featured in rotation panels on the home page.

Last Black Friday everyone was on the sales floor. The FedEx driver found no one in the warehouse area. Cyber Monday was the reverse with most of the team filling or packing online orders to ship that day. To ensure speedy service to online customers, team members took packages to UPS, FedEx or USPS after the regular pickup left, assuring prompt delivery.

In addition, Ihor puts product bundles together beyond the manufacturer’s offerings. They are usually better quality replacements of the national kits. Pixel Connection is successful with product bundles containing better tripods, circular polarizing filters and classes. Group classes or free one-on-one education are included with most cameras and lenses, like the successful Covid-19 remote classes.

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Images of accessories make bundles more appealing.
More Pillars

Moreover, When Rahul met TJ Houston, he was searching for a job as a tech rep. Rahul helped him land a job with Panasonic but warned, “You’ll outgrow that position soon. You have a home here.” The two strategized, writing out a game plan for how TJ would impact Pixel as business development manager. TJ started on January 1, 2020; “It’s been a wild ride ever since,” he says.

There are other team members who have played a crucial role in the growth of Pixel Connection. For instance, Sheetal Tuteja, Rahul’s wife. “To be fair, I don’t think I can come up with a title for everything Sheetal does. She’s probably been a bigger force in the birth and growth of Pixel Connection than anyone else,” notes Rahul.

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The store is neat and clean. These fixtures are 20+ years old from old Kodak Image Center Stores.

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“For instance,” he adds, “Sheetal was eight months pregnant with our first child when she walked five miles passing out Pixel Connection flyers at a local parade. An architect by profession, till this day she does whatever is required to keep moving the company forward. She prepares and submits IR claims; manages the employee health insurance programs; and helps with marketing. She even designed the initial store setup and displays, as well as planned the extension. Sheetal is the one constantly plugging away at the holes and keeping our boat afloat!”

Similarly, Pixel’s controller, Anjana Patel, is one of the retailer’s main pillars. “Her dedication to Pixel Connection is exceptional; she doesn’t hesitate to pick up any nature of work to meet deadlines and further the company’s success,” Rahul adds.

Rising to Challenging Times

As Covid-19 began shutting down stores, Pixel sprang into action. The team was there to share and build relationships. Only the delivery changed. Streaming sessions started immediately, before most other retailers got it together. The sessions are free to keep the community connected, active and imaginative.

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Free one-on-one virtual sessions started as soon as the Covid lockdown happened.

The Pixel Connection Photo Fest, unlike most retailer events, is limited to 300 people or venue capacity. It was recently held at Cleveland State University, where economical and functional rooms are available. However, it was virtual this year. Notably, Pixel already has 200 signups for the 2021 session. Photo Fest isn’t a profit center. It’s a giveback to the store’s community. For Pixel Connection, customer interaction isn’t a one-time event. It’s an endless process.

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Adjusting to the virtual Covid-19 world, Pixel offers camera trade-ins or cash for cameras through online video chat.

TJ Houston understands branding and messaging. His business development manager title could translate as “marketing and brand manager.” He’s a real believer in brand guidelines, consistency that brings comfort and cohesive communication, on the sales floor and online. And he doesn’t think Post-it Note signs look serious or professional.

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Twice-a-week Lunch and Learn sessions are promoted via all possible social media and in-store.

“The creator is always first in everything we do,” TJ says. “They’re not always right, but their needs always come first. Today it may be still photography, tomorrow a podcast, vlogging the next day, and video productions after that. We don’t consider ourselves a ‘camera’ store. We’re a store that sells creative communication tools. When we craft our marketing, we write it to a creator.”

Since the pandemic began, more than 500 hours of free content was created by the Pixel team in conjunction with key vendors. “How do you measure ROI on marketing, especially social marketing?” TJ asks. “We do right by our creators, and they find us when they need gear.”

Experiential and Engaging: In-Store and Online

Pixel Connection creates experiential events, unique hands-on environments that give customers confidence to invest $5K+ in a camera. The store also has a strong Facebook presence and offers engaging podcasts.

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Building community 24/7 means Pixel is out shooting astrophotography at 4 a.m.

Their creator base has watched them grow as they blew out walls. They see Pixel as uncluttered, attentive to detail and up to date. The store’s podcasts and events are all about helping the creators’ businesses grow. If the creator is successful, then Pixel Connection is successful.

Every week the store’s Facebook group receives the streaming “Friday Focus” video in which Pixel Connection informs creators what’s happening in the world of imaging. Some criticize Pixel for linking to DP Review, which is owned by Amazon. Pixel believes trust is most important; when quoting your “competition,” you develop trust with your customers that causes them to return to Pixel Connection to buy.

Growing Community

The e-tailer also believes that growing each member of the imaging industry will strengthen the overall industry. Sam Young is a local professional and educator who offers photo walks and outdoor photography/travel education. When he has events, Pixel provides support, sometimes loaner equipment or employees to assist. Most retailers feel those customers should come to Pixel’s classes instead. However, Sam’s students buy their products from Pixel, proving the concept of working with “semi competition.” It makes Sam Young an ambassador or social influencer who directs customers to Pixel Connection.

