Strategy Session: National Camera Exchange—A Camera for a St. Bernard?

Strategy Session: National Camera Exchange—A Camera for a St. Bernard?


When Herman Liss opened up the first National Camera Exchange in downtown Minneapolis in 1914, the word “exchange” wasn’t taken lightly.

“My grandfather came over from Lithuania in the early part of the century,” said Jon Liss, the current president of National Camera Exchange. “He was a smart guy. When he first started, he sold Johnson Candy, and when he went to the buyer at Dayton’s, the buyer said he wasn’t interested. So my grandfather told all of his relatives to call Dayton’s and ask for Johnson Candy. When he went back to the buyer and asked again, the buyer said, “Of course. Everyone’s been calling for it!”

Herman Liss was an entrepreneur. He came up with the name National Camera Exchange when the place was close to 20×30 feet and nowhere near a national chain. He was a gemologist and knew about guns; with this knowledge he would take just about anything in trade for a camera—guns, dogs, gems, canoes, motorcycles. And the National Camera Exchange legacy was born.

“I remember having three German Shepherds, two Golden Retrievers and one St. Bernard, all taken in trade by my father,” said Jon Liss, whose father, Mort, entered the business in the 1930s. “Back in the day, we were a big Bell + Howell dealer. We could refurbish the old ones, make them look like new and then often trade them for dogs or canoes. One day, when I was 15 years old, I came to the store and saw a huge Harley come in the door as camera equipment went out.”

The exchange of guns and other commodities for camera equipment wasn’t a simple matter. The storeowner had to know the value of each item and understand how much a used product could be sold for before making the deal. But by doing that, Herman and then Mort gave themselves a wider base.

“Exchange made us different right out of the box. We would give a fair value and understand how to sell it properly,” said Jon Liss. “There was no reason why a gun enthusiast couldn’t be a camera enthusiast. At the time, there were a dozen or more camera stores, but only a few were trading. It was an early century notion of servicing customers to meet their own needs.”

If you look at the 100-year history of National Camera Exchange, trading and customer service seem to be the legacy that has kept their business thriving through three generations.

“My father went to college and worked for my grandfather beginning in the early 1930s. They worked well together overall, and my grandfather was well thought of in the community, especially by camera clubs. My dad continued that tradition after my grandfather died in 1949. I came around in the early ’70s and have been here ever since, carrying on the tradition,” Liss added.

And “used” didn’t always mean “used.”

“There were times when someone would walk into the store and ask for a used product but my father only had a new one. So rather than lose the sale, he would take a new one out of the box and sell it as used.” It’s the ultimate story of thinking outside the box.

At National Camera Exchange, trades and exchanges have morphed into eBay auctions and Internet selling. “If all you have is a new product, you’re like everyone else. If someone walks into the door and tells us they want to get rid of this but would love that, we give them a fair trade value. It’s a sale for us. And we’re both happy.”

While used equipment represents only about 10% of their sales today, it has allowed them to become a dealer with a national and international base. With the use of the Internet, they’ve sold used equipment as far away as Japan. But the “exchange” part of National Camera Exchange is only part of the story.

“Service has always been our real strength,” explained Mike Lamotte, National’s vice president, who started at the camera store around six months after Jon Liss and has hung around for 42 years. “We can be so much more flexible than the big-box stores down the street. For example, we have a 30-day exchange policy on a camera. One guy called and said it was 29 days and he still wasn’t sure he liked it yet. So we gave him another 10 days to make a decision. One customer told us that Best Buy would charge 15% to take the camera out of the box to try it. Well, we want them to take it out of the box.”

When the customer does take it out of the box, it’s the beginning of an important relationship. “We want them to be able to use the camera properly, because that will mean a more satisfied customer,” said Lamotte. “So with every camera sale, our customer gets two free classes for two people to learn how to use it. Again, it’s something we take pride in, and it’s also a big point of difference from the big-box stores who just can’t do that.”

National puts around 15,000 people through classes each year, from beginner DSLR classes to classes on lighting and photo organization. “People ask for our help, and that’s what we’re about,” said Liss.

The same goes for photofinishing, where people are always looking for recommendations. “Photofinishing is a big part of our business now; canvas and metal prints are hot. And we make it hot because we market it aggressively,” said Lamotte.

So how do you go on for another 100 years?

“We like to talk about our four pillars,” said Lamotte. “New equipment, used cameras, classes and education, and photofinishing. It’s tough to just sell on price anymore, because everyone has the same products. Today it’s more about services and responding to customer needs. That’s our point of difference.”

“There are price shoppers and value shoppers,” added Liss. “And our marketing is very clear. We say that we can match the big-box store prices, but they can’t match our service. Many times someone will buy a camera at a big-box store and then come into our store to learn how to use it.”

“We won’t turn those customers away,” said Lamotte. “In fact, we’ll welcome them, because they will then become our advocates in the market, and that’s our best form of advertising.”

So the legacy continues. While the means may have changed, the basic tenants that Herman Liss created 100 years ago continue to this day—delivering the ultimate customer service and delivering fair value.

It might not be as easy to peddle off a St. Bernard for a new digital camera anymore, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they made the trade at National Camera Exchange.