Go big or go home

With the abrupt closing of the Sears and WalMart portrait studios the professional photography community has been atwitter (and coincidentally, on Twitter) talking about the ramifications for our industry.  “The sky is falling! It’s the photoapocolypse!”  and conversely, “Great..it’s about time.” While I am sad when that many people lose jobs, I fall squarely in the latter category.  These studios were running an antiquated business model: high volume, low quality, low experience, low margin. That doesn’t cut it today.  Heck, that didn’t cut it 10 years ago before the outbreak of vast quantities of consumer digital cameras. The company held to a 60-year old business model and failed to adapt to consumer wants and needs. Perhaps they clung too tightly to the Kodak way of doing things.

I personally never found the discount store portrait studios to be my competition. They provided a cheap but low quality record of a child’s likeness at different age stages, which in the scheme of things is better than nothing at all, especially given the fact that they at least delivered printed portraits. Don’t get me started on what I fear will be our “lost generation”: millions of children whose digital likenesses will be lost to time due to crashed hard drives, lost cell phones, unreadable discs, and more. But I digress.  The point of this story is what killed the Sears Portrait Studios, and what may be plaguing your portrait business. I tie it to three causes:

  1. An outdated, non-competitive business model
  2. The plethora of low-cost, shoot and burn photