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Hard-sell tactics tarnish perceptions of portrait photography

High-pressure sales tactics used by some studio portrait businesses are resulting in an alarming number of complaints, and this is having a negative impact on businesses with a less aggressive sales approach, according to a long-established Perth-based portrait photographer.



Hard-sell techniques, non-transparent pricing, and allegedly deceptive promotions are characteristics of a specific portrait photography business model that has left many clients feeling ripped off.

At the heart of the model is the use of vouchers or prizes for photo shoots, often given away by local car dealerships  and even mortgage brokers to ‘sweeten the deal’.

‘It is assumed that if you are a photography studio you are going to try to rip off the client. This mean potential clients turn to the “part-timers” who seem less pushy, more open and there is a sense they are less likely to try to price gouge you.’ – Perth portrait photographer

 

These tactics are typically used by portrait franchises and shopping centre-based studios, with several businesses developing notoriety on the internet as a consequence.

A respected Perth studio portrait photographer with over two decades experience, who asked not to be named, told Inside Imaging that she has had clients who had been scarred by previous portrait studio experiences.

‘If it looks too good to be true…’ Unfortunately the huge chasm between  initial offers like this one and the actual bottom line has left a lot of customers with a negative perception of the portrait photography business. (Source: Groupon.)

‘People started coming through wanting baby and family photographs, who would on initial contact say they wanted to know up-front what the prices were,’ they said. ‘They had had a previous bad experience where they were left paying a small fortune for photographs after being pressured into buying them, with the threat that if they didn’t buy them, files would be destroyed.

‘It was literally every week we would take a call from someone immediately on the defensive when making an enquiry due to being previously put into a high pressure sales situation.’

The Perth photographer said that nine times out of 10 the studio was Viva Photography, a franchise with studios in WA and Victoria. Viva was founded by former AIPP president Vittorio Natoli, who is now also CEO of the new Emotions Wedding Photography franchise.  But there are other portrait studios across the country employing similar hard-sell tactics.

It need to be noted that disgruntled customers are not generally complaining about the quality of the work or professionalism of the photographers – even some one- and two-star reviews comment on the professionalism of the photography – but rather the sense that they have been coerced into spending more than they intended. Browsing various review sites, some clients more comfortable with the selling-up tactics employed still enjoyed the experience and the quality of the products they purchased, even though they were at higher-than-expected cost.

Here’s three typical negative reviews for Viva Photography in Melbourne:

…And here’s another three ‘not happys’ for Verve Portraits in Claremont, Perth. (Tech writer, Lara Brindley, also published a humorous essay in 2014 on Medium titled The Verve Experience):

…Meanwhile up in sunny Sinny, You Studios Photography in Drummoyne is also in on the voucher tactic:
After winning a contest or receiving a voucher, and thus being led to believe the photography will come at little or no cost, the clients tend to feel duped.

‘It didn’t take long before these competition “wins” were pretty well-known and word spread on social media telling people to be wary of them,’ the Perth photographer said. ‘Other businesses, such as ourselves, would hold competitions and people were immediately sceptical of them. When shopping centre displays were still a good means of generating leads, we had many people tell us they wouldn’t enter any more competitions from photographers, as they had already “won” contests which had cost them thousands of dollars in the end.’

In certain instances, clients redeem their free gift print, but only after a fierce back-and-forth with the salesperson. Reports of customer service rapidly deteriorating afterwards, as well as long delays with receiving a free gift, or not receiving it at all, are all over the internet.

The one- and two-star reviews are remarkably similar. Interestingly, they are juxtaposed with five star reviews, primarily from happy customers who booked a session anticipating they would be paying upwards of $1000.
‘As it is a very emotionally connected product, it can also mean clients overlook the cost as all they see is how they managed to get granddad and the kids together, or their precious newborn baby in an image,’ the Perth photographer said.

‘For others, though, the experience is one where they have gone in without any information on costs and are left shell-shocked.  I am not sure what they do now but eight to 10 years ago if you called Viva you would not be able to get a price out of them for different products.  They would re-direct any questions away from letting you know what something would cost.  They (customers) are pressured into making a purchase beyond their budgets, as they are threatened with the images being deleted – and when its you precious newborn baby this seems like you are hurting the baby by allowing this to happen.’

