Mendel Mendlowits came to the U.S. from Europe in the 1960s with two Leicas, a love of gadgets and an understanding that photography has a certain DNA that could translate into a successful business.
“He wanted to get involved with something that was a hobby, a passion, where there is a recurring customer,” said Ahron Schachter, Adorama’s director of Strategic Planning, during our long conversation about Adorama. “When you thought of a camera back then, it was either for a hobby or a profession. There’s almost a photography gene that you either have or you don’t. And that’s what would keep customers coming back. It was that successful engagement with customers that Adorama still depends on today.”
Mendlowits’s father had a wholesale photography business in Manhattan that he joined in the early 1960s. They opened their original retail store on 34th Street in 1978 and moved to their current location on West 18th Street in the early 1990s.
Adorama’s customer engagement began with a successful mail-order business that lived in the back of photography magazines. While it was competitive, Mendlowits knew the key to success would continue to be based on relationships.
“Mail order was a tricky business,” said Schachter. “You had to have close to 20 sales associates and you had to be in every photography magazine. The good news was that prices were stable for a month or two. But our biggest point of difference was the relationships we had with our customers and our suppliers. We were proud to be Authorized and Direct. This was a very important aspect for Mr. Mendlowits, because it enabled us to be honest with our customers. We knew when products were coming and would usually be among the first to get them.”
Adorama’s other strength was a commitment to inventory. If you were looking for something related to photography, Adorama had it.
“We had to be a destination for our customers. So we stocked products, accessories and chemicals that many of our competitors did not. We invested heavily in small products just to have them. The inventories almost didn’t make sense—but then they did. From film to chemicals, they could sit for years in our inventory, and Mr. Mendlowits didn’t care. He thought: ‘I have it; it’s not going stale. If the pro isn’t buying it, a student might.’ Photography schools to this day depend on Adorama to supply them with hard-to-find products.”
Schachter put it best. “You have to take the building principles of honesty, integrity, putting the customer first, shipping on time, having cohesive partnerships with your manufacturers, being able to come to market first at a fair price, and most important, have your customers’ allegiance. It can’t be about price. There is a graveyard of former retailers that thought price was the driving factor.”
So what causes such an allegiance? Well, as I learned, it comes down to DNA. Photography DNA.
Schachter told a story that brought the point home. “I was very excited about a deal that could make our company a lot of profit very quickly. I went to Mr. Mendlowits and told him I had a deal on air conditioners. ‘I can get you a truckload and get rid of them within a week. We’ll make 50 points!’ I said. He looked at me and asked, ‘Ahron, should I fire you now or tomorrow?’ I was surprised. ‘What’s the correlation to our customer?’ Mr. Mendlowits asked. ‘If those air conditioners had a photo cell that let me take a Lexar or SanDisk card and put my picture on it, so that when I walk into the room it knows whether to turn on or off depending on my body temperature, then we should grab those air conditioners,’ he explained to me.”
That’s part of the engagement with the customer. Every product Adorama sells has some connection to photography. If it doesn’t make sense, it’s not in the store.
“Let our competitors sell mattresses and patio furniture. It might make sense for them, but it’s not in our DNA. We’re about imaging. Here’s another example,” Schachter added. “When I went to Apple and told them I wanted to sell iPhones, they laughed. But I was straight with them. I said, ‘I don’t give a damn if it’s a phone. I sell point and shoots, and that’s what you have.’ Two weeks later we signed a contract, not because we were selling phones but because we were selling a new kind of camera.”
The DNA lesson extends to Microsoft Surface tablets and Samsung 4K TVs. If a photographer takes an image and wants to render it, then he’ll need a high-end computer. If a photographer takes 4K video, what better way to show it than on a 60-inch 4K TV.
“We owe it to our customers to have these products on hand, because it’s part of their passion. So mattresses—no. 4K TVs—absolutely!” said Schachter.
That DNA goes right back to their customers. Adorama is all about teaching customers to be better photographers, and they’re using today’s technology to do it.
“We have AdoramaTV. We own an actual TV studio where we produce new product videos and actually show people how to use them to become better photographers. Because of our relationships with our suppliers, we know when the product is going to ship. And with their blessing, we promote their products. We also show these videos on YouTube and on Vimeo, as well as on Adorama.com.”
Then there’s the ALC—the Adorama Learning Center—written by key photographers who teach people how to improve their passion. And of course, they use social media to get the word out.
Adorama’s success is based on relationships: with customers, with suppliers, and with products. The DNA that drives their product selection is a direct result of them wanting their customers to do more with their images. This makes them better photographers who want to keep coming back for more. And Adorama never disappoints them. For this, we’re proud to name Adorama our 2015 E-tailer of the Year.