Can You Connect With the Connected Consumer?

Can You Connect With the Connected Consumer?

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This month’s cover story examines the new imaging behaviors connected consumers are developing and some key ways retailers can tap into them.

he great irony of the contemporary photo retail landscape is that, at a time of arguably its greatest uncertainty and potential peril, photography has never been more popular.

Consider this: the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) polled consumers about their digital photography habits and found people snap an average of almost two pictures a day (about 588 a year). This is not the photography of life’s big events, but the photography of the moment. Every moment.

This photographic life is being driven by mobility—both the ease with which cameras can be slipped into pockets and carried everywhere, and the ever-pervasive camera phone. Over 77 percent of adults and a whopping 71 percent of children under 18 now own one, according to Pew Research, and the majority of phones sold feature a camera.

Not only do we all have phones, the phones we have do more. The research firm NPD Group found that 28 percent of all handsets purchased in the second quarter of this year in the U.S. were application-rich smartphones. One in five handsets sold during the quarter had Wi-Fi capability.

All of that means that these consumers, and particularly those under age 18, can stay connected while on the move. And connect they have. Pew found that 26 percent of children under 18 send messages daily via social networks like Facebook, while 24 percent use instant messaging on a daily basis. When CEA asked consumers where they stored their digital data, roughly 22 percent were toting significant amounts on their mobile phones.

Get a (Connected) Life

There has been another seismic shift among consumers, and it has nothing to do with the volume of images taken but where those images are going. While e-mail remains the biggest driver of virtual sharing, the social networking Web sites MySpace and Facebook are now vacuuming up consumer images by the gigabyte. CEA found that MySpace and Facebook rank first and second, respectively, for online photo uploads, eclipsing the print-driven photo sites like Snapfish and Kodak Gallery. com. Score, a research firm that ranks Web site popularity, scored Facebook as the No. 1 photo-sharing site in the country. According to a Facebook spokesperson, the company receives 1 billion (yes, that’s a "b") photos to its servers each month.

Who’s responsible for this? While social networking is gradually broadening its demographic appeal, it’s still a game for the young. People aged 18-29 were almost twice as likely as the next age bracket (30-49 years old) to post their photos to social networking sites, according to a survey conducted by NPD. While almost 60 percent of the 18-29-year-old cohort posted their photos to the Web, only 36 percent printed snapshots, NPD found.

Consumers spend enormous amounts of time online, whether at home or on the road. Forty percent of Internet users polled by the marketing firm Razorfish reported spending at least four hours per week on online social networking. Of those, roughly 10 percent spent seven to nine hours on social sites and another 9.7 percent spent north of nine hours online.

If after hearing this you’re tempted to tell these people to get a life, that’s the problem. They have one. It’s online. Are you?

A Role for Retail?

This connected consumer presents something of a quandary for photo retailers: they are more immersed in their photos than ever before, but don’t need retail to engage with their images. Retailers used to serve as the critical gateway to consumers’ photos. Are they now at risk of becoming an after-thought?

"We sold a lot of stuff the customer didn’t want," observed William McCurry, Chairman, McCurry Associates. "That reality of the false marketplace has come home to roost."

Unfortunately, some have been slower to appreciate that reality than others. Being caught flat-footed by shifting technological and generational tides is dangerous in any business climate. Today, it’s fatal. With the recession remorselessly tearing down brands and businesses and consumers suddenly scrupulous about their discretionary spending, there is no better time to shed old habits.

The fact that photo industry outsiders like MySpace capitalized on the potential emotional connections of people’s images is indicative of an industry that can’t yet think outside the box, warned Lisa Walker, President of the International Imaging Industry Association. "People are wrapped around the 4 x 6 business and how to get people to make more prints. The technologies are changing much faster than they are. You have to be willing to reinvent yourself completely."

"I think all of us have struggled to keep up with the pace of change—some more than others," observed Bob Hanson, of Harold’s Photo Center (Sioux Falls, S.D.). If anyone would know about the pace of change, it would be Hanson, whose family has owned the business for 99 years. "Traditional photo retail can no longer flourish," he said.

"Many photo retailers just don’t get it," was the blunt assessment of Lakeside Camera Photoworks owner David Guidry.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that consumers want something in their hand that has value and is unique and exciting to them, Hanson said. "Even kids using Facebook have walls and lockers," Guidry noted.

The model of transforming an image into an object is far from dead, seconded McCurry. What must change is what that object is—be it a mug, poster, canvas, calendar, blanket, pillow case, paper weight, photo book or greeting card—and what the consumer experiences in the store. Consumers used to need retail to engage with their photos. Now, they have to want it.

"You really have to wow them now," Guidry said.

Gaby Mullinix knows this first hand. When she bought Fullerton Photo (Orange County, Calif.) in 1999, the shop consisted of a pair of analog processors that got so hot they would send the technicians screaming from the store. There was no way to print a digital file. Now, you consult your quarterly Hip Happenings guide at Fullerton Photo (or online) and schedule your in-store makeover and photo shoot or swing by the Click Café and enjoy a foot massage while you work on one of 11 kiosks.

Mullinix described the retail sales process as more consultative and nimble. The focus is always on executing new ideas to engage customers, she said. "We reinvent ourselves every three months."

This reinvention has also pushed photo retailers toward education. Photo retailers are well-positioned to help consumers make sense of their cameras through seminars and in-store classes, said Joe Byrd, Co-Founder and President, 6Sight Conferences. Retailers used to give their expertise away for free, McCurry said. "Now they’re starting to realize that they can profit from it."

Other dealers, such as the Camera Case in Wisconsin, have branched directly into the cell phone market for a true convergence approach.

What unifies these successful retailers is that they’ve altered the playbook, on the fly.

McCurry recalled a recent conservation with a retailer who was in the process of transforming his business. "He told me, ‘I finally get it. What brought my business to this point is not going to be what takes us to where we want to go.’ I thought that was very wise. We’re in a different world."

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