The Imaging Alliance is Helping Specialty Camera Retailers Forge a New Path
Retail and digital imaging are two totally separate industries that have experienced something of a similar story arch over the past decade or so. They both were on top of the world for a time, riding a wave of success, only to be upended by competition in the form of new and emerging technologies. For retail, it was the explosive growth of the internet and ecommerce shops. And for the camera market, it was the smartphone and its ability to put a camera in your pocket at all times.
So, imagine the rocky road that specialty camera retailers have been on this whole time as well.
That’s where an organization like the Imaging Alliance becomes incredibly important for an industry. Lead by Jerry Grossman, the association is just about to close the books on its second full year, and momentum is really starting to pick up for the group. The collection of imaging manufacturers, retailers, and media brands are on a mission to improve not only the technology itself, but also how retailers can position themselves and all of the new and exciting imaging gear in a way that benefits everyone involved.
Old school shops with walls of lenses are now mixing in virtual reality and 360-degree cameras and drones. It’s an odd collection of tech, but it speaks volumes about how this industry has evolved.
We recently spoke with Grossman, the executive director for the Imaging Alliance, about some of the new initiatives the group has undertaken and what they’re seeing as they stride to help retailers and manufacturers work closer together.
Dealerscope: Jerry, it's always good to have some time to talk with you and the Imaging Alliance.
Grossman: Always a pleasure to speak with you as well, Rob. We're big fans of your magazine and what you're doing, so we appreciate the opportunity to talk about the Imaging Alliance.
I know you've got a lot happening around education initiatives, which we’ll get into. But before we dive into that, how have things been with the Imaging Alliance? What’s new with you guys?
Well actually it's been an incredible run here. Over the last just about two years since we really sort of formed the Imaging Alliance by joining the old PMA with the old PMDA, we now have about 25 manufacturer members or non-retail members, and about 28 retailers who have joined our board as well. And our membership includes everyone from manufacturers like Canon and Nikon, Fuji and Sony and Panasonic and all the major ones, to media companies like Madavor media National Geographic. We also have associations like the Association of Professional Photo Organizers. So, we have really a wide array of members, and one of the things we're trying to do now is reach out to newer tech companies. So, recently companies like Rylo, Kodak PIXPRO, and Humaneyes have also joined the Imaging Alliance board.
So it's been fantastic from that side and also on the retailer side, we're doing a lot with retailers now. We have, like I said, around 28 retail members, and we're looking to have more join. And just working together with manufacturers and industry groups and retailers sitting around the same table talking about issues that affect everyone has really been fulfilling and exciting, and has really been getting a great response.
It’s always awesome to hear about and see that kind of growth for an industry association like yours. And that kind of growth lends itself nicely to trying to launch education initiatives. So tell us a little bit about some of those new efforts the Imaging Alliance has undertaken.
We as an industry association feel that there are things that we should be talking about that no one else is talking about. One is that people should be using real cameras and when I use the term real cameras, I don't mean to denigrate smartphones, but I do mean to say that there are times when smartphones take pictures, but there are also times when you need a longer lens or a better exposure system or you know you're in a low light situation and you really need a real camera. So we're embarking on one educational aspect, which is trying to show people that these are the kinds of pictures that you just can't take with a smartphone. While we don't say you shouldn't have your smartphone with you all the time, we do say you really need to understand that you should also have a real camera with you. That's the first part.
The second part is, we want people to print more. And we recently went down to the Traveling Moms Summit in Orlando and we talked to 51 bloggers about the importance of continuing a family legacy, and the fact that because people aren't printing like they used to, that all these pictures that people are taking and throwing in the cloud or keeping on their phone might be lost one day. And for all those years that people were actually passing down their family histories through pictures—that may go away. There is a whole generation of Millennials and Generation Ys and Xs that they really didn't live through the print experience. So the second part of this initiative is trying to get people to understand that they should be printing more.
We have a hashtag: #PrintYourBest. We have an Instagram campaign going on right now. We have a campaign on Twitter. Our other hashtag is #RealCamerasRock, and we're asking people to upload pictures that they took with a real camera to kind of show the difference. So those two education initiatives from an industry standpoint are really starting to take off now, and we're getting a lot of feedback from retailers and a lot of feedback from these bloggers who really appreciate it.
What kind of response have you seen through these campaigns?
