To survive in a digital age, camera retailers reposition

Gordon Allen opened his first camera store in northern Nevada in 1975.

Since then, Allen says, nine independent camera retailers in Reno and Sparks, one in Carson City, and a handful of big box retailers dabbling in camera sales have folded.

Gordon's Photo Service stores in Reno and Carson City are the only independent retail camera shops still in business. Though stores such as the Camera Clinic and Nevada Camera & Repair, both in Reno, make a living servicing camera equipment and selling used cameras, Gordon's is the only full-service retail camera shop and processing center left standing in northern Nevada.

Gordon's isn't the only independent photo retailer across the United States who has faced significant pressure, says Gary Pageau, who focuses on content development and strategic initiatives with the Photo Marketing Association of Jackson, Mich.

Stores that sell photo hardware cameras and lenses have fared best nationwide, Pageau says. Retailers that relied on photo development and printing suffered as about 75 percent of American households now own a digital camera.

"Most of the remaining independents have been able to compete with big box stores and the Internet by focusing on their areas of differentiation," Pageau says. "A store like Gordon's can be far more local than a national chain, and offer specialized services like equipment rental, portrait services and photography classes."

Allen ticks off the competitors that have come and gone.

"Since I have been in business, Service Merchandise was here, Circuit City was here, Good Guys was here, all selling camera equipment just like we do," says Allen, 56. "But we continue to survive because we are competitive, and people recognize that. Part of our thing is to keep prices competitive so we can compete, even with the Internet."

Gordon's has been a fixture at the Smithridge Shopping Center for 11 years after a 10-year run at Park Lane Mall. His stores used to be called the Camera Exchange, but so many people referred to the stores as "Gordon's" that he eventually rebranded.

Along with its traditional storefront operations, Gordon's also dabbles in eBay auctions, selling 10 to 12 used cameras per week. Allen says one of his biggest problems is procuring cameras fast enough to match sales.

"We sell it as fast as we get it," he says. "We are kind of aggressive."

The newest models of some mid-tier digital cameras have proven hard to get because manufacturers such as Canon and Nikon scaled back production when global demand weakened.

Allen promotes consistently in print and broadcast outlets.

"When you are having issues selling product, advertise, tell people you are around," Allen says. "If you don't tell people you are still around, they tend to forget. Consumers tend to be pretty short-minded. If they don't see or hear your name a lot of times they aren't going to come in."

The store also relies on a $20 lifetime discount photo club membership that offers a 20 percent price break on camera accessories, supplies and processing. More than 70,000 members have signed up.

Sales have begun to rebound, he says, after falling by more than 20 percent with the onset of the recession in 2008. Since last October, revenues have increased every single month. In the meantime, the store's staff has been reduced to four-day work weeks, and Allen took a pay cut.

"You do the things that make sense to keep the doors open and continue to take care of the customers. That is the key," he says.

Gordon's currently employs 15 full- and three part-time workers, and Allen is adding one staffer in each of his stores. A help-wanted sign on front door of the Smithridge location drew 49 applicants within 10 days.

The region's two other camera stores have found their niche servicing and fixing broken equipment.

Brian Spellacy, owner of Nevada Camera and Repair on Wells Avenue, has been fixing camera equipment since 1987. The store does a brisk business in the sale of used camera and video equipment, as well as sales and customer purchases on eBay.

Steve Sweringen, 52, owner of the Camera Clinic, says he's never been busier with repair work as consumers avoid costly new purchases and service their old equipment. Cleaning dust from sensors is his main line of service work.

"I am slammed," he says. "I work 12 to 14 hours a day five days a week."

Sweringen, who has been repairing cameras since 1980 and has had his own shop since 1995, gets a lot of referrals through Gordon's, as well as from advertising on eBay.

Like a neighborhood pharmacist, or ice cream parlor, Gordon's represents the old guard in retail. And even after 35 years of selling cameras and processing photos, Allen says he still has a passion for his work.

"The economics we have today can make most people have heart attacks or at least ulcers. As long as you enjoy doing what you are doing, which I still do, it is important to keep doing it."


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment