Today’s Retail Print Business

Today’s Retail Print Business


Photo specialty dealers rarely had it easy. When photos meant film, however, there was a guaranteed profit center in D&P services. Snap-shooter, serious amateur, professional photographer—none knew what the lens captured until the film was processed and printed. Unless customers used an instant camera, or had a darkroom, they eagerly fed the profit side of your business.

The old model no longer applies. For digital camera owners, the print is one among several options for seeing, sharing or displaying their pictures. They are exercising all, at home, online and at retail. They take more pictures but print less, challenging imaging specialty dealers to rethink SKUs, services and revenue streams.

The photographic industry stumbled during the early days of digital imaging by not being there with easy answers to printing from digital. This encouraged consumers to develop new habits beyond the retail print cycle. While aggressive efforts to promote retail digital print services have succeeded, the market is forever changed. The days of guaranteed profit —a print for every picture—are gone. More could be lost if the next wave of mainstream consumers regard display, rather than print, as the primary destination for the captured image.

When the film market matured, double prints became a popular value-added service many retailers promoted, skewing the ratio of prints produced to photos taken. The market has swung the other way now: today’s digital camera owner is highly selective about what he or she prints. The customer who takes a card from camera and wants everything printed, as if it were a roll of film, is the rare exception. Most print a fraction of all pictures taken, only after a highly selective image editing process. Some print rarely if at all; preferring electronic means of sharing and display.

Demand for prints will never completely fade, but the printed image has already become one among many options consumers expect. Demographics are also shaping a changed imaging marketplace. Consumers of a certain age, say those now over 30, were introduced to photography with film, and already had retail print habits by the time digital arrived.

The group behind them—Generations X, Y or Z—grew up in the digital age and carry different attitudes about the captured image with them. They tend to regard photography as something more casual than permanent, a form of visual communication as much as memory making. Most pictures they take are quickly seen and sent or posted to a Web site. If it’s to be printed at retail, it may be a special image or pictures of a special event. Otherwise, a homemade print will do.

Opinions are mixed on how these groups’ attitudes might evolve as they move into adulthood and become parents. Some profess today’s teen and young women will demonstrate the same preference for printing as their mothers. Others argue changed attitudes are fixed; this age group is a break with the past and new rules, new services apply.

The Photo Publishing Business

Where there is consensus: the halcyon days of the 4×6 are done. Retailers should rethink print services as the photo publishing business. Digital camera owners have many choices for viewing and sharing images outside retail services. Opportunities lie in helping them re-purpose their images in ways they can’t do at home, online or the office.

The repurposing of pictures lends itself to products, from custom cards to calendars to one-of-a-kind gifts. Many believe photobook production can revitalize print services, at least for the near term. Cause for that optimism: awareness is still relatively low, leaving strong growth potential; dazzling books and book pages can be quickly designed on the home computer, online or at store kiosks with software tools and templates; books allow consumers an easy form of creative expression they haven’t enjoyed before; margins for the retailer can be substantially higher than a straightforward order for the same number of prints one book might contain.

It remains to be seen if the concept can develop into more of a mainstream service than an occasional novelty. Will consumers make a book out of every family event and trip? The photo book concept could hold even greater appeal as an archiving solution, a growing catalog filled with best and favorite photos, expanded and organized page by page, volume by volume, over time.

Archiving is one area where consumers need help and guidance into the future. Digital’s surging success has also left a decade’s photos at risk. Even those aware of the need to back up all photos rarely do. New revenue streams can be developed in services which automatically upload images from digital cameras to remote and redundant servers online, in sales of hard drives and storage solutions.

But a strong case can still be made for the practical convenience of preserving images as prints. The printed page delivers permanence not yet associated with data files. This case needs to be made before habits and attitudes are permanently fixed.

Imaging customers are exploring and embracing new modes for sharing and showing off their pictures that bypass the need to print. Americans routinely e-mail pictures they would have printed and mailed to family and friends years ago. They turn to photo and social networking Web sites to share their pictures with the world. For the young—tomorrow’s mainstream consumer—this behavior is already routine.

Display solutions are encroaching on print applications at home and in the office. A computer display of cherished pictures seems as common as a framed enlargement. Despite limited capabilities and high prices, digital photo frames are one of fastest growing consumer electronics categories of recent years. Project that appeal forward, and the frame becomes an extension of the home or office network, displaying Web content one moment, a slide show or favorite photo the next.

Consumers will want all the choices, so there’s more expected of the imaging solutions specialist: diverse in-store printing solutions, fed by Web orders and walk-in traffic….support for home printing solutions…knowledge about computer operating systems, software and networking…. stocking a representative selection of digital frames and portable media players, along with cameras and accessories…the same unrivaled expertise, across the board which distinguished the specialty dealer in photography.

The Phone in Your Future

Perhaps the challenges this channel faces are best exemplified in the camera phone. Insiders predict cameraphones rivaling the capabilities of today’s compact digital cameras will be on shelves within the next two years.

To today’s youth, the next wave of consumers, the camera phone may not be their best camera but it’s already the one many use most often. It’s also the digital equivalent of their wallet, loaded with photos. This remains an intriguing market for the photo specialist and one we’ll take a closer look at next issue.

The shift from film to digital imaging is not yet complete, but the transition has entered a final phase. The service side of the business, what consumers can do with their captured images, is not yet settled. Print and display can be approached as separate paths, or parallel lanes to imaging’s future.

Those who focus on picture publishing services can offset declining demand for standard prints with specialty and novelty services, and niche marketing in business imaging applications.

For others, the future is neither in photo publishing or display solutions but in providing customers with whatever they want. yy