Call it gall, grit, entrepreneurial spirit or that just plain bull-by-the-horns quality, the photo specialty retailers who’ve managed to stay afloat throughout the American public’s film-to-digital transition this century have done it by employing some audaciously creative sales and marketing tactics. They’ve had to flex, barter and risk their limited capital on new equipment, partnerships, store designs and business models—or else join ranks of the thousands (over a third of the country’s camera shops) who’ve tanked in the last five years.
Five years ago, Mike Woodland and Kevin Harayda were two managers at a plucky independent camera shop set all alone in a residential neighborhood of Allentown, Pa., a city not known for economic progress. Dan’s Camera City had been started over twenty years earlier by their boss, owner Dan Poresky, who’s goal had always been to help “everyday people” have a great time shooting and printing film. Film rolls were still coming in, but change was in the forecast, and Poresky, frankly, was more inclined to sell the business and retire than to enlist in the digital revolution. Woodland and Harayda knew their boss wanted several million for the operation. They had no where near that kind of cash, but they did have great relationships with some affluent customers … and a sort of brazen nerve. As Olympus regional sales manager Peter Ewen observed, “Here are two people who’ll always say, ‘Let’s try it.’ They do crazy things!”
At the time, Harayda and Woodland convinced four customer-investors to join them in a buyout attempt. The investors agreed, as long as they didn’t have to have a hands-on role in running the business. By June of 2003, the handoff was complete, just in time for Harayda and Woodland to shoulder the stress of having to recreate themselves as the owners of a digital imaging retail operation. “It was scary,” remembers Harayda. “But it’s still scary. Technology changes so rapidly, there’s simply no blueprint for what three years from now will look like. I’m a worrier, but to stay ahead of the curve, you can’t be too conservative.”