Richard (Robbo) Robertson retired as managing director of Ted’s Camera towards the end of 2011 at the top of his game, leaving the business in great shape and the industry short a leader. Photo Counter caught up with the new-look, slim-line Robbo recently for a bowl of noodles and a chat…
So you’ve been retired a while now – what’s your take on the industry in 2014?
Richard Robertson: It will be three years in August this year. The photo industry is going through the same issues that a lot of specialty store industries have gone through and have hence disappeared. Probably the one that comes closest is the hi-fi industry. Nowadays when you look around for a hi-fi store it’s Ebay or Amazon or B&H. Most people won’t recommend a street store for a good deal on a hi-fi, they’ll recommend an online specialist.
Why? Because if you are selling speakers at $2 – 3000 like a camera store is selling DSLRs at $800- 1000 most specialty retailers can’t afford the rent, the wages and the stock loading to carry everything, but with a good online presence you can have nothing in stock but look like you have everything in stock. Plus also you can have the advantage of selling into Australia from overseas and avoiding the GST – which again is a big plus for anyone spending a serious amount of money.
In the specialty retail industry the magic was always in what can we do that the customer can’t do at home, and for us it was, of course, photofinishing. We took a metal can with bit of acetate inside – something the customer could do absolutely nothing with – and put it in a machine, pulled out the negs, pulled out the prints and the customer said ‘Wow’.
Now if you look at who is doing the printing a lot is being done at home on small printers. The more 6×4 printers the industry sells the less reason there is for the consumer to come in. The number of things a customer can’t do have diminished greatly over the last 10 years and I’ve read that the compact market has collapsed. Why? Well everyone carries their mobile phone. You don’t see so many people with a camera over their shoulder any more. You are more likely to see people pull out a phone than a specialty camera. And the way that they share and use their memories nowadays feeds into that type of product.
What’s happened over 5 – 10 years as been a natural evolution. The weak have gone, the strong are getting stronger and you can see a future where the wholesalers are represented by a local sales office and all goods and deliveries will be conducted through overseas warehouses, and just like you order a book from Amazon or Ebay or Book Deposit the goods are delivered from overseas. I got a book the other week within 7 days for two pounds – a third of the price at the local book shop. And the same applies for photographics.
That’s a pretty depressing analysis for the hundreds of photo stores still out there…
RR: Well I’m sure when Henry Ford put the first T-Model Ford on the market there were a lot of people depressed at the Cobb&Co factory and when Westinghouse built their first refrigerator I’m sure the people at the local iceworks thought it was the end of the world. But I think what people have to do today is ask yourself ‘where am I going to be in the next 5 – 10 years?’ For some that will mean using all those great attributes and skills that you’ve learned gouging out a living in the photo specialty trade and turn it to another trade. The main criterion is to find something the customers can’t do at home.
There are some people who are making a living out of printing but it’s not a mass market. You’ve got to find something different to offer.
And there will always be people who want and SLR with the Nikon or the Canon lens and flash and they will go to the vinyl record stores of the photo industry.
Did you have these kind of notions, say ,four years ago?
RR: Quite clearly, because I was an early adoptor of the internet. When I was at Ted’s we were early adoptors of digital cameras, digital labs. We adopted the internet online route very early in the piece. If you are asking what’s my prediction for the future, what people should get into, I don’t really know because you can’t go out and open a coffee shop – there’s already an oversupply of those- but I think that to think because you’ve been born into something you are going to be there forever doesn’t work in today’s society and today’s retail marketplace. If you really want to give it a go you need a strong online presence which offers something different.
So what about your old company, Ted’s? Do you think its future is limited?
RR: Ted’s is one of the dinosaurs….Like Camera House I think if they can get their act together, consolidate down, get rid of the businesses that are costing them money they will go on. I think that Ted’s in my day and currently is still the best- managed specialty store business in Australia. Ron Evans and Brian Blythe saved the company from going broke by instilling a very strong discipline in the financial reporting area. The demise of a lot of companies is that they don’t have strong financial reporting.
I think also a lot of people make a lot of noise about not making any money out of the photo industry, but when you look at their boats and their houses and their holidays they have ferreted away a lot of money over a long time ad it not fair that they say ‘look what the photo industry has done to me…’
What was your response when Canon walked into your office and told you they were going to set up an online retail operation?
RR: That was about five years ago. I remember (Canon Australia Consumer Imaging director) Jason McLean and an associate came into the office and Jason started off with this story about how Canon have communicated effectively with their customers and I think the words he used were that most Canon customers were unhappy with the retail offering existing in the marketplace and that Canon had to respond with what their customers needed, and that was direct online access to their product through Canon Australia.
I could feel my blood pressure going up and I could feel my ears getting red and then he said, ‘but don’t worry, we only want one or two percent of the market.’ At about that point for the first time in about 50 odd years I almost totally lost my temper, called them everything under the sun and thanked them for the respect that they had shown Ted’s and the industry – because I was talking for the whole industry which had given them the business they had built up over the 40 years I’d been associated with Canon.
They had sneakily set up all these consumer programs and photo competitions collecting all the registration cards for warranties and all those sorts of things, with the end plan being to use all that data to produce a database to start their online marketing.
After about five minutes I think it was David Utton who threw a bucket of cold water over me and I told them to get out. I think eff off were the words I used. Because I knew this was the thin edge of a wedge and five years later it’s not a thin edge any more, it’s a solid whack.
Canon has, it seems to me, an almost paranoiac attitude towards brand switching over the counter – was that mentioned at this meeting?
