South Florida camera stores refocus to compete with e-commerce

Bristol’s Camera was one of the longest-running businesses in Key Biscayne when it closed in 2012 after more than a half-century.

“A lot of online retailers like Amazon became our competitors,” former Bristol’s salesperson Leo Quintana said. “If you’re a local business, it’s hard to compete with that.”

Like booksellers, record shops and video stores, camera retailers have taken a punch in the digital age. More than 1,300 American camera stores closed in the past decade, a decrease of 35 percent, according to the research firm IBISWorld.

Even traditional photography-supply giants such as Eastman Kodak Co. have hit hard times. After coming out of bankruptcy in 2013, Kodak abandoned consumer products and moved into commercial printing and technology for the graphics industry.

Blame online sales, camera phones and Big Box stores, say experts. The $2.9 billion camera store industry has seen half its revenue drop off in the past decade as bricks-and-mortar retailers struggle to keep prices low. And camera retailers’ revenue is expected to drop 2.2 percent in 2014, according to IBISWorld.

At longstanding camera store Pitman Photo Supply in South Dade, for instance, traffic has dropped to about 82 customers a day, compared to an average of 100 daily customers in 2004, according to general manager Gary Steinmann.

Those who keep coming in to Pitman and other stores are looking for personalized care and expert advice. “One of the biggest things for camera stores is providing a superior customer service experience,” said Britanny Carter, an IBISWorld industry analyst. “Camera stores really can’t compete just on price.”

Surviving retailers are also expanding inventory, holding classes and offering opportunities to meet well-known photographers.

In a way, said IBISWorld’s Carter, camera shops are becoming “niche community centers. They’re [focusing] more on providing workshops, providing events for photography enthusiasts to connect.”

‘Tunnel vision’

Professional South Florida nature photographer Robert Chaplin is one of the shoppers caught in the price whirl. Though he tries to shop locally, he often ends up buying photo equipment online from giant New York-based B&H Photo Video.

“I buy professional-grade equipment, and B&H prices are hard to beat,” Chaplin said. Sales tax usually makes the difference. A business without a physical location in Florida doesn’t have to collect Florida sales tax — and on an $8,000 camera, that amounts to $560 in Miami-Dade County. “That’s not pocket change,’’ said Chaplin.

Local bricks-and-mortar camera retailers are all too familiar with the changing market. Ritz Camera & Image LLC, which had a Dadeland Mall store, closed locations across the country in 2012. Calumet Photographic in Fort Lauderdale closed in March, and new company owner C&A Marketing has no plans to re-open that store, a spokeswoman said.

To combat online competition, downtown Miami’s Electric Avenue negotiates with customers who point to B&H prices for photo equipment. But the store can’t always bring prices down to e-commerce levels, said Electric Avenue general manager Dennis Gonzalez.

“Sometimes Amazon has some off-the-wall price that we can’t match,” he said. To further reduce customer costs, the store offers Groupon and LivingSocial deals for photography classes as well as free valet parking for all shoppers.

Electric Avenue rents equipment and a third-floor photo studio to supplement sales revenue, Dennis Gonzalez said. The store also makes sales online, with free shipping for customers in Miami-Dade County.

It helps that the store offers a range of electronics — from car accessories to computers — making it a “one-stop shop” where customers can fill several needs, he added.

Camera shoppers often end up online because they have “tunnel vision” about getting the lowest price, said Tommy Gonzalez, who owns World Wide Foto in Miami. Often, that means compromising on quality.

“They come to us after they bought it,” he said. “‘Oh, I didn’t get the strap, I didn’t get the battery.’”

Gonzalez said photographers often try to use World Wide Foto’s merchandise and expertise to make decisions about what they’re going to buy somewhere else.

“People come in and spend an hour with you knowing that they’re not going to buy from you,” he said.

To survive in that environment, World Wide Foto has zoomed in on the particular needs of professional photographers. The store on Biscayne Boulevard specializes in lighting equipment, as well as items that online retailers can’t easily ship, such as large background papers for photo shoots.

Gonzalez also opened a second business, Carousel Studios, less than a mile from World Wide Foto. Carousel Studios rents photography studios and high-end photo equipment.

Changing focus

At the Leica Store in Coral Gables, owner David Farkas has turned to special events to bring in customers.

The strategy is working. About three dozen people turned up on a recent weeknight to see South Florida nature photographer Paul Marcellini, who displayed his Everglades scenes and fielded enthusiastic audience questions about shutter speed and alligator avoidance.

Marcellini was part of a monthly lecture series whose goal is to turn the high-end camera store into a hub for photographers.

“Anybody can have a store,” said Farkas said. “We wanted to have a space where we could really create interest.”

The store hosts regular meetings of camera enthusiasts, offers photography instruction and uses its ample gallery space to showcase photography.

“That’s the advantage of this place over other stores,” said Carlos Causo, a professional photographer who frequents the Leica Store. “Look at this exhibition. This is [photography by] Mary Ellen Mark, one of my heroes. I met her here!”

Pitman Photo Supply, on South Dixie Highway, has also emphasized events as a way to draw customers to the store. Along with classes and a room displaying local photography, Pitman sponsors the Junior Orange Bowl photography contest.

Pitman has diversified its services in recent years to supplement its retail sales, said Steinmann, the general manager, by processing film and transferring slides to digital format. Staffers also help customers print iPhone photography using the Pitman app.

“We are still looking for ways to increase the output and bring down the price for the consumer where we can,” Steinmann said.

The 11,000-square-foot store has also expanded its selection of brands, Steinmann said. Pitman offers at least eight brands of camera bags alone, along with a wide range of cameras, lenses, accessories, frames and scrapbooking materials.

And as the customers’ needs change, so will Pitman’s services, Steinmann said.

“At this point, with technology doing what it’s doing, who knows what the future holds?” he said.