Here’s an overwhelming piece of news: this year your store will introduce multiple new products and services, many of which you currently know very little about! These services and products represent a new direction for your company that will determine your success for the coming years, and maybe forever. A successful launch will make your company a winner, and will have completed what is perhaps the last leg of your film to digital transformation- truly saying goodbye to carryover core products from the days of film and embracing new products truly born of the digital age.
A bad launch (or lack of) would put your company in real danger of simply not making it. And wouldn’t that be a shame? After all, if you’re still a retailer these days then surely you have made many intuitive and brave moves already – you’ve gone digital in your production, have added a couple of kiosks (maybe even a photo cafe), and are accepting print orders on your Web site. You thought these moves would secure years of future success, and were finally hitting your stride with digital. But it’s not so – you can’t rest because like it or not these “recent” moves are already old news, and are at best the groundwork or foundation for future success, not the end of the process. There is still much adapting, learning, investing and transforming ahead.
2007 will likely bring the end of the beginning for digital photo retail. Film is long gone, and where once we tried to adapt existing film products and processes to the digital workflow, now the digital workflow will invent new products that are original, and that best suit digital’s speed and capabilities. And where film products were rigid and static, digital products are flexible and dynamic. For this reason, in my view, photo retail will forever remain dynamic, broad, and a bit more complicated than it has been – dynamic because of its fast pace and shorter product life cycles; broad because it will cross over and merge with new markets; and complicated because it will demand new skills and a new workflow.
Continuously evolving and adapting will be the modus operandi, the new name of the game, and there will likely never be a single core product such as the 4×6-inch print. Instead we’ll see an endless evolution of new products – many more products – that will require retailers to become fast learners, early adopters, and risk takers by nature.
If this is the future of our industry then how do you feel about it? And how prepared do you feel your company is? For some retailers this may seem like a lucky break, a chance to distinguish themselves from the mass retailers, get to market faster and inject lots of creativity into their companies and the products they sell. For others, though, this new reality may prove very alien. (If you felt a certain rush while reading then you’re probably a dynamic adapter, but if you felt a slight sense of panic and increased anxiety you likely thrive on status quo). Some companies thrive on constant change while others thrive on predictability, still, both must institutionalize a culture of change in order to succeed and thrive.
Winds of Change
Of course you’ll always need to learn more skills in order to produce new products. In 2007 these skills will likely include learning about plain paper printing: understanding laser printing technology; mastering various book binding techniques, and even learning to frame. Mastering these skills will likely become a new core competency of a photo retailer – must-have knowledge of a new workflow. But these skills are different than the skills required to bring about a culture of change. A culture of change demands your company be receptive and able to continuously learn new skills, invent new ways to apply them, and perhaps most importantly to let your customers know a change has taken place and ask them to react.
Volumes of business books have been written about innovation, change and leadership, and every retailer would be wise to read a couple. But to be sure, I am not making the case that individual retailers should regularly shake up the industry with innovative new products. That would be absurd on many grounds. Still, retailers can successfully affect their local market and can find and create local demand in their community by bringing cutting edge products and services to their local customers before those customers go out of the community – or the channel – to acquire them. You must acknowledge a large section of your customers already know about the latest products available in the market, say photo books, and are already buying them from other channels.
This happened when PhotoLounge in Philadelphia launched same day service on personalized photo book service. Until then none of the customers had brought up the need for books, and PhotoLounge could have assumed this service was not in demand. But once launched, it turned out that these books were already a favorite item for numerous customers, (often top spending customers), who had been ordering them over the Internet. These customers preferred the faster service and were thrilled they could continue patronizing their favorite store.
For many other customers though, books were an exciting new product they had never seen before, and they were thrilled to order them. By launching the books PhotoLounge was then able to stay relevant to loyal customers who had drifted to new channels. And at the same time it was able to attract new customers from other channels into its store. Lastly, it reenergized in-active customers who found the new product and the store exciting again.
Questions & Answers
The moral of the story is that customers will follow the product or service, and if you snooze you’ll lose. Don’t assume your customers aren’t interested in a product simply because they haven’t asked for it. You’d be surprised at how much money they already spend on these very products elsewhere. By simply asking your customers what they’d like to see in your store you can remain one step ahead of becoming irrelevant. Before you come to PMA this year (and if you weren’t planning to, DO), form an informal advisory panel of customers and ask them to help you plan 2007 and beyond. Take their requests as gospel and turn them into a shopping list for your company.
This is equally true about employees. Do you ask them questions and really listen to their answers? Employees are “plugged in” because they’re often young, are in touch with customers and, unlike many employers, are not jaded about the industry. They are a wonderful resource and yet so few retailers really tap into this asset. Before you come to PMA this year truly involve your staff in an open dialogue about what’s possible for your company. You’ll be amazed at what your employees know, and what you missed. And, because staff enthusiasm is key to any product launch its important to establish this partnership with the staff at an early stage.
Staying relevant means staying in business, and growing, and I hope you see that your company is as vulnerable to extinction now as it was when digital was born. The way you’ve transformed your company so far is the reason you’re still here, but this transformation is just the start. In future columns I’ll be chronicling stories about what it takes to stay relevant. I’ll cover what it takes to listen to customers effectively and figuring out your market. And, I’ll be writing a lot about the actual mechanics of the launch, from evaluating and creating the product you want or need to launch to creating demand. And lastly, I’ll look at failed launches and figure out how to stay the course. Feel free to share your story and stay tuned.