RR: Well the only reason they should be worried about brand switching is when their product is priced uncompetitively. The retailer on the floor, the salesperson who knows all the products, has to be honest with the customer. If there is a better product at a better price or a product that will better suit their needs, well yeah. They might come in looking for a Holden but might very well drive out with a Toyota. That’s retailing.
It always amazes me that suppliers always want you to carry their full range of product even though out of their 20 different models only three of them are hot. We can’t help it if a manufacturer makes a dud.
I always trained my staff to sell customers what they need, not what they want. Because quite often the two are at conflict. They come in off an ad or off a promotion and after due investigation you find out that’s not really what they need. And if you sell people what they need, and don’t rip them off or sell them a dud, they will respect you and come back and refer people to you.
Did you think your reaction at that meeting with Canon had any impact?
RR: Well they stepped back from going online and they then didn’t resurrect that idea until after I retired. And I think that speaks volumes.
But I don’t see anybody in the industry nowadays standing up to Canon. So then who is going to stand up to Nikon when they do it, or any of the others when they do it…Because the end game is an international sales office in Australia or just online. International ordering for the supplier but more probably international ordering by the consumer
So you’re surprised by the passivity of retailers in the face of Canon’s moves?
RR: Well I think that in a lot of cases small retailers – and Ted’s is a small retailer – you don’t feel empowered…
But the mum and dad retailers don’t even get supplied – it’s only the medium and above retailers who are part of the equation…
RR: I’m surprised that nobody has set up a supply chain for small retailers. Out of Hong Kong or Singapore or China, where the local retailer can order his two or three cameras at a time direct, avoid the GST like some consumers are doing and try and make some money.
So you think there’s a business opportunity there?
RR: There is – but certainly not for me.
Printing – do you think it’s all over with Gen X and Gen Y?
RR: I do a lot of printing at home. I order photo books online. I have an up to A4 printer (which I bought direct from Canon cheaper than I could get it from Officeworks). It comes back to thinking about what a customer can’t do at home. I can’t do canvas at home, I can’t do wide format at home, I can’t do books at home and I can’t do a lot of the other specialty type products.
Images online or on a storage disc or USB stick – they are not a photograph. You can’t pull them out of the box and show somebody…Most family’s VHS tapes nowadays get thrown in the skip when the kids clean up the house after the wake.
The printing business is still good if somebody can unlock the emotional key – not the price key – I think the 9 cent print and print-everything-for-a-special-low-price has put people off because they don’t want to come home with 1000 prints. And nobody is out there educating people how to sort prints.
So is the lack of printing business coming to photo stores the photo industry’s fault or the consumer’s fault?
RR: I go back to the halcyon days of Kodak, Agfa and Fuji all scrambling over a $100 million plus industry where it wouldn’t be unusual for the summer program for Kodak alone to be a $5 million spend advertising prints. And then Fuji doing about the same and Agfa putting in their two-bob’s worth. There is none of that now.
I’m struggling to remember the last ad for printing I’ve seen. Maybe on an Officeworks catalogue…
If you are not front of mind with the customer then you are quickly forgotten. The only people who are consistently advertising are Michaels – who do a great job for the industry – and they’ve really differentiated themselves as the high end, high spec, high tech place, and good luck to them. They’ll be one of the last standing. And Ted’s still advertise on a frequent basis. But now Terry Lane’s column in the Green Guide is the biggest regular photographic feature in the whole paper, where there used to be full of Camera House, Ted’s, Lanes Camera Store, Splitters…
It’s symptomatic of the industry that there isn’t that loose change in the drawer to have a bash at it.
I think people have almost come to believe that the photographic industry is dead. In fact the other day in the press they were talking about a company ‘having a Kodak Moment’ – meaning the company is about to go bust!
Do you think the industry could perhaps promote printing as a unified force?
RR: IDEA and PMA are collateral damage of an industry that’s fallen. But the support they get is minimal. In fact there hasn’t been a PMA meeting in Victoria this year. (Jeffrey where are you?) Collateral damage unless everybody can get together on the same page. The analogy I would draw is entering a rowing competition where half the boat is rowing forward while the other side of the boat is rowing backwards and the boat’s going nowhere. We’ve got an industry with two directions and its not big enough to support that. It really needs some action though it’s getting to the stage where it is going to be too little, too late.
Do you think there’s room for both PMA and IDEA?
RR: Definitely not.
What would be an alternative?
RR: Like it used to be, where PMA used to cover both wholesalers and retailers and both sides were happy to work together. Nowadays it seem like working together is the last thing we want to do.
Those people who have got the capacity to do a great job look at it and say, ‘well why should I bother?’. My challenge for anybody out there who thinks they have some great ideas is get up and do something. There are a lot of good people out there in both wholesale and retail who would love to get together and unite, but they need a strong leader and a cohesive force from both sides.
Do things which are doable rather than come up with ideas which 50 percent of the people straight away say will never work. Start with small successes. Social meetings, Build the base from there.
For instance if you tried the old-fashioned Photo Month with a $100,000 advertising it would never work but if you tried a PICA/PMA social night with some speakers taking about how to re-grow the business that might have legs. But not a profit-making exercise.
Do you think Ted’s made a mistake to go with HP?
RR: Anything is easy to judge in hindsight. The answer is no because they made a great offer at the time, an affordable offering, and they were good partners to work with. And don’t forget it was the first generation. My understanding was they had a second generation ready to unveil at Vegas and it was pulled literally weeks before. The new CEO decided that HP would no longer participate in the photo speciality business. Which is a real shame.
The biggest disappointment was they never delivered on the hub-and-spoke promise of one machine servicing three or four satellite stores.