If you’re looking for someone who not only sees the ‘big picture’ when it comes to the photo industry but has also ‘been there, forecasted that,’ spend a little time with Don Franz. Franz, who entered the photo industry in the early 1970s as the executive director of the Studio Suppliers Association, is now at the helm of a full service market research, communications and consulting firm with offices in the United States and China. His firm, Photofinishing News International Consulting Group, has developed a reputation for its keen insight into market trends and its dedication to “putting the stats in context.” He doesn’t take the numbers at face value; he likes to dig deeper to understand other factors that may come into play. He also has a reputation for telling it like he sees it, a refreshing departure from the standard corporate talking points.
We recently spoke with Franz and asked him to share a bit of his view regarding where the industry has been, where it’s going, and retailers in photo imaging would be well-served to expand our view of opportunities outside our country’s borders.
Franz travels multiple times per year around the world, visiting companies and industry gatherings in Asia and Europe, in addition to his travel in the United States. “I need to substantiate the statistics and information I receive from different world regions,” explains Franz, “and the only way I can do that is by visiting these countries, talking with people, seeing what is happening and getting an understanding of the cultural influences of the issues I’m covering.”
PB: What are the most critical issues you see retailers struggling with today?
Franz: One of the challenges we have today in our industry is that retailers aren’t getting the education they used to receive from manufacturers. They used to receive information and education from the large consumable suppliers, and this information helped retailers better serve their customers and make decisions. This has really disappeared over the last five years or so and many retailers aren’t sure where to turn. Retailers don’t know where to turn now for information about the market and how to choose which products are going to be of interest to their customers and why these products matter to them.
Traditional equipment suppliers might receive general product information—technical specifications and such—but they aren’t getting very much related to the larger trends the photo industry is experiencing, what to consider for the future and how to respond for the betterment of their business. Some retailers still have a thirst for this ‘larger view’ information but don’t have companies they can rely upon to provide that insight any longer.
I also see troubling issues with some of the larger retail organizations. Many of them are being run by financial people due to financial issues and they aren’t being educated on what’s actually going on in the industry or where the industry has been over the last several years. Some of these companies are making purchasing decisions for the wrong reasons. They’re buying equipment for competitive reasons—because their perceived competition has the same equipment—and not because the equipment fits with a vision of where the company is going and how the equipment plays a role in that vision.
I’m also concerned that retailers seem much less willing to experiment today than they did years ago. Many don’t seem interested in trying new things, and this is an important part of learning what works and what doesn’t. There are really so many opportunities available to retailers today but we need to broaden our view and be open to trying new things.
PB: So, do we need to look at our market differently?
Franz: Absolutely. In the United States, we’re still quite parochial in our thinking. For those of us who’ve been in the industry a long time, we’ve always seen ourselves in the memory business, but we’ve only thought of printed photographs as memories. We need to broaden our view of memories to include more than just still images—videos and music are also an important aspect of memories—and there are opportunities to build upon by including them in our definitions.
Another example is camera phone images. I estimate that we’re about three years behind what they’re doing in Asia and about eighteen months behind what they’re doing in Europe. Here in the States, we’re still largely unsure of how to treat—and monetize—these images. I spend a great deal of time visiting and interviewing people in Asia and Europe because there are some very innovative things happening there, and we can learn from them if we’re willing to pay attention.
PB: What other things do you think are different in our industry today?
Franz: We used to rely on one supplier to solve all our imaging needs, and that is simply impossible to sustain in today’s marketplace. Retailers need to understand that they don’t need to have suppliers that are located right around the corner. In fact, they may find that a product from a company in Italy is better designed and supported than one bought in, say, San Antonio, Texas. I’m not pointing at any specific company; I’m just stating that there are some great vendors and support available from countries around the world, and these should be further explored.
Also, I believe retailers need to better understand today’s available hardware and software and how these things work together. Software is a big part of the customer experience, and we need to be aware of integration issues. By understanding this, new doors open and current technology can be better leveraged.
PB: What advice would you give to retailers today?
Franz: Retailers really need to get to know their customers. If someone comes in looking to buy ink jet paper, you need to find a way to serve that customer. This isn’t a lost customer—it’s an opportunity to cultivate a relationship and find new ways of providing products and services. This customer is looking to do more with her pictures, and we need to encourage and support that behavior, not turn them away due to poor logic.
We should also consider that we have different types of customers today—we have creative types who are looking to enjoy the experience and process of digital photography and we have results-oriented customers who are time-constrained and looking for a quick and easy way to create photo gifts and other items. We can’t treat our customers all the same way because their motivations and expectations are different.
I also can’t stress the importance of training enough, and I see this as a particularly problematic issue for large retailers. Many of these associates know the basic product specifications but they have no idea what is going on in the industry overall, how to interact with customers and the importance of creating a relationship.
PB: What is it that you love about this industry?
Franz: I love that I’ve been able to develop relationships with people all over the world. Although this industry is growing, it’s still small enough that we have business relationships with many people that we also consider good friends. It’s wonderful to be able to combine business and pleasure; there’s a genuine desire to help one another and we know we can travel anywhere and find ourselves among friends.