“We’re not all Jennifers!”

“We’re not all Jennifers!”

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Guy walks into a camera store. It’s the mid-1980’s in Oakhurst, N.J., and Creative Camera and Darkroom owner Fran Herman was behind the counter, ready to help him.

“He laid out this huge spreadsheet,” Herman remembers. “He had names of cameras on the left with features of each one and checks in all these boxes. I took one look at that and thought to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, Anal Andy is here.’”

The guy asked a lot of questions and after a bit, Fran suggested that it might help him to hold a couple of those cameras in his hands and see what felt most comfortable to him.

“He looked at me strangely and said, ‘Is that your manager over there? Maybe I could talk to him.’”

Herman did refer this customer to the man she’d hired to manage the store, John, but when he couldn’t answer all the customer’s queries, John said, “Oh, you’ll have to ask the owner about that.”

Herman walked right back over.

“You should have seen the look on his face,” says Herman. “He was absolutely stunned. I’ll never forget it.”

Herman, now the owner of a San Francisco-based online imaging products company (Ellaprint.com), told this story at PMA this year with a laid-back chuckle, but a room full of listening businesswomen were nodding knowingly. They’d gathered for the first-ever “Women in Imaging Round Table,” a new effort to address issues and exchange ideas about the industry, all from a female perspective. The organizers of the round table had expected about 15 people, but 52 women showed up and extra chairs had to be hauled in to accommodate the middle-of-the-afternoon crowd.

“The turnout was phenomenal, considering PMA had never done anything like this before,” says Herman, who moderated a panel discussion at the round table. “This means something! It can be hard for women to own camera stores. People stopped me afterwards and said, ‘I’ve been in this industry for 30 years, and I’ve never felt this much support.”

Women (specifically, “Jennifer”) have been a big topic of conversation at PMA’s over the last couple of years, but “Women in Imaging” organizers say it’s still mostly men who are doing the talking, trying to come up with lures to get the printing demographic, that young mother target, into stores.

The female store owners, managers, vendors, and analysts at the round table were quick to share their own marketing strategies, like encouraging their parent-customers to program the camera shop’s number in cell phones so that the owners can run prints out to the car and thus help mothers avoid having to unstrap kids from carseats for yet another errand. Or carrying a photo tote bag around on their own errands, becoming an effective walking advertisement. Or conducting workshops at Senior Centers. But the majority of the discussion centered around the challenges female retailers face and the strengths they bring to the counter in day-to-day business.

Jessica Sarber, co-owner of Sarber’s Camera stores in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif., said that women in the imaging industry have proven themselves to be tremendously adaptable during the film-to-digital transition. She told her own story of dating the son of a camera store owner back in 1983 and then, after marrying the man, beginning to work in the family business herself.

“I brought the first HR program to the business, and an incentive program for employees,” says Sarber. “I think as women, we want quality of life success as well as financial success. We need to make a quantum shift in this industry in terms of how we do business.”

Sarber and Herman both are hoping a more organized effort will lead to the PMA giving more leadership positions to females. “It’s still a male-dominant organization, though there are some women in TVP (territorial vice president) positions,” says Herman.

One of those TVP’s, Margaret Remy, was in the round table audience taking careful notes, offering advice, and keeping her eye open for practical networking opportunities. “I [found] a volunteer to put up a Web site for me,” said Remy after PMA, back at her Quick Prints custom imaging lab in Meridian, Miss. “I think women tend to be more honest than men about what works and what doesn’t. Maybe it’s an ego thing, but I think men always want to sound successful. A woman lays it on the line. We’ve had to overcome a lot of odds and stereotypes, so I think we might be a little more persistent and innovative sometimes.”

“Women in Imaging” organizers are hoping to share innovative ideas with each other at future PMA round tables. In the meantime, though, they are keeping the conversation going on a new Web site maintained by Herman and her partner, Audry deLucia: www.womeninimaging.com

“We’re looking for gut-level how-to-do-business discussions,” says Herman. “This is a safe place where people can speak freely about what’s working and what isn’t.”

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