Customize for Competitive Advantage

Customize for Competitive Advantage


n an age when seemingly anything that can be digitized can also be commoditized, dedicated photo-imagers must continually seek ways to stand apart from their competition. Mass merchants and warehouse clubs now offer photo gifts, poster prints, DVD transfers and many other products and services once exclusive to photo specialty dealers. Online services offer ever-greater opportunities to create custom products, and all feel compelled to compete on the basis of price, putting margin pressure on one of the last bastions of profitability for imaging specialists.

Where to look, then, for the profit dollars necessary to keep the doors open and employees’ families fed? Many independent imagers have found that a single key individual can provide a lasting competitive advantage that mass-market and online rivals simply cannot match. Much like a skilled lab tech can be the difference between camera-store quality and mass-mediocrity, a trained in-house creative professional can also be a difference-maker for 21st-Century digital imaging service providers.

By this I mean not just someone with basic Photoshop skills and good aesthetic sense. The businesses that have found the greatest success credit a trained graphic designer, specifically recruited and hired to add a professional touch to their creative output. Yes, this person costs more than most other staff, but many retailers have found that he/she enables them to offer unique services and total customization that set their stores apart.

If It’s Unique, They Will Come

Despite all their other options, customers still come to independent photo specialists for several important reasons. They are almost always seeking quality, but often also something special, a unique way to preserve or present their memories that they can’t find anywhere else. All this, plus individualized service from someone who will listen to them, understand their needs, and translate their requests into finished products that exceed their expectations. In many cases, they are specifically looking to get away from the limited, cookie-cutter solutions available online and elsewhere. They want something created just for them, and many are willing to pay handsomely for the service if it is presented properly and the final output is truly special in every way.

Delivering this level of customization is not without its pitfalls, however. First, it requires direct interaction between the customer and the artist who will actually do the work. Too much is lost in translation between the customer, an order-taker at the counter, and the technician for a two-step process to be effective. This means that in addition to their creative talents, the technician must also have the listening and presentation skills necessary to interact with and sell to the public.

One of the first dealers to pioneer the use of an in-house designer is David Guidry’s Lakeside Camera Photoworks in Metairie, La. Says Guidry, "I first hire for attitude; I look for attractive people with a professional demeanor and good people skills. The creative/technical skills are relatively easy to find." Then, Guidry compensates his designers well so they feel valued and choose to stay with Lakeside over the long term.

Another challenge is pricing. Since almost every custom job is, by definition, different from the last, it can be difficult to create a pricing structure that accounts for all of the possibilities. Says Chris Lydle of Chris’ Camera Center (Aiken, S.C.), "Customization offers no advantages of scale; you’re not doing the same jobs often enough to develop any efficiencies, so it can be difficult to be sure you’re making a profit or to price to a level where you know you’re making money." Still, according to Lydle, "you need to continue to expand your services and a find a way to say ‘yes’ to your customers, and then figure out how to make money over time."

"Design services can be highly lucrative," asserts Lakeside’s Guidry, who says that custom is nearly 15 percent of his total services business, and growing. "The key," he says, "is being able to accurately estimate your real costs, and to price accordingly. This includes time spent consulting with the customer as well as actually doing the work, plus proofs, machine time, waste, etc." Still, because of the talent and professionalism of his people, Guidry is able to charge as much as $150/hour for wedding albums, highly-customized photo books and other high-end projects.

You Don’t Have to Start From Scratch

In an effort to avoid starting every custom job from square one, some dealers have asked their designers to create their own themed templates for various occasions, which are then applied consistently across a range of complementary products. This is particularly appealing for weddings, birthdays and other occasions where invitations, banners, party favors, table cards and even napkins can be imprinted with common images and graphics, which are carried all the way through to the commemorative photobook(s) at the end. This can create a truly unique event for the customer through the number and diversity of products included, while much of the design work is done in advance and the incremental profit on the project is high.

A proponent of this approach is Mike Woodland, Co-owner of Dan’s Camera City in Allentown, Pa. Dan’s offers this templated approach alongside a true-custom, by-the-hour option to enthusiastic customer response. It’s still not as efficient as Woodland would like it to be, however.

The next step, he says, is to put his templates on his in-store kiosks, so customers can access Dan’s custom designs for do-it-yourself ordering. Woodland says he’s struggled, though, with steep technology barriers when trying to load custom templates onto his kiosk hardware.

"Existing solutions are either too restrictive, or not well-enough supported to make it practical to use them for this purpose." There’s a significant opportunity, Woodland suggests, for a kiosk supplier to focus their efforts on the photo-specialty channel and create a truly open and supportable system for loading and outputting custom designs. Any takers?

Picture Going Beyond the Photograph

An in-house designer can also enable a photo-imaging business to expand beyond the simple manipulation and reproduction of photos and create new revenue streams. One of Lakeside’s two full-time designers has a marketing background, and her talents have enabled Lakeside to become a de-facto "brand consultant," providing logo design services and applying newly-created graphics to signs, banners, business cards, brochures and more for the local business community.

Guidry speaks proudly of Lakeside’s "institutional flexibility," which allows it to "adapt its technology and its people to any request that may come across the counter."

This, more than any other theme, came across in every interview conducted for this article. Tom Jacobi of Langley Photo & Digital in McLean, Va., succinctly states, "Chasing traditional printing business is beating a dead horse." Jacobi echoes the others when he says, "We have no choice but to continually look for ways to just say yes to the customer, figure out what’s needed in the community and learn to use existing capabilities in creative new ways." Like the others, Jacobi has found that his in-house design professional helps provide truly unique service to his customers and creates an important competitive advantage for his business.

Mark von Keszycki is a 20-year veteran of consumer electronics and imaging retail, and Principal at New Eyes Retail Consulting in Great Falls, Va., offering affordable project-based consulting and marketing services to independent retailers nationwide.