The Last Word: Focus on Providing a Unique Value Proposition

The Last Word: Focus on Providing a Unique Value Proposition


How many times have you heard the comment, “Whew, business must be tough with everyone using cell phones now, huh?” Sure, yet it is the people who use a tablet as a camera that really leave me shaking my head. Fortunately there seems to be a growing base of enthusiasts and first-time SLR buyers tugging on our front door. Photography is still the greatest hobby in the world regardless of the mechanism used to acquire the image.

Today, concerns amongst specialty store merchants are significant—decreased foot traffic, declining demand for point-and-shoot cameras and especially pricing pressure from Internet-only entities. Vendors have become addicted to instant rebates, and in doing so have severely challenged cash flow for dealers. Check-with-order terms used to mean extra profit dollars. Now it is a necessity to pay up front just to remain competitive in the marketplace.

The truly frustrating part of that equation is that while vendors expect immediate payment they are not so quick to issue credits for instant savings, co-op and spiff programs. Some state they do not have the infrastructure in place to meet our requests for faster credit processing. Really? We added accounting staff and modified our software to handle various claims to comply with their mandates. If vendors truly desire a healthy specialty dealer base, then they must invest in the resources necessary to issue credits within five business days. Using our money interest free is unethical, unreasonable and unfair. If a bank processed credits to your accounts with the speed that many photo vendors do, would you still be their client? Would that bank expect you to be?

Fortunately, a growing number of suppliers have meaningful MAP programs and deserve to be supported fully. Vendors who chose to ignore the preservation of value in their brand by not uniformly enforcing programs that they created should be dealt with cautiously.

Our industry is not uniquely challenged. I know of no store owner, no manufacturer, sales rep, educator, banker, Realtor, machinist or anyone employed who finds work/life easier today than it once was. This is simply the new reality.

The best days are those when I get out from behind my desk and engage with customers and coworkers. It is then that I really learn. Interestingly, both groups need to clearly understand the same thing . . . what is our value proposition? Restating the obvious is critical to our continuing success.

Have we forgotten that exerting enormous amounts of energy to engage a customer is where we should apply ourselves, rather than relentlessly beating up our suppliers? Are we spending more time coaching the people we work with or lambasting vendors? Which one benefits our customers more?

Customer satisfaction must be our prime directive. Have we taught our coworkers to think “how can I help you,” rather than “what can I sell you”? The difference is subtle and yet huge in our efforts to gain continuing loyalty from consumers.

Making money is the net result of what we do, not the process. Our mindset cannot be overly self-serving; rather it should be focused on providing value to a customer. Creating an emotional attachment to our company with consumers will assure our relevance for years to come.

Do our coworkers truly understand that developing relationships with customers assures long-term success? Customers are better informed than ever and can sniff out a “salesman” in an instant. What they also recognize more than ever is an individual who respects their time, listens actively and helps them grow their passion to create great images.

Independent specialty stores make connections with customers at a grassroots level. We are the ultimate social network. We influence consumers to spend their discretionary dollars on photography disproportionately to the volume of sales we generate. In spite of our best efforts, some customers will still choose to touch and try in our store and yet order the product elsewhere. The likelihood of that happening is greatly diminished when they understand our unique value proposition. Can you state yours?

—Mark Leonard is the president of Dodd Camera, which is headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, with 18 locations, including Cincinnati, Dayton and Chicago. He is also vice president of the board of directors for the Photographic Research Organization (PRO).