The Specialty Store of the Future
Editor's Note: This prediction was made in April of 1998. Most of the trends expected to take place by 2008 actually came to pass 5-6 years earlier than that time!
What will the photo specialty store be in 2008? It's already here. I've seen it. It was there in the exhibition halls of PMA '98, if you looked closely.
Despite all the doom and gloom, the product our customers will be wanting - tomorrow or ten years from tomorrow - is a bright colorful picture of their family and friends. Something they can tuck in a wallet or handbag or laminate on the front of their universal credit card.
That picture - not image, but picture - will be on photographic paper, RA-4 color paper or something very much like it. Why? Because on the triple standards of low price, high durability, and longevity in service, good old color print paper is still ahead of dye sublimation or inkjet printing. A 3x5 digital image that comes close to the quality of a photographic print has a wholesale materials cost of about 65 cents - roughly ten times what an RA-4 print costs.
The biggest difference in the specialty store for the foreseeable future is the way that such pictures get onto the paper. Konica showed us the future with the QD-21 minilab, announced at PMA '98. Tomorrow's minilab is the lensless minilab. The image is painted onto photographic paper by an array of light-emitting diodes. Such printers can make any photo product without additional hardware. Photo greeting cards, business cards, announcements, signs, invitations, photo collages - it's all in the software templates. No expensive add-on hardware. No separate lens setup for 110 negatives or 828 slides
The brain of the lab will be a stock computer. Tomorrow it's a Pentium II running Windows NT. Ten years from now it will still be the computer of the day, running whatever Bill Gates says it should run. The day of the specially-designed printed circuit board as the controller for minilabs has passed - every new generation will be powered by off-the-rack equipment.
A printer processor can have more than just one printing deck. Today's lab is fully integrated. The work station is a part of the printer/processor. That doesn't have to be.
With the same printer processor as the production facility, a large consumer outlet could have several "service stations" feeding it. It can be an analog of busy offices where several computers are tied to one big, expensive printer.
Station A could be your regular minilab facility. A little more automated than today's, perhaps. Here the "order taker" will accept 35mm and 24mm films and enter the basic information at an order entry station. The leaders would be extracted from the old-fashioned 35mm film, but no splicing will be needed. The films would be fed into the film processor without further handling. Exiting the film processor, each roll would be scanned and digitized and the resulting totally-digital print data send to the printer. Right now this is the front end of the hybrid labs such as the Konica QD-21 and the Fuji Frontier - but it could just as easily be located 10 feet or 10 miles away, connected by a twisted pair or fiber-optic cable.
"Weird" films would probably be handled separately. Today most minilabs turn away, or outlab, requests for prints from slides - from odd format films, such as 127 or 828 or 4x5 negatives. Many must outlab even black and white. Technically, that's no longer necessary. The equipment that scans a 35mm negative is just as happy to scan a slide. Since lenses have become a thing of the past, there's no reason not to print odd-size negatives. You don't need a different negative carrier or lens or channel for each format - all that's needed is a way to hold the negative/transparency against a scanner, and the simple algorithms to let the scanning software find the edges of the picture. You don't need separate equipment to do a good job of printing black and white - the software in the Konica QD-21 already offers the option of extracting color information from the image files! Handling such products at the printer station would still slow down production, so I envision a separate station. Nothing more than a scanner, a cheap computer - $1,000 in today's market, probably $300 in 2008 - and another link via fiber-optic cable.
The digital imaging station will still exist. A century from now, people will still bring in old photos and say things like "I don't have the negative" or "I can't find the memory bubble for this image," and we'll pop in on a scanner that looks much like today's Kodak Image Magic station. I don't think we'll be making prints on a dye-sub printer, however. That image file will be going directly to the digital-to-RA printer, and the finished product will be ready just as quickly.
Rather quietly, Kodak introduced a "Custom Creations" folder for Image Magic locations. It took a few phone calls to find out what it's all about. The giveaway was some of the products offered. 11x14 custom collages. Album covers imprinted with customer images. Lots of products that just can't come out of an 8650 Kodak printer. The secret? In middle America Kodak has a production facility that doesn't have to wait for the mailman or the route driver to bring in orders. Participating dealers will scan customer images, attach them to an electronic order form, and e-mail them to the Kodak lab. Kodak's technicians will electronically cut and paste those images into a bank of product templates and ship the finished product. Maybe back to the store - maybe back to the customer - maybe to the customer's Aunt Ethel in Ashtabula.
The specialty store of the future will be seamlessly integrated with the wholesale lab of the future! But since labs such as the QD-21 can print any image file as easily as they print plain photographs, a lot of those collage and montage products will go straight to the instore facility.
Customers with digital cameras will still come to "the camera store" for processing for several reasons.
Our Minilab 2008 will have the necessary input devices - a universal reader for every type of memory card, portable disk and on-board memory - so that customers can drop off the images just the way they now drop off a roll of film. They won't leave the memory cards with us, however. The counter person will plug the memory card into the reader, enter the customer name on the keyboard, and hand the memory card back to the customer. Within five minutes the completed print order will be ready to be rung up
About 5% of the customers will be skilled enough to use the self-service counter. This may be a generous estimate. Although almost anyone can learn to use computer devices, most don't bother unless there's a major benefit to doing so. Our enlightened self-interest is to be so friendly and accessible that customers will continue to let us do their thinking for them.
Some customers will phone in their orders, transmitting digital picture files over standard phone lines from their home computers at data transmission rates 1,000 times faster than current modems allow. If the office is across the street from the minilab, by the time the customer jaywalks his prints could be ready.
To be competitive, our Minilab 2008 is going to look clean and pleasant. Kodak's Image Center design standards will percolate through the industry. Even independents will have to have as comfortable a look and feel, to be competitive.
Most of the products we're selling today we'll still be selling ten years from today.
We'll be adding other products to our line-up. Printer cartridges, ink and specialty photo-quality paper for the enthusiast. Drop-in modules to convert 35mm and 120 cameras to digital cameras. Lots of products that haven't even been conceived as yet. And our specialty store 10 years from now will still be fighting for a fair share of the market!