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This image by Sam Young ran before July 4th to promote Pixel Connection’s Red, White & Blue photo contest.

In addition, Cleveland Creates is a group of creators, usually under age 25. They have a wide range of knowledge, experience and media of choice. The group helps people shoot, learn and improve their craft. Pixel Connection supports them in various ways, never computing an ROI on its engagements.

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Happy customers post on all their social media.

Pixel Connection doesn’t analyze each event. Pixel pays an employee’s regular wage plus travel costs to attend events. The staff isn’t there to collect immediate sales or pitch “Buy this from us.” Their goal is to have attendees think of Pixel Connection. What’s more, not just salespeople attend; the web team, accounting department, warehouse workers, everyone is encouraged to attend these industry-related events.

False Returns & Online Marketplaces

When it comes to returns, some legitimate ones still create expense for Pixel. Consumers expect they can return anything almost anytime and get a full refund, regardless of the item’s condition. Manufacturers rarely help with this.

To facilitate refurb, some are sold with a three-year, no-fault protection plan bought through the PRO Group and administered by Mack Warranty. Other products may have a traditional Pixel Connection guarantee. Market awareness mandates holding off the refurb sale until a manufacturer promotion expires, raising the cost of the new item and making the refurb more attractive.

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Pixel Connection’s large inventory is professionally displayed and accessible.
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Images and videos running on display entertain and pre-sell waiting customers.

To sell refurbs, Pixel uses in-store and online marketplaces, as well as in-store swap meets. Pixel has a private Facebook group limited to existing creators. Some special refurb pricing is available to this exclusive group, sometimes without any warranty. In those situations, sales are attractively priced, occasionally with an “all sales final” policy.

Combatting Online Fraud

The retailer also recognizes that online transactions invite fraud. There’s still “old school fraud” where credit cards are stolen or fraudulent. Pixel Connection invests heavily in anti-fraud systems. The website confirms IP addresses before an order starts. Braintree, owned by PayPal, allows Pixel to accept online payments while offering a base level of fraud protection. Finally, Signifyd insures all transactions.

“Ratings abuse fraud” also happens when small-time extortionists threaten merchants with bad reviews if they aren’t given discounts or something of value beyond the transaction. Because of Pixel’s superb metrics and ratings, the marketplaces are supportive of its complaints, leading to bogus reviews being taken down and abusive raters banned from the site.

“Return fraud” is another potential online sinkhole for unwary merchants. “Returns” may have different products in the return box than was originally shipped. Rahul warns, “You must respond immediately. Waiting even a few days weakens your case.” Pixel-Logo-in-laptopR

Electronic or paper trails are critical to proving your case. At Pixel, they weigh outbound shipments precisely, setting the criteria for the weight of the return. The processing area also has multiple security cameras recording the unboxing of each return. Moreover, Pixel works with FedEx to get box weights of both outbound and return shipments. It’s absolutely clear what was in the box the buyer returned. These videos offer proof to rating agencies and marketplaces that the buyer wasn’t truthful.

Once a fraud is successful, others will attempt the scheme. An immediate notification to the errant customer sometimes keeps it from spreading. Rahul reflects, “Sometimes we incur a loss and question how we missed it. We just learn from it as quickly as possible.”

Guarding Your Assets

Fraud and theft are foreign to Rahul’s philosophy that everyone is his friend; however, he’s pragmatic enough to guard his assets against those who aren’t friends. He uses Amazon Pay and PayPal on his website; he also signed with Synchrony for in-store and online customer financing.

Moreover, Rahul believes in offering no-fault protection on equipment and strongly recommends the Mack Diamond Warranty. The store shies away from manufacturer warranties because they seem designed to steal the retailer’s customer. “Some manufacturers can’t decide if they’re a retailer or manufacturer,” Rahul says.

“They think they can make an easy dollar by competing with retailers. We can’t explain to the customer why a product was on backorder for weeks when the manufacturer offers direct delivery overnight. The customer can’t believe any manufacturer would do that to a legitimate retailer who’s representing the brand locally. It can destroy credibility with the public and salespeople.

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Customers, sales reps and staff have fun at Pixel Connection’s Demo Days. Reps are busy and Pixel Connection coordinates advertising and promotions with participating vendors to deliver the crowds.

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“Manufacturers who think online competition with retailers will succeed are ignoring Apple’s failure that required it to open hundreds of brick-and-mortar stores to support its online strategy. When manufacturers want us to believe they support Pixel Connection, we look at actions, not words. Sony and Fujifilm are very supportive and our sales team supports them because of it,” Rahul adds.

When questioned if co-op advertising strategies have kept up with current marketing and customer needs, Rahul said co-op is too difficult to use. Vendors without totally revamped co-op programs think they’re effective because retailers spend the money. They focus on the dollars they paid out, not the waste their obsolete thinking has caused. Effective co-op will create programs that drive customers into the retailer, growing sales for both retailer and manufacturer.

What’s in the Secret Sauce?

What is Pixel Connection’s secret sauce? “There isn’t any,” says Ihor Balaban. “Rahul reminds everyone what’s on the website: ‘Pixel Connection is committed to serving its customers and community with the best possible service.’”

“PRO is by far the best thing to have happened to Pixel Connection,” Rahul comments. “The collection of ‘partners’ offered an open book of quality retailers who give honest answers and solutions. More important than the economic gains, the conventions give us energy, enthusiasm and the knowledge needed to jump into a successful holiday season this year.”

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Customers, sales reps and staff have fun at Pixel Connection’s Demo Days. Reps are busy as Pixel Connection coordinates advertising and promotions with participating vendors and delivers the crowds.

Most notably, Rahul creates a positive environment. He encourages employees to think of ideas. If it’s too far out, he’ll say, “Let’s think on this.” Failures are learning experiences. “You believe in this idea and I believe in you. Make it happen!” he’ll often say.

Bolstering Online Selling Tools

Going forward, Rahul’s vision sees more growth with new initiatives. For instance, Pixel Connection will enhance its website listings; it will also relate accessory stories that will convey options while enhancing the creators’ experiences, making them more productive.

Rahul also plans to establish an affiliate program where social influencers can have a link to Pixel Connection for their audiences while generating a commission.

In addition, the retailer will work on solving the website’s too high shopping cart abandonment rates. Rahul also plans to develop better connections online, while continuing to improve the in-store experience. “Improvement is a journey, not a destination,” he notes.

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Customers get exclusive opportunities through the store’s events, like learning baseball photography at Captains Stadium.

Another strategy in the works is a way to leverage marketplaces so customer aggregators can help Pixel Connection find new creators for its community.

“Rearview mirrors are too small to see much. Windshields provide broad views of potential ahead,” says Rahul.” We don’t spend much time with the rear view. We look forward toward a bright future in front of us. While e-commerce will certainly grow, the need and desire for physical community will also grow. The customers who visit us online want to listen and tell stories with people. Our team is poised and excited for our growth ahead.”

Clearly Rahul Tuteja and his team at Pixel Connection have checked all the boxes when it comes to successful e-commerce. Their detailed attention to the needs of their creators and their vigorous online engagement have earned Pixel Connection the title of DIR’s 2020 E-tailer of the Year.

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Kudos for Pixel Connection

While it’s obvious by Pixel Connection’s success that it has established a profitable, stalwart community of creative content creators, it has also received high marks from vendors and manufacturers. The store’s culture of creators first and experiential marketing has also found favor with them. Here are just a few of the testimonials we received for our 2020 E-tailer of the Year.

Sony Electronics

Pixel Connection is quick to listen, engage and adjust. They were one of the first to grasp the mirrorless trend and run full speed ahead. They show outstanding respect for sales reps. The staff embraced Sony’s Cel Vargas as family. Cel responded with ideas he had shared with other imaging retailers.

Pixel Connection adopted them immediately. Pixel understands they must be more than a “camera store,” so they sell whatever creators want. Still, video, audio—it makes no difference. They focus on what their creators must have to execute their individual visions.—John Bruehl, Vice President of Imaging Specialty Group, Sony Electronics

PRO Group

Rahul leads by being a gentleman. He is ethical and responsible; he helps his people build an organization and community everyone can support. Pixel Connection is a relatively new PRO member. Rahul and Ihor integrated themselves into the group by sharing, caring and heavily supporting PRO’s product offerings.—Mark Leonard, COO, PRO Group

Fujifilm

At Pixel Connection, they always think outside the box and are set apart by their passion and love of the industry. They frequently call asking, “What can we do better?” They’ve never rejected an idea but may say, “It’s not feasible right now” and table it. A year later they do it.

They knew they needed to be ahead of the mirrorless trend. Not waiting for Nikon or Canon to get on board, they researched it, forged the trail themselves and are a regional leader of the mirrorless category.

Pixel views cooperative vendors as partners. On my first visit they asked me, “How can we grow this business for you?” Not stuck in today, Pixel is actively planning for the post-pandemic future. Pixel Connection has embraced Fujifilm resources, including our educational program. Their educational focus creates lifelong photo/video hobbyists/pros who will remain part of the Pixel Connection community into the future.—Jackie Rasey Hillyer, Territory Sales Manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation

Tamron USA

I took over the territory about the same time Pixel Connection joined the PRO Group. PRO was a catalyst for Rahul’s growth. When a camera store is outside PRO their potential can be limited. The sales growth was rewarding for them and Tamron.

Rahul is a true partner, talking about growing our business and wanting the vendor to be successful from Pixel’s volume. He values every comment I make. Just days after the shutdown orders came, Pixel Connection called for help. Tamron offered two webinars in the first three shutdown weeks. Then other vendors jumped on board. Pixel Connection was the first to do live webinars “in pandemic mode.”—Bob Sims, Sales Representative, Tamron USA, Inc.

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