Building a store from scratch: 2 year update

In 1999 I decided to go back into the retail camera business, after a very short retirement. September 2nd the commitment was made, and 62 days later, on November 1st, we were open. In that time we'd gutted a downtown store, painted, installed fixtures, got stock, hired staff…but that story has been told before.

As Paul Harvey would say "and now, the rest of the story."

First, we've been made welcome. The town of Aiken, South Carolina was ripe for a true specialty camera store. Since the opening, hardly a day goes by without a customer saying "we're so glad you're here. Downtown really needed a camera store."

Secondly, kind words don't pay the bills. It's been a scramble to get the level of business up to self-sufficiency. Hardware sales - cameras and accessories - were strong from the very beginning. However, profit margins on high-end cameras are pitiful. Accessory sales are desirable, but frames and albums and film sales are the best of all. And those categories are offshoots of film developing and printing.

Finding the right staff is always a problem. I intended to require all my permanent personnel to qualify under the Certified Photographic Consultant program of the Photographic Marketing Association. That was the objective; it didn't always work. Eventually we achieved the goal of having enough CPCs on staff (including me) so that a consumer could count on finding one at the store just about any time we're open. In 2001 we were rated a Certified Photographic Consultant Center by PMA and we started blowing our own horn. Here's the script for a radio ad we've been running, which has had a lot of positive feedback:

If you want professional advice on your taxes, you go to a certified public accountant. If you want professional help with your pictures, you go to a Certified Photo Consultant.

I’m Chris Lydle, owner of Chris’ Camera Center in downtown Aiken, where we’ve just been designated a Certified Photographic Consultant Center by the Photo Marketing Association. This designation means that a qualified Certified Photographic Consultant® (CPC) is there to assist you with all your photo needs whenever we’re open.

CPC Centers are pretty special – not many stores qualify. We’ll be the 4th one in South Carolina, while North Carolina and Georgia only have one each!

The certificate is nice, but the reason that both Vanessa and I have been granted this designation is that we know cameras inside and out. We can help you make the best pictures of your life.

Chris’ Camera Center is in the heart of downtown Aiken at 106 Laurens Street, across from Aiken Drug Company. Open Monday through Saturday 9:30 ‘til 5. Look for the big Kodak sign or call us at 641-0501.

The name we chose was a mistake. Since I had owned a "Chris' Camera Center" in New Jersey, I named this one "Chris' Camera Center South." Seems there's a strip mall on the south side of town called "Centre South" and new customers continued to look for me there, rather than downtown! After about the 10th person called this to my attention our ads were changed to downplay the official name and refer to "Chris' Camera Center in historic Downtown Aiken."

We couldn't build up our photofinishing business without an in-store lab. Consumers had their habits established, and where you take your film to be processed is a habit. Competition came from these sources, all offering 1-Hour C-41 processing:

  • Shutterbug Photo, a specialty lab that also offers E-6 and just about everything else.
  • CVS has two stores with 1-Hour
  • Eckerds added a strong camera department and lab just after I opened
  • WalMart is the 1,000-pound gorilla. They have a strong photo department and they sell cheaply.

I thought I could build some photofinishing business using outlab services only, and established an account with Qualex for Kodak brand services. That was a stop-gap; consumers have gotten used to speed. Our retail photofinishing sales were a picayune 6% of total sales! But we had a lot of people come in, ask "do you develop film in an hour?" and walk away when we said no…

NEXT - We add a lab