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‘Look at your own game’

Chris Harris (Bay Park Photos, Port Macquarie) sees a healthy long-term future for specialist photo retailing in Australia, but only if retailers lift their game – and start working together.

Bay Park Photos is a 64 square metre store in a strip location in central Port Macquarie, specialising in accessories and printing services. (‘We only stock a small range of cameras – which is why we are running at the profit margin we are!’)

Port Macquarie is a tourist-oriented coastal town 400 kilometres north of Sydney with a population upwards of 40,000

A former professional photographer, Mr Harris’ message to fellow retailers is: ‘Look at your own game before you make assumptions about the state of the photographic industry.’

‘What’s hurting us at the moment is, to put it bluntly, the incompetence of some camera shop operators…’

‘There are a lot of businesses out there – and not just in the photo industry – who have this really high opinion of themselves. Think they are doing the customer a favour by being there, not that the customer is doing them a favour by buying off them,’ he said in a phone interview from his store.

‘What’s hurting us at the moment is, to put it bluntly, the incompetence of some camera shop operators.’

– But surely from a business point of view, that’s a good thing? If competing stores are providing poor service and quality, customers will flock to Bay Park Photos.

That’s not how it works, according to Mr Harris. A poor-performing competitor actually tars the entire channel with the brush of incompetency.

‘The way they do things is making it hard on the rest of us,’ he explained.

‘The photo trade needs to wake up and start giving good customer service again if we are going to survive.’

Mr Harris gave diverse and compelling examples of specialists on the NSW north coast region ‘letting the side down’. He cites store staff telling people to get product details and specs off the internet rather than assisting in-store, or telling a customer their camera was too old to be bothered with rather than ordering in a battery for them, or quoting a two-month wait on, say, darkroom supplies because they couldn’t be bothered putting in an order.

‘We are the only store between Coffs and Taree still stocking darkroom stuff. A lot of places now are just putting everything in the too-hard basket.

‘They just want people to walk in with their money, want that, pick it up and walk out. We are finding it’s the same story across the board. They don’t want to do any selling.’

He concedes this is partly due to low staffing levels brought on by tough business conditions.

‘A lot of them have ditched their staff because they can’t afford the wages. I’m now operating this store with my partner. We let go the full time staff member we had and we save about $45 – 50,000 per year in wages and other costs associated with employing someone.’

– But simply not doing things that used to be done by sales staff is a downhill path.

‘So we are flat out. Our turnover is probably the lowest it’s been in years. But our gross profit margin – not our net profit – is running at a higher rate. Because we are working smarter, not harder.

‘Because we’ve got the website as well, the shop is geared to run as a two-person show. My partner does photo restoration and the like and counter sales. I do counter sales and do the printing.’

He says that ‘half our turnover now is printing’, and that, once again, is partly due to poor quality from competitors.

‘The quality some of the others are spitting out is awful because they are trying to compete on price with Harvey Norman and Big W. Especially Big W. Quality has gone down the gurgler.

‘People come in and whinge about the quality [of cheap printing] and I have to say “hang on, you can’t complain about the quality and come in and want to know what’s wrong with your photos, and at the same time have a go about our pricing”.’

‘Competitor reciprocity’

‘I’d much rather a great competitor than a crap competitor,’ claimed Mr Harris. ‘But a great competitor that is willing to work with us.’

– That is, if specialist photo stores working in the same town or suburb not only performed well, but ‘reciprocated’, everyone wins – the customer, the competing retailers and supporting suppliers.

‘For 16 years I’ve been trying to get the photo industry up here to work together. When Fletchers were here in Port Macquarie they would reciprocate a lot of trade. What we couldn’t do, Michael [the former Fletchers store owner] would do, and what he couldn’t do, we would do. That way, business was kept in town.

‘When they closed down, that hurt us badly .We had to put in extra equipment to cover what they were doing.’

He gave an example of what happens when specialists ignore the efficiencies of what one might call ‘competitor reciprocity’:

‘ I can print up to 24 inch by 2 metres, whereas a local Kodak outlet can’t. But with APS film – we can print it but we can’t develop it. That store can.

‘But he’ll send his large print orders out of town rather than get it done on an “I can do this, you can’t – you can do this, I can’t” basis.

By essentially outsourcing services to each other, more business stays in the local area.

On the other hand, he said, ‘If you try to compete on the same level, everyone goes broke.’

While to some specialists it might seem like ‘sleeping with the enemy’ , Bay Park Photos is now actually ‘reciprocating’ with some of the local CE outlets.

‘A customer got a price on a video camera lens adaptor from a Camera House store in town and when he asked to see the specs was told to get them on the internet. So he went out to a major CE retailer. They don’t stock video camera lenses so they sent him over to me. An easy $50 sale, thank you very much.

‘We send a lot of customers out to that major retailer. They don’t stock a big range of batteries so they send people here.

‘We don’t get any kickbacks out of it whatsoever but it keeps the customers happy.

‘A lot of other people in the industry would rather sell someone something than help them out of a jam and have that person go and rave about them.’

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