Retailer Roundtable: Pandemic Ponderings

Retailer Roundtable: Pandemic Ponderings


In general, a retailer roundtable generates great ideas. However, it is difficult to replicate in a pandemic. Instead, we asked photo specialty retailers what they learned from their 2020–2021 experience. Here are their pandemic ponderings.

                  Pandemic Ponderings

Burke Seim, Service Photo, Baltimore, Maryland

Burke-Seim Pandemic Ponderings
Burke Seim

The pandemic made us realize that existing and new customers really appreciate the local small business. We got calls from near and far saying, “I want to buy from a small business, not a big-box store.” As a result, we’ll continue to work hard to build a personal relationship with each of these customers.

I’m also dedicated to have in stock whatever photographers need. That has been more difficult with hardware. I have to stay on top of every trend or product shift. Prior to Covid-19, our background sales were 50% white. Today, white is probably below 25%. So stocking all colors is important. If we don’t constantly watch trends, we’ll disappoint our customers.

Moreover, when explaining product availability to my customers, I’m both a diplomat and counselor. We also keep in contact to keep the passion for photography alive. Customers aren’t just an order number to us, and we make sure they know it. Fortunately, we also have a good relationship with our suppliers; they help us fulfill demand as quickly as possible.   

On a personal note, I got Covid, was out for a week and lost 25 pounds along with a taste for foods I previously enjoyed. It became my springboard to better overall health. It’s a good thing and I’m sticking to it.

Amanda Livingston, Livingston Photo, Nephi, Utah

Amanda Livingston

Covid taught me to be flexible beyond anything I thought possible. Life is what happens when you make other plans. I love having a plan.

Going forward, we’ll continue to show flexibility and awareness of the situation around us. We’ve always been good listeners; we’re getting better. Moreover, we strive to be the go-to place in our small community.

IPI’s Marketing Solutions program has also given us great results. I added their MMS (Managed Marketing Services); it’s like having a well-trained, fully knowledgeable, part-time employee—only cheaper. I focus on using my time more effectively, and we’re also getting great results.

Last year I wanted a laser cutter. Suffering from pandemic cabin fever, I needed a creative outlet. The laser cutter could let me play with creating unique frames or other gifts. Coincidentally, the high school wrestling coach approached us to create awards. We said if they’d commit to ordering, we’d buy a laser cutter and figure out how to make his trophies.

We sourced online and licensed patterns and designs for trophies and craft products. In addition, we made displays for a local craft boutique. Sales started to grow as we got orders from other teams. Consequently, we had to buy a second machine to keep up with the volume.

Additionally, we make a tiered tray so customers can display seasonal items. Monthly, we offer new seasonal or creative items to display on those trays. We have 50 subscribers who pay for automatic deliveries of new items. It’s done on a different website from the Print Shop’s because it’s a different market with different buyers. However, since we use the equipment for multiple marketplaces, the marketing is different for the unique audiences. What started out as a pandemic diversion is a lucrative, long-term profit center!

Rebecca Kaplan Glazer’s Camera, Seattle, Washington

Pandemic Ponderings Rebecca-Kaplan-Glazers
Rebecca Kaplan

At Glazer’s we’ve always been both team and customer focused. However, the pandemic caused us to focus even more on them. Our health insurance covers mental health counseling. We also have paid time off (PTO) days and we encourage team members to use them. Additionally, we’re more aware of the pressures on our team and encourage open communications.

Moreover, we were effective online. We opened a studio in the store and have an on-air host for all classes—whether we produce them or they’re partnered with one of our suppliers. These are live events moderated by Glazer’s. We also offer archived shows. Over time, we’ve seen and heard comments like, “I’ve been following you guys on your YouTube channel and I need to get . . .” Consequently, we’ll continue to invest and improve our education and recruitment of customers online.

Glazer’s also has a very significant rental department for production work. We’ve always had a nonprofit rental rate. Now, for select events we went to a “free” rate.

For instance, Shelter Fest Seattle was a livestreaming online music festival supporting local Black musicians and restaurant owners. The streaming included links to food trucks. The audience could hear and see musical acts and order food from restaurants formerly unknown to the average Seattle resident. Glazer’s loaned the streaming gear. This brought psychological relief from the distress of being shut down while also raising thousands of dollars to help impacted Black performers, artists and chefs. We’ll continue working to overcome the pandemic’s financial damage and build back the arts community.

Lauren Elsea Pitman Photo Supply, Miami, Florida

Lauren Elsea

Pitman is a fourth-generation woman-owned business, and I was taught to always adapt. I’ve added, “Don’t wait, be decisive, don’t back down.” When the pandemic hit, we were dazed. However, our customers inspired us to fight on, to be here for them and to reinvent ourselves.

All store calls were transferred to managers’ cell phones. We lived on our laptops. The level of calls, orders and compassion was unbelievable. We knew we could use this time to excite our customers even more about photography. In addition, we learned work-life balance was essential for the entire team or we’d burn out.

Now was the time to invest, so we did. We updated our old, outdated and ugly website. Working with dakis was quick and pain-free. Using its concierge service, we saw immediate results.

What’s more, we removed old product so our website appeared new for our customers. The website is a potential customers’ first introduction to our store, and it has driven traffic beyond our wildest dreams.

In addition, we recommitted to offering the best possible red-carpet treatment to every store customer. And sensitive to possible discomfort with retail shopping, we also bent over backwards to show that every customer counts, because they do.

Further, we added to inventory by broadening the lines and having deeper inventory levels. As a result, we easily shifted allegiances when products were backordered.

With hardware sales, we found that industry-wide scarcity breeds sales. From a sell-through perspective, scarcity outperforms instant savings or any other promotion. Pre-pandemic, a customer might wait for the next promotion because we’ve trained them to only buy on deal. Now, when they see it, they have to buy it because it might not be here next time.

Mark Comon Paul’s Photo, Torrance, California

Our customers needed energy and awareness to keep taking pictures. So, for more than 400 days we shot and posted daily short videos. We started with showcasing things around the house and the neighborhood, encouraging customers to get creative during the lockdown.

Pandemic Ponderings Pauls-Photo-Marble-Up-Close-Photog
Using his son’s marble collection, Mark teaches lighting and close-up photography in Be Creative Lesson 392.

In addition, it was critical to keep hobbyists invested in photography instead of spending money on a bicycle or other pandemic purchases. This strategy was so successful for us we aren’t changing anything going forward. Our customers are creative and excited about photography.

Stan Grosz, Horn Photo, Fresno, California

As a result of the pandemic lockdown, we redid our website so it was more engaging and unique to Horn Photo. Customers also worried they could go “stale” or even disengage during the lockdown. So, we are providing videos of fun things to shoot and the best places to photograph in the Fresno area.

The Fresno area has many photogenic windmills. Stan Grosz offers suggestions and guidance on taking local pictures.

In addition, we challenge our customers to photograph specific topics at many local sites. Moreover, our radio ads send people to our website to find more creative ideas. This has all has built our awareness and generated record sales.