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Wednesday, 25 February 2009


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Probably the best summary on why the photography business is going the way it's going these days, Mike.

Surprisingly enough, however, I remember a conversation I had with my local dealer, where I purchased cameras and made prints. She told me once (like three years ago) that they expected digital to induce a big decrease in prints, when they found out the opposite: people was making much more prints, at that time, with their digital cameras.

But maybe this was only an initial peak: A few months after that day, I got first a small digital camera, then a dSLR. By now I must have like 25,000 pictures in my HD. And my family complains because I have printed 0 pictures since I started doing digital. Exactly 0 prints, although I have sent plenty of pictures to friends and family, and have a few of them uploaded to flickr et al.

In fact, the local dealer I mentioned above closed the shop where I used to go. And now they keep on working, but with less shops.

Maybe it varies from store to store, but the Wal-Mart where I live prints on Fuji Crystal Archive paper. I'm not an expert on photo paper, and I'm not sure if this is considered a "cheaper" paper by the experts, but I've always been pleased with the quality of prints I've had made at Wal-Mart (up to 8x10).

I remember finding a great in-town camera store when I moved to Wheaton, Illinois, in 1979 that would always develop my Kodacolor in "a week to ten days." (I put that in quotes because those exact words would roll off the clerk's tongues every time they sealed my cassettes in the envelopes.) I must say that the quality of the processing by their independent lab somewhere in Chicago was always superb. And, of course, I had no choice but to wait. No one else did it faster. And the quality was worth the wait.

By 1981, the Walgreen's in next-door Naperville was offering one-day processing by a Kodak lab up in Elgin. Color balance and exposure weren't up to the "week to ten days" independent lab, but I couldn't wait to get my pictures back (mostly baby/kid pix - my wife and I started expanding our family in 1980). And in the spring of 1983, the first one-hour lab opened at a shopping mall 20 minutes from home, and yes, because I couldn't wait to get my prints, I started going there. Quality? Definitely not up to the "week to ten days" lab. Shortly thereafter, the local camera store installed their own minilab, and the high quality "week to ten days" lab service was history. I started longing for the "good old days" of slow service - when that was the only technologically possible choice.

True, quality from minilabs went up, and today I marvel at the quality of prints I get from Costco within an hour of uploading my digital photos from the comfort of my own home computer, almost for free. Okay, sometimes they screw up the color balance or exposure, but they've always been more than willing to redo the job for free, and as fast as possible.


Your analysis is right on. I worked at a Ritz for about a year, a few years back. In the sales training, the fact of photofinishing being the real profit was emphasized repeatedly. Every camera sale was to be treated primarily as an opportunity to talk up the photofinishing, give them a coupon for a few free prints, and try to sell them a membership to the "Frequent Foto Club."

The trouble was, as a salesperson, the best way to make money was selling cameras (with accessories and warranties and such), and ignoring the lab as much as possible. There was no financial incentive to print anybody's pictures, or sell them enlargements or any other special printing services. I could tell, even then, that with the changes in printing trends resulting from all the new digital cameras that we were selling, this business model was doomed to become a self-serve printing kiosk instead of a camera store.

Indeed, my sense is that Ritz was done-in not so much by the conversion of photography to digital as by the big box stores that could virtually give away photo services for the proposition of attracting store traffic.

It's tough to find anyone willing to play the violin at Ritz's funeral. I've had no dealings with them myself, although I did meet one of the founders (of what would become Ritz) years ago. He rather struck me as a guy who won the lotto off a ticket he bought at a truck stop.

I do, however, feel badly for folks (mainly elderly) in small towns and suburbs who may have long depended on their local Ritz outlet for their film processing.

Very interesting and enlightening article! My question is this: The transition to digital in the consumer world is pretty mature. Its 2009. How did Ritz last this long?

Perfectly sensible to me. I've been shooting with digital (P&S and now DSLR) for almost 10 years. In that time I have a total of MAYBE 36 prints from those digital pictures, all but five were 4x6's to send to family that were computer-less at the time (now it's just my grandmother... but she's 88 and been a farmer all her life so I don't expect her to jump online anytime soon).

On the other hand, I just got a EOS Elan 7e from eBay, a couple rolls of B&W film and since my printer and scanner were both pushing 10 years old, a new Canon MP980 6-ink printer/scanner (with film scanner) so I might not ever add to that total of 36 professionally printed digital pics.

One question that comes to mind... hindsight is 20/20, but when Ritz was buying up all of these film labs, did they not notice these newfangled digital contraptions? Surely someone noticed that their profit per "good" photo from a 24 or 36 roll was astronomical... and that with digital you only print your best so all of that profit was bound to disappear. Should have changed the business model then.

Eamon your post is very interesting. I am afraid that I was a contributor to the financial problems of Ritz. I was not satisfied with their lab work and stopped having my photos developed by them, but I purchased a number of cameras from them. I did so because of their excellent return policy, competitive prices and the fact that I was able to see and handle a camera before buying it. Over the years I returned a number of cameras for a full refund, not because they were defective, but because, after using them for a few days, I decided they did not meet my needs. It appears that I was not contributing to their profit! I hope they come out of reorganization with a stronger business and that the people I know who have served me so well will be able to keep their jobs.

It would be interesting to see how much of that business also went to online printers.

I would imagine that's how Fotomat (remember them)operated from its many drive-up booths. One of the first things I learned as a photography student was how to make a contact sheet. After that, If I outsourced my film processing, I always ordered a contact sheet first before ordering any prints.

The camera store in our town now develops film for free, regardless of whether you order prints. The owner was telling me it was better than putting unused film through the minilab to stop the chemicals from going bad. This is not a good sign. (That and the fact that my negatives came back with holes. As in damaged. Not the sprocket holes, I can identify those.)