Well we've had a really good reaction to both the hashtags on social media channels. We also generated three pamphlets that we want retailers to use to talk about with their customers the kinds of albums they can be printing. We have one called "10 Photo Albums that You May Not Have Thought Of," and it's simple ideas like, bring your kids in and do an ABC album where every picture starts with a different letter of the alphabet. Or one where "These are the first things I've done" and it's the all of a child's "first" things, and create an album like that.
So there are training ideas that we want retailers to invite their customers in and have them sit down with them and say, "Here are the things you should be printing, and by the way, here's another idea on these are the kinds of pictures you can be taken with real cameras that you can't take with a smartphone." Getting retailers involved is a very important part of this, and they've really been responding and I think what we're starting to see are retailers that are having in-store training programs for their customers on these two topics.
You mention retailers and getting them involved. That’s obviously a major part of what you’re doing. But in what other ways are you engaging with retailers as an organization?
Well, our program that we've been running for about ten years now called Portraits of Love is where we're sort of taking a new tact. Over the years what we've done with Portraits of Love is we've gone to military bases and that's the program where we get volunteer photographers to offer military families free portraits to send to their deployed soldiers overseas. And, like I said, it always happened on a military base. This year because we have so many retailers involved what we did is, we're extending it to police, firefighters, and first responders. And what we're doing is asking during the month of November for retailers to invite those groups into their stores and we're going to help them get a photographer in there to take free family portraits of firefighters, police, and first responders to sort of extend that program, and they're very excited about it. And for us or for the retailer, in addition to giving back, it's a very philanthropic thing to do. It's also getting people in the stores. And people are coming in and while they're waiting to get their picture taken they're learning about the retail location, they're obviously seeing products on the shelves. So it really should sort of help everyone all around, so we're pretty excited about that this year.
One of the things we’ve talked about in the past is the parallel between the imaging and retail industries as both have sort of grown together in their struggles. From your perspective, how has the relationship between retail and imaging evolved over time?
Well you know it's interesting because obviously the photo retail channel has been around for a long time. It's a well-documented story that a lot of them have gone out of business, and there's been a real shake out. But what we've seen or what I've personally seen also through our magazine is the new generation of business owner—a lot of times it's family business so it's the children of the founders or the grandchildren—who are looking at this in a whole different way. They're not resting on their laurels, but they're trying to figure out what are the new ways and things that they can do to drive traffic into their stores.
One of the things that we're seeing is, it's the very beginning stages of accepting 360 cameras and drones and products that are a little bit, you know, not like film, like digital cameras, but they're sort of a step beyond. And what we're trying to do with the Imaging Alliance is figure out how to get products like Humaneyes' Vuze camera, and like Kodak's PIXPRO, and like Rylo into these stores, because a lot of these products are being bought online right now. But it's still an imaging product.
HumanEyes Technologies' Vuze XR Camera
So our feeling is if we can get retailers comfortable with those new kinds of products and let these retail locations give an experience to someone walking in the store so it's not just someone going online and buying a camera but walking into a corner of the store and talking about immersive video and having large displays and showing people with 360 cameras are, and even having headsets—headsets aren't really sold in these photo stores, but maybe they should be. So, retail is really changing and we're sort of trying to push them along by trying to figure out the programs that make sense where they can be profitable, but they could also invite new customers into their stores that they haven't seen before.
Are your retailers open to this kind of change? And even if they are, there certainly have to be some challenges in adopting and adapting?
They're open to it for sure. A few of them have you know have tried it and it hasn't worked. A few of them are a lot more open to it. What we're trying to do, what we've sort of recognized within the Imaging Alliance—and again when I talk about the alliance it's not me, it's companies talking to each other—is that, there really hasn't been an effort to get education out there. Photo retailers are a lot comfortable right now selling digital cameras than they're also selling 360 cameras and drones because they really haven't been trained enough; they're just not comfortable with it.
But what we're saying is, if we can get together, maybe take a handful of retailers and do a test market in six or seven or eight retailers, and say if we give the people behind the counter the training and if we give them the displays, if we do all the right things to set them up for success rather than failure then we think that it'll be positive for everyone, and we're going to learn from it. We do think that there is an opportunity, but because as the Imaging Alliance we can—you know, even though the companies in the alliance are our competitors, they understand that they need to work together for the common good of the industry, and that's really kind of the fun part of it. So we're going to be working with companies like Kodak PIXPRO, and like Humaneyes, and like Rylo, and a few others are working right now to go into some retail stores and figure out how to sell these things, how to make the photo retail channel a viable place for people to walk in and buy this product category.