Cheryl Lardner, Verve Portraits director of sales and marketing, told Inside Imaging that management is aware of the negative online views, but they represent a tiny minority of customers.

‘We at Verve strive towards a benchmark of 95 percent customer satisfaction as a minimum standard and currently are achieving a 96 percent CSQ (Customer Satisfaction Questionnaire) score. 100 percent would be fantastic, however as you would be aware, that is difficult to achieve. We actively seek feedback from all of our guests at regular points throughout the customer journey.’

Cheryl says Verve is ‘very transparent’ in regards to pricing from the beginning of the customer experience.

According to Verve’s website, prices start at $195 for a standard 90-minute shoot and $250 for an extended shoot. An 8×10 in a frame is included in the price. But both positive and negative reviews suggest prices quickly head into four figures. The lowest-priced actual, physical product – a small, framed print – ‘starts at’ $395, with most artwork options over $1000. For instance a small square album featuring 10 – 15 images ‘starts at’ $2445. If you want a lay-flat version, that will ‘start at’ $2995.
‘Buy now, pay later’
Verve actually markets an HSBC credit card as a ‘buy now, pay later’ option with an interest-free period. The card costs $79 and attracts an interest rate of 25.99 percent, with a minimum Verve purchase of $1000 as part of the deal. So for only $79, you get to be in debt to a credit card company for at least $1000, at a near-usurious interest rate!

Another interesting page on the website offers vouchers for Verve Portraits to schools and community groups: ‘At Verve, community support is of high importance. Over the past decade we have provided hundreds of donations to schools and community groups to achieve their fundraising goals.’ (First prize, a Verve Portraits gift voucher. Second prize, two Verve Portraits gift vouchers!)

People may argue there’s nothing wrong with pushy sales tactics and tricky pricing – ‘buyer beware’ and all that. And pushing a client toward printed products and away from digital files is beneficial for both the industry and, ultimately, the client. And while the voucher-driven studio portrait experience may be an unpleasant surprise for some unsuspecting clients, it’s a proven business model that’s operated for decades in a tough market.

The Perth photographer said her full-time studio portrait business and others have been ‘tarred with the same brush’, which is driving clients away from the high-end studio.

‘It is assumed that if you are a photography studio you are going to try to rip off the client. This mean potential clients turn to the “part-timers” who seem less pushy, more open and there is a sense they are less likely to try to price gouge you.

‘There is also the problem that the public doesn’t understand why professional photography is priced at what it is, because after all it’s “just a digital file’ and that doesn’t cost anything – so when companies that do need to charge professional rates go well beyond that, it hurts everyone else in the industry.

‘It is interesting that these companies often have in their terms and conditions that there is no cooling off period and all sales are final.’

(Inside Imaging approached Viva Photography and You Photography for comment but there was no response by time of publication.)

 

19 Comments

  1. Robert Piccoli Robert Piccoli December 7, 2018

    These businesses are behaving badly and giving all photographers a bad name.
    It’s a shame that these short-sighted practices occur. As a result, we have to work twice as hard to gain the trust and respect of new clients, many of whom have previously had bad experiences with these types of studios.

  2. Lea Lea June 2, 2019

    Oh, God – I wish I saw this article before I went to Viva yesterday – they are exactly like you say…evasive on pricing, even when I stated before the session that we we were on a tight budget…” That’s fine, we can work within your budget”…I should have listened to my inner voice and just forfeited the $750 prize voucher my daughter had “won”. We were totally rumbled…you are emotionally attached to the photos that look so nice and how can you possibly choose just one or two…. totally duped and now with a big debt to pay. It’s 2:30am and I can’t sleep because of it. I feel so stupid that I let them run right over me.

  3. May Tan May Tan January 17, 2020

    I should read this article before I fall into ‘VIVA Photography’ gift voucher trap. My storey is exactly the same as Evie P comment that left 2 years ago. Viva Photography is refused to refund $310. I am disputing this matter with my credit card now due to the service is not rendered. PLEASE AVOID VIVA PHOTOGRAPHY. Non-transparent pricing.