Jeff in Boston: "The transition to digital in the consumer world is pretty mature. Its 2009. How did Ritz last this long?"

Surely, the answer is by now quite familiar: easy credit!

A neighborhood friend is part owner of a mom and pop suburban camera store. A few years ago, basically all their business was photo processing in a mini-lab, although they were pretty well stocked with cameras and accessories. The drop in their photo printing business has hurt them.

Now that the shopping center they are in has a Target, they are really suffering. And they are not far enough from NYC not to feel the competition from the big camera retailers there (Adorama, B&H). And they can't survive on the small margins because they don't have anywhere the same volume of business.

"And they are not far enough from NYC not to feel the competition from the big camera retailers there (Adorama, B&H)."

No place in America is far enough away from NYC that they don't feel that....


If Ritz prints were of good quality maybe they would not be in this situation. My encounters with Ritz for photo printing has been horrible. Their staff was clueless and when I went to two different employees with the same set of prints where the colors were all muddy they told me two totally different things. When I talked to the person who seemed to be the regional "print guy" for the Ritz stores in the area he said that there was no way to set my profiles to theirs or embed my profiles or do anything other than let them keep trying again based on my complaint with a batch until they got it right, and then do it again with the next set of prints. It sounds like they let their prime money-maker fall apart. I bought a printer (not from them) which costs me more per print but saves me a world of time and frustration when I want prints fast. If I have more time, there are mail-order places that provide better quality service.

I once managed a couple of stores for Ritz, one in Columbia, South Carolina and one in San Antonio. At our monthly manager meetings the regional manager would go over the cameras with "spif"s, cameras that had sales bonuses for the salesman, and the importance of increasing photofinishing profits. I quit after a little over a year because I could not in good conscience try to sell cameras that I wouldn't buy myself. What was of greatest concern though, was that photofinishing was 50 to 100 percent more expensive than Walmarts(et al) or independent finishers and most customers were aware of it. It was whispered amongst ourselves that the expansionism of the 90's was intended to eliminate competition from the small independents by buying them out. That was just talk in the back room, of course, but even then I knew they would be left to compete with the big boxes and pharmacies that didn't depend on photofinishing to survive and that they would, unless they changed their business model, probably lose. Greed is a bitch.

This is a problem of a "supply" side economy. Shove as much product down our throats as fast and cheap as you can. Doing it faster and cheaper creates short term demand. But it doesn't benefit anyone in the long term. Sure people think it benefits them because they get stuff cheaper, but we (in the US) are seeing the long term results of what happens when you supply so much so fast that you run out of demand.

In the early '70s I managed a store in suburban Boston that called itself a "color lab." In fact, it did have a history as a mail-order lab, but by the time I got there, it was a basically a retail camera store with a send-out photo finishing service. Still we had many, many mail order customers from the old days who put their film into a "color lab" envelope and sent it to us for photo finishing. We had an employee who did nothing but take the film out of those envelopes and put them into different envelopes to go out to the processor. When the film came back from the processor, we would put it back in the Color Lab envelope and mail it to the customer. There was enough profit in the photo finishing to pay both us and the processor no problem.

My favorite story from this time is about a suspicious lady who brought her film into the store, and when she picked it up discovered that every image was blurry. I tried to explain to her about camera movement, depth of field and camera-to-subject distance, etc. She finally remembered that when she brought the film canister in, I had accidentally dropped it on the floor. I had, she proclaimed, "shaken up her pictures," and she undoubtedly believes it to this day.

Bill Poole

The mini-lab finished off quality photofinishing for the masses. Despite the massive profit margins, no one seemed particularly motivated to train the operators the fine points of getting good prints. The Fuji 370/380 series of digital minilab printers made getting really nice color prints a much easier task, but as these were introduced in the late 1990s/early 2000s it was too little, too late.

This business model reminds me of how razor blades, printer inks, contact lens solution, and salon hair products are sold. My father used to work for HP's printer division, and he said that his work on the printers themselves was considered secondary to the marketing efforts to sell the ink.

All the money was in the repeated ink sales, so printer quality was more a marketing/ competition concern than a product-oriented one. So long as customers bought more of their ink delivering systems than their competitors, they would make a profit off the ink.

As an aside, how do you operate one of those minilab machines anyway? Put in the film and out come prints, or is it more involved?

Not to pile on but, well, to pile on...

10 confessions of a ritz camera salesperson.


I never used Ritz. I never liked chains of stores. I went to bona-fide color labs and I did the B&W myself. The camera stores I went to were individual stores in and around Chicago. I would have to go from one to another to get what I was looking for or send off to B&H or Adorama for it.Now we have Calumet Camera, Helix, Central Camera. I buy film there if I ever need it. The rinky dink local store near me in Indiana is almost useless. I did buy one of my D300 bodies there because they gave me a great price, no shipping and no tax.

Just in case any camera manufacturers are reading this post, do not ignore the "mom and pop" camera stores. Because I am a photo industry independent rep, I know how the big camera companies treat many camera specialty stores-by ignoring their concerns.

However, just as a large company like Ritz could file for Chapter 11, many small stores can grow into larger stores. If the Nikons and Canons treated 900 small, specialty independents as they treated the 900 Ritz stores, Nikon and Canon would not have the financial losses they now have.
95% of the mom and pops that I call on have excellent credit, but certain camera companies will either not open them up as a dealer, or will not give them the pricing to be competitive.

Hint to Nikon, Pentax, Canon, Olympus, Fuji: It's time to be smart with the independent camera stores. Help them, and they will help you.

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