Have you seen any retailers who’ve made the switch into new imaging technologies, and who are doing it right?
Honestly I haven't seen a lot of it. I know that when I was out at B&C camera in Las Vegas, they’ve got a fantastic store, and they probably went the furthest that I've seen in having the right displays and in having the people who understand how to sell it. I'm seeing more and more, like I was down at Bedford Camera in Arkansas, and they're pretty heavily into drones and they understand the new technologies. But quite honestly, other than stories like B&H and Adorama that have sort of embraced this in a big way, I haven't seen a lot of smaller retailers really sort of go at it.
But that's one of the objectives of what we're trying to do is try to show retailers, and quite honestly learn ourselves, and then show them some things that they could do to try to attract people into their stores. A lot of it is marketing, right? It's not just what do you do in the store, but who's your audience? What we're seeing is a lot of these cameras, it's not really a consumer audience but it's more of a commercial audience. So go into local police departments, go into local law enforcement, go into schools, go into libraries, go out in their own territories and go and sell these products, because a lot of them, like I said, have more commercial or educational applications that we think can also be a breakthrough for these guys.
You mentioned that one of your newer members is Humaneyes, a company we’re familiar with and who we’ve talked with frequently—their North American General Manager Jim Malcolm. I know they’ve been heavily involved in their own educational programs around 360-degree and VR cameras, and getting those products into schools so students can learn about them and have hands-on experience with them. So, the need for education is clearly something this industry understands.
Absolutely. And Mr. Malcolm is a very good friend and a very smart guy, and he understands that education is such an important part of this, it really is.
One of the things I think about with retail, and you mentioned the experiential aspect of this—not too long ago Best Buy launched these photography workshops in their stores, where they're trying to get people to come in to learn about what they're doing with a camera. What’s your take on that kind of a program, and do you think that's a strategy that smaller camera shops and independent store owners can look to?
Well, I mean, I think it's almost as if Best Buy and the photo specialty stores kind of know what they're doing on that front. I really love the camera experience shops and what they're doing there, because they're dedicating retail space once again to the category. During the heyday of the point and shoot camera, if you will, Best Buy had 25, 30, 35 SKUs out there of point and shoot cameras. And then a lot of that went away, and the department got a lot smaller. I know that they've really rededicated themselves to this segment in a big way, which is good.
I don't think that Best Buy necessarily competes with the photo specialty stores because the footprint that Best Buy has is so much larger. You could go into a state, and I'll make it up—Wyoming, let's say, and there may be one or two camera stores in the whole state. But there are a lot of Best Buys. And I think that having a large mass-market store like Best Buy embrace the category again can only be good for everyone. As they say, the high tide raises all ships, and the more imaging stories we can get out there and the more people that are experiencing real cameras, and long lenses, and all the software that needs to be sold, I think it's great for the whole category. I do really applaud them. I think it's great that they're sort of rededicating themselves to the category in a big way.
It's kind of neat to see. And I mean it felt like for a time there very clearly the smartphone had an impact on this market and kind of where it was going and what it what it's gone through. But at the same time now we're seeing this come full circle to where the smartphone is playing right back into the rebirth and reemergence of this market. It's cool to see sort of the different takes on how one retailer may go about it as opposed to an organization like the Imaging Alliance.
Exactly. And honestly, what's interesting and exciting to me is that it used to be the first time a child or a teenager picked up a real camera was when they were either 18 years old and into photography or they were 21 and they were in college. Now we have kids that are nine, 10, 11, 12 years old taking pictures like crazy. That can only bode well for the future of this category, because kids start to take pictures when they're 12, hopefully become excited about photography when they're 15, and then they start to buy cameras when they're 18, and you have this whole crop of kids, or a new generation of photographers, if you will, that started much earlier than their kids used to start.
I think that there's going to be a graduation effect where we're going to see people starting to really step up from smartphones because they're going to get, I don't want to say tired of it, but they're going to understand what the limitations of a smartphone are, and they're going to say, "Wow this is really fun. I want to do something else with it." And hopefully that's going to be the future of our category.