DAN’S CAMERA CITY
Creating What’s Next to Stay ahead of the Curve
When the subject of Dan’s Camera City comes up among industry insiders, it is often assumed that the impressive bottom line performance of this unique single-location enterprise is the result of some magical quality in their business model or team members that cannot be duplicated by other retailers.
Well, when we visited Dan’s in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to discover what makes them the envy of their peers, we looked very carefully but failed to find any magic gnomes, wizards or secret formulas—just a lot of hard work, intelligent ahead-of-the-curve thinking, a phenomenal level of team spirit, and a genuine dedication by every one of its 50 employees to serve both the store’s interest and those of its loyal customers.
You simply can’t fake empathy, caring and engagement, and these qualities were clearly evident when we observed the interactions between customers and salespeople at the well-stocked camera section (which has eliminated the traditional counter and substituted pullout “desktops” to facilitate direct communication) as well as the 20-plus kiosks and printout stations where friendly, patient store personnel walked customers through printout procedures and option selections.
Dan’s is a beautiful retail space with an inviting, open floor plan. It is bright, well organized and has an amazing amount of merchandise on display without looking the least bit cluttered. The subliminal message: “We’ve got everything you could possibly want, and we’ll be happy to suggest what works best for you.” There is one centrally located counter in the store where people pick up their prints in the traditional manner, and during our visit it was doing a brisk business with young moms and their kids as well as seniors. Dan’s has earned a reputation for excellence in printout quality, and they execute all printing services from simple 4x6s to photo books and giant textured prints on canvas in their multifaceted on-site print lab.
To get a clearer picture of the philosophy and business model that empowers Dan’s, we interviewed co-owner Mike Woodland, a Pennsylvania native who joined the company in 1995 and is one half of the dynamic duo that has successfully taken it into the digital era (for the other co-owner’s perspective, please see Kevin Harayda’s insightful statement on page 12). “When Kevin and I bought the business from Dan Poresky in 2003, we had already been in charge of its day-to-day operations for a number of years—I as the overall manager and Kevin as the buyer,” recalls Woodland. “At that time we had 26 full-time employees, but we now have a staff of 50 and we’re still growing. Originally, this neighborhood, which is close to the main highway, consisted primarily of young families, but now it’s mostly empty nesters. To make shopping more convenient for a younger demographic, we’re planning on opening another store in the Easton, Pennsylvania, area. Another motivating factor is space; this store is 15,000 square feet, but it has become too small for all our diverse operations.
“What makes this establishment special can be summed up in two very basic ideas,” explains Woodland. “First and foremost there is a tremendous amount of dedication and hard work from every member of our team. Everybody here has a specific area of responsibility and is truly responsible for its success or failure. In other words, we all take personal ownership of everything we do and direct it to make sure our brand image is upheld and that our customers are totally satisfied with their experience at the store as well as the specific items or services they’ve purchased. In this ultracompetitive environment, great customer service is the key to success.
“The second, and equally important, element is our ceaseless creative quest to find new business opportunities, an approach favored by our good friend and benefactor Glenn Omura, PhD, a consultant for PMA,” Woodland continues. “I like to call this getting a 30,000-foot overview of what’s going on now. We ask ourselves: what’s different in our customers’ lives, and how can we serve them more effectively while increasing our relevance and profitability? From this elevated perspective we can look ahead and see what the marketplace will look like going forward. To be successful in 2011 you’ve got to lead, to be ahead of the curve, to be proactive rather than reactive or playing catch-up.
“A good example of tech-forward thinking is our branded Dan’s Pix mobile iPhone app by LifePics that allows our customers to upload and print images from a variety of mobile devices,” notes Woodland. “We use Lucidiom and HP kiosks, and Lucidiom’s Photo Finale solution, all of which provide unique and useful capabilities, but the Dan’s Pix app lets consumers see us in a new sphere. It’s a marketing experience that literally puts you in front of the customers of the future, whether they’re at a birthday party, event or just chilling out with their friends.
“We spent the extra bucks to get this app branded because it’s how we want to be perceived. Both Photo Finale and LifePics provide online print ordering, and Photo Finale scores on its streamlined ordering interface, fast order processing and superior presentation of some gifting items. The LifePics app works with iPhone and Android devices and casts the broadest possible net in mobile connectivity, including Facebook and Google’s Picasa. What we’re saying to our customers is: ‘You use this in your life, and you can connect to us with this interface.’ That’s the way we reach our tentacles out into the world. Image is everything, and how you are perceived today is by sound bites rather than by digging into the details. We try to make sure we have more sound bites than the next guy. Our goal is simple: omnipresence.
“Of course we also embrace the full range of traditional printout channels and marketing tools,” adds Woodland. “We’re members of the PRO Group and IPI, and we use Noritsu printing equipment. We have more than 20 Lucidiom and HP kiosks in our store and have placed our branded kiosks in 10 local businesses. Our lab is staffed by experienced imaging people who are actively finding ways to return to double-digit growth, and not just by making conventional prints on paper. A great example is our innovative ultraportable PhotoBooth, a combination of existing technology that delivers an increasingly popular service with efficiency and an interactive fun factor. It takes the traditional photo booth to a new level, providing a service that captures and delivers photo strips immediately to the people who want them when and where they want them, and it has proven to be wildly successful.
“We’re also working on ways to monetize two challenges faced by our customers in the digital age—image storage and organization. What motivates us to innovate? Back in 2003 we were processing and printing 5,000 rolls of film a week, and now the number is in the low hundreds.
“What makes this establishment special can be summed up in two very basic ideas. First and foremost there is a tremendous amount of dedication and hard work from every member of our team. The second, and equally important, element is our ceaseless creative quest to find new business opportunities.”
“We began working on the ‘PhotoBooth by Dan’s’ concept about two years ago,” says Woodland, “and our goal was to create a completely self-contained, easily portable photo booth to book for events. To test the concept we combined a light stand, a high-end point-and-shoot camera, a muslin background on poles, a monitor and a printer in a box, and we took it to a post-prom party. The thing looked like hell, with wires sticking out of it, but the kids at the party didn’t seem to mind. They took lots of pictures of themselves, which were delivered immediately. The participants were overjoyed.
“We knew we had established proof of concept, that the PhotoBooth definitely appealed to a younger market, and that it had the potential of growing exponentially. We immediately began working on a second version that is a lot closer to our current PhotoBooth. Today we have seven PhotoBooths available and six of them are booked this weekend for 10–12 events like weddings, bar mitzvahs and graduations. The cost for four hours of operation, including the operators and available backups if required, is $1,079. If we book, say, 200 events per year, the potential gross revenue is over $200K—a significant revenue stream in anybody’s book.”
To get a closer look at Dan’s Camera City’s overall imaging operations from an insider perspective, we spoke with Julie Seagreaves, the director of Imaging Operations, and Steven Olock, director of Imaging Services, both of whom were decidedly upbeat about the potential and performance of the PhotoBooth operation.
“The Photo Ops branch of the Imaging division really started with the PhotoBooth,” notes Seagreaves, “and we’re planning to expand its reach considerably by targeting schools, preschools, dance schools, proms and a wider variety of events. We also have a seasonal Santa operation at two different locations (including an outdoor location with a fireplace in a stone gazebo) and an Easter Bunny event.
“In addition to a variety of print possibilities, we also give our customers gifting options like mugs, ornaments, stuffed animals, T-shirts, money clips—all with imprinted images. People want these things right away and we’re happy to oblige. We also cater to a lot of out-of-towners who arrive on buses, especially at the Christkindlmarkt German-style event held in nearby Bethlehem that has several “Santa” stations and provides mugs, ornaments and key chains on-site.
“I should mention that Rachael Krock is our coordinator of photo opportunities who schedules the shooting and printing operations,” adds Seagreaves. “We mostly utilize outside staff for these operations, but a large percentage are ex-Dan’s employees familiar with our methods.”
When we asked Steven Olock what differentiates Dan’s from other stores, he was quick to respond. “We’re laser focused on customer service, and our ongoing goal it to exceed expectations,” he observes with a smile. “It’s in Dan’s DNA. Everything we do in-house is connected back to the customer. We all take personal ownership of what we do here because it all connects directly to the way customers perceive us—an overflowing trash can or an empty hand-cleaner dispenser may carry the subliminal suggestion that we’re sloppy about our printing. Our culture is to treat everything as if we were the owner. And certain things, like the paper towel dispenser, actually list the person responsible for it so we know whom to ask if there’s a problem. Everything here has ownership value.”
Olock went on to explain the specifics of the PhotoBooth. “The cameras we use are Canon G9s or G10s because they have a remote electronic interface, or Nikon DSLRs. The printer is a Sony or Hitachi dye-sub unit; we use dependable Alien B moonlights, and 90% of our output is a 2×6 strip with four images imprinted on it. Everybody who uses the booth gets one print included in the hourly price, and the host receives a CD complete with all the photo strips and individual photos taken at the event so guests can review them and order more for friends and family. Props are available at an additional cost. What differentiates our PhotoBooth is that it’s light and easily transportable by women, who comprise two-thirds to three-quarters of our operators, it fits on an elevator, and two PhotoBooths and two operators will fit in our PT Cruiser. People have asked us about new uses for the PhotoBooth, and we generally say yes because new opportunities are what we’re all about.
“There are a number of other things that set Dan’s Camera City apart,” continues Olock. “There’s nothing in between the salespeople and customers; we use pullout counters if we want to set a few things down, and we rally the troops and send them to where the customers are.
“We also hold photo contests and expeditions. And we teach an iPhone class on cropping, posing, etc., because people are doing it and we might as well embrace it. You really need to connect to where the customers are, and we also do that via Facebook, Flickr and Picasa. Using our Lucidiom printers we can push a job to a Facebook account and offer prints through Dan’s. We have 20 Lucidiom kiosks and six HP Photosmart kiosks—10 in remote locations, so you can get your prints while you wait or have pickup and mail options.
“We offer a very complete range of photo books, a variety of media options, including seven different canvases and other surfaces, silver halide prints to 24 inches, inkjet fine art prints to 44 inches, and vinyl to 64 inches,” adds Olock. “We outsource no output whatsoever, and we provide a fair amount of B-to-B design and printing services. We individually correct every image appearing in our photo books and on our calendars, and we never sell ourselves short by making it so simple as ‘we will beat their price.’
“We have also found a great way to let our lab staff communicate with our customers,” continues Olock, “by including friendly personal notes, sample prints and offers in print orders. An example: ‘We thought this print would look really cool on metallic paper so we made an extra print for you. Here’s a 10% discount coupon if you want to order another one.’ Our core customer base ranges from family picture takers to serious enthusiasts and emerging pros, but we see them all as people who want to do more with their photos, and that’s why education is a large part of what we do.
“Dan’s Photo University (DPU) offers courses in panoramic photography, HDR imaging, journaling and the Creative Photo Workshop, an aggressively hands-on course by an Australian pro that is always a sellout,” explains Olock. “Budding wedding photographers can also learn by doing in our studio lighting class held in the Lehigh University Chapel, complete with bride and groom models!
“When you consider that our popular journaling class consists of six modules for a total outlay of about $300 per person and that many people are so inspired they take it twice, it becomes clear that education not only enhances customer loyalty and increases sales, it’s also a significant revenue stream in its own right,” adds Olock. “When you come down to it, the answer to the perennial question, ‘How do you make up for and surpass the revenue you used to receive from processing 5,000 rolls of film a week,’ is stunningly simple. You provide a much wider variety of consumer opportunities at all levels, and when you total up the smaller percentage in each one, you know you’re on the right track.”
Perspective on Dan’s Camera City
By Kevin Harayda, Co-Owner
Dan Poresky founded Dan’s Camera City in 1977, and we are celebrating our 34th year. The business began as a used camera case inside a hobby store. In 1977 Dan moved to Highland Avenue in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and in 1993 we moved to our current 15,000-square-foot building at 1439 W. Fairmont Street.
In 2003, Dan retired and Mike Woodland and I were able to purchase the business from him. The staff did not change. There were no pay cuts; there was no loss of seniority. It was simply a change of ownership. This seamless transition and commitment to the founder’s values allowed us to continue on the strong path Dan had created (we twice received annual honors by industry magazines—validating the fact we were able to take what Dan had started and move forward while fully embracing the digital age).
Traditional print processing continues to shrink; 4×6 digital prints are down, but our imaging dollars remain strong because we have found and developed new sources and ways to keep our on-site lab involved and busy.
We have added canvas prints, carbon-on-cotton printing, novelties, school photos and printing, our innovative PhotoBooths and a branded app for mobile devices that gives on-the-go customers exciting new printout options. In short, we’re offering a whole new range of products and services that 10 or even five years ago were not part of our culture. We continue to aggressively look for new avenues and sources to keep the revenue streams flowing in our imaging department.
Having a strongly trained staff with a commitment to the customer and to their work continues to remain a cornerstone of our business. We are all team players; we believe that 2011 will be better overall than 2010, and we’re very excited about the opportunities that are presenting themselves to us.
To survive and prosper we will not be able to continue to do what we did 10 years ago or even five, but we are proactive and optimistic about where we are headed and believe there is a large market share of consumers who want a relationship with a photo specialty store. As the difference between price and service widens, we believe that service will continue to be a winning formula for our future. We look forward to tomorrow.