  4. Zoey Zoey February 6, 2020

    I really wish I had read this before I went into Good Life Portraits in Perth. We got completely ripped off. We told them we really couldn’t afford it and they called us every few days until we gave in. They said we didn’t have to buy anything as our “voucher we won” would cover at least one or two photos and they come with the digital copy. We were pretty happy with that considering we thought all we needed was a couples photo for our budget wedding. Well we got our little prints and bought another Cos it was really too good of our 11 month old. We got the digital prints and they are such low terrible resolution you can’t do anything with them. We were promised we were ok to reprint from them and they were good resolution. I hate being lied too. They promote how they are a family business and how they look after families. Well they just shafted this little family. It took us over an hour to get ready then over an hour to drive there. Then to keep a baby and 2 year old occupied and happy for the shoot was so stressful. They are a joke.

  5. MG MG August 13, 2020

    Well, I wish to say something in defense of these businesses.
    it is not true that the sale is unsolicited, most of them leave competition boxes out in different retail businesses, it is your own decision to grab a pen and fill the card with your details. Pretty much all of them offer you a free photo shoot and the opportunity to walk away with a free print of your choice, if YOU choose to buy 15 of them or a big piece to put on your wall, you get told a price and pay for it you can’t blame them for their sales tactics. it’s like going to buy a TV, you have in mind you want to spend $800 and then the sales person shows you a 2k one and explain how better it is, you buy it and then accuse him of stealing your money! makes no sense to me. Photography is an expensive business, not just because of the physical cost of prints, equipment etc.. but also because of the creative mind behind it. Always puzzle me when I see people covered in tattoos complaining for the cost of a photo, when they spent thousands on black ink! If you have a weak personality and regret spending money on memories for a lifetime, then maybe get someone else to manage your life.. don;t go around complaining that someone forced you to spend money!

    • William L William L October 30, 2020

      I think you’re right, for the most part. People often have an expectation of free, which is hard to educate them out of, especially if they’ve received the voucher for “free.”

      I believe the main issue is that we have high-volume portrait franchises who market like a McDonalds and charge like a Michelin. They’re supposed to be cheap and cheerful, and that’s where the sticker shock comes in. I bet they don’t talk through the process first before they have them sit their “free” session, either.

      This is why I’d never do associate photographers or franchise my brand out. I prefer to collaborate with other artists and pass sales on to each other than compete with them. The best way to beat a franchise is to not become like them. That’s why I have set package prices, and they’re visable to anyone visiting my website.

      This turns away a lot of people – I can see it in my stats! However the customers I do get are committed to quality and are prepared to pay for heirloom products. I even offer to break down my pricing for them, but no one has take that up yet, haha.

  6. Connie Vuglar Connie Vuglar December 22, 2020

    I too feel ripped off by Good life Portraits.
    Yes the quality of work was very very good and the people were really lovely which made it a lot harder to say no
    I agreed to pay for a package at $50 a fortnight as I’m only on the dole and take home $485 a fortnight
    I budgeted hard and agreed to $100 a month
    Just to find they have been very erratic so.e months since June they got it right at $101.95
    Then they took $229 one months and I rang and complained yesterday and asked them to stop taking money out of my bank as I’m struggling
    Just to find an hour later they took $229 which I’m disputing as I had $42 in my bank for my medications for the fortnight only to find yesterday after talking to them they ripped $218 out of my bank overstating me by $176
    I’m so dissapointed
    This was the first photographer I’d ever been to in 45 years

  7. Fritz Fritz March 20, 2021

    Viva Photography in Rockingham, Western Australia needs to be urgently looked into by Consumer Affairs with action taken if found to be using questionable bait advertising, pressure selling techniques and other consumer law breaches? My step daughter and partner recently went in with a winning voucher to save some money for photo’s with their new born baby. They are in their early twenties with a large mortgage so money is tight. They told family relatives that they felt sick as they were leaving the photo studio knowing that they had been taken advantage of. [approx. $5,000.00 (incl gst) bill for the 45 minute photo session. They were placed onto a loan through the studio]. There were approx 20 unframed photo’s 8×10 inches which did not look professional. My step daughter has now had to get a part-time job delivering advertising mail while she get’s someone to look after her baby to try and help pay off the loan. What I say is that Andrew from Viva Photography Rockingham needs to be ashamed of himself of what he is doing to “nice young couples”. Loading them up with unrealistic levels of debt by charging them what works out to be in this case over one hundred dollars ($100.00) per minute for the 45 minute photo session. PS : Looks like Viva photography in Rockingham have been doing this for years because there is a similar story dating back to December 2009 on http://www.ripoffreport.com. PS PS My wife has had some photo’s done through another Viva store years ago and that went well (And those photo’s look great – you can tell they were taken by a professional skilled photographer. So my concern in particular is the Rockingham store). Not good for the Viva Photography brand as a whole either.

    • Yhana Lucas Yhana Lucas April 6, 2022

      Hi, I don’t know if you’ll get notified about this reply – but if you do and see it, please contact me – Google my name, Yhana Lucas, and you’ll find a way.

  8. Sue Colman Sue Colman January 4, 2022

    My daughter has just won a $1k offer for photography from Goodlife Photos.
    Obviously another trap. Any reviews about this please? I’ve told her to keep away from them.

    • Keith Shipton Keith Shipton Post author | January 4, 2022

      Hi Sue. There’s a Readers Comment below which indicates it has some unhappy customers.

    • jane jane January 30, 2022

      I won the same voucher from Goodlife and decided to use it for my daughter’s newborn photos. They charge a session sitting fee of over $200 and then in order to get any photos you have to buy prints, you cannot get digitals. I ended up leaving with 9 photos, and spent $3000. It was too late to go anywhere else as my daughter was premature and already a month old at the time of the session. For a single mother who was unemployed at the time, that $3000 was upsetting to part with.

      • Kathrin Otto Kathrin Otto June 6, 2022

        Omg we just went there as I bought a voucher on the baby expo. I had a maternity and newborn shoot and never got told that the cheapest option to take some pics home was $3000 after our $700 credit we had. What a rip off. I feel so stupid and really can’t afford it atm. Really annoys me as the reviews online seemed quite good. So disappointed with what we got and how much we spend.

        • Caroline Caroline June 17, 2022

          I understand how you feel, Kathrin. If you can’t afford it you must feel really miffed.
          BUT one of my mothers group friends had a similar experience when her mother-in-law gifted the family a “free photo shoot” voucher when their boys were little. Back then – nearly 20 years ago – she ended up spending $1,600 on 2 large pieces of wall art. I remember all the mums at mothers group talking about it and being so shocked about how much it cost.
          BUT fast forward to today, and I realise that she is the only one of the mothers group who has great photos of her boys and the family when they were little. I don’t think that I could put a dollar value on the worth of those photos. They looked amazing in her home, and always caught the attention of visitors, not to mention how her boys felt being special enough to be up there on the wall and praised by visitor, or just seen every day.

          SO if you really can’t afford it, I understand how bad it makes you feel. But if you just feel ripped off because it costs so much, then think about the value the photos could bring to your family over the years.

          I in no way condone the “bait and switch” practice of offering “free” things which end up costing an arm and a leg. Photographers should be very clear up front about what the clients might end up spending.

        • MC MC June 20, 2022

          Hey Kathrin, I’m sorry to hear you had this experience. I can complete sympathise, the whole experience we had with Good Life Portraits just felt so predatory…

          My partner “won” one of the vouchers… But after the shoot, when you’re presented with the prices, you realise you’re strapped in for an emotionally torn ride, as it dawns on you your “prize” covers almost nothing… And the feeling it’ll be “wasted” if you don’t spend something… it just smells like classic, predatory marketing mechanics.

          After the shoot, the photographer left us with one of the office helpers to be taken through the images. Seems like a super nice person, but in hindsight, we feel like the whole time we were just being fed a constant narrative of incredibly transparent seeming stories about how amazing the boss is, and yet the stories included the staff member paying thousands for photos themselves… I mean, seriously? Not even a reasonable staff discount?… In hindsight, we felt like the stories were just an attempt to “normalise” the pricing… And the whole time, they kept encouraging us to add the photos to the “short list”. It’s so emotionally difficult to say no to a beautiful photo of someone you love, despite how insane the prices are.

          What seems super sketchy is that they keep reiterating that you’ll get the digitals of the prints you buy. The assistant kept saying it to us in a hushed tone, like it was some secret way of getting more value out of the process… but the way it was worded didn’t prepare us for the small, low resolution images we received. After the thousands of dollars we spent, receiving those just felt spiteful. It made everything so bitter.

          The photos are beautiful, the photographer is clearly talented, but realistically most people can only afford so many at those absurd prices. The photos we left behind just feel like emotional hostages… We found it repulsive.

          Next time we want photos, we feel there are enough super enthusiastic and talented hobby photographers trying to break onto the scene that we’ll find one, pay them a completely fair price for a fun shoot, get the photos we really like touched up and printed exactly how we want them, keep all the digitals and hopefully have some change left over…

  9. Yhana Lucas Yhana Lucas April 6, 2022

    Hi Keith, I’d be keen to chat about this article and practise if you can get in touch?

  10. M&M M&M April 26, 2022

    It saddens me to read of the actions of a few. Lyle Ramsey from the USA back in the days, late 80’s and others introduced the concept of a sitting and a free 10 x 13cm print as a “loss leader” to the industry. The idea can be tweaked so that you get more sittings at a lower sale value or less at a higher. I spent 40 years in the industry and for a lot of that used these sorts of promotions with great success. I can count on the fingers of two hands in all those years the problems with customers it caused, and we were doing 250 – 800 sessions a year. It’s about honesty and transparency, 85% of our sittings spent good averages and the rest took the free print, of that 15% (The free prints takers) 90% returned to us in the following 2 years and had another session and spent above the average. Honesty works if you explain the catch at the time of booking the session, we would say the deal is this, we will take wonderful photos, you get one for free, do not blame us if you want to buy more, but your welcome to take your choice of just the free print.

  11. Bec Bec May 16, 2022

    Viva photography Rockingham are an absolute joke and should be ashamed of themselves. I was very pregnant and scammed into paying a deposit after being told I had won a photo shoot. Only to find out on the day that I get zero images at the end of the shoot, no digital copies of the images and have to pay lots of money for printed images of the photoshoot that I did not want. They called me to tell me that I had won a maternity photo shoot being so pregnant I was so excited as I had never won anything before. They then gave me very little information in the phone call and confused me with what I had won and scanned me into paying a $50 deposit to save a space for the shoot. I then talked to the photographer late afternoon before the shoot before the booking for the next morning and he explained things but not in detail and then made me feel at unease when the shoot was they next morning as I was confused with what I had won. I had won nothing which was what the reality was. I called the next morning to clarify things and they said I get one measly A4 print of the photo shoot and then have to pay for the other photos that I would like which were a stupid amount of money and could not have digital copies. I asked them to refund my deposit of $50 as I did not want to continue with the shoot anymore after how they had handled things and the fact that I realised I had won nothing. They said they will not refund me the money unless I come take part in the shoot. I was too pregnant to deal with all the stress of it so I lost my $50 deposit which they should have refunded immediately. They should be ashamed of themselves and should never take advantage of people like this. This is not how a business should be run and this is not how you build positivity in our community. I am disgusted with how I was tricked into this as they were very clever with their tactics. I thought I was smarter than this and would never be tricked into something like this. Let’s call this pregnant brain but I would like to warn everyone. Avoid them at all costs and beware!!!!!

    • Keith Shipton Keith Shipton Post author | May 17, 2022

      Hello Bec. Thanks for taking the time to tell us about your unfortunate experience. Sadly, it’s not a one-off, as other comments here indicate. I’m sure many of the people reading this, most of whom are part of the photographic community, will be uncomfortable reading about how you have been treated by a successful business from that community. We are not all like that! Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear as if Viva and the other operators who use this aggressive approach to marketing are going to change what has proven to be an effective tactic. I think they actually justify it by deciding customers like you are naive and, you know, ‘buyer beware’ (‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’) The only solace we can offer is that the Viva studio owner Andrew (he doesn’t provide a surname) and his team will also read what you have written about your treatment and perhaps feel a twinge of guilt and/or embarrassment. But probably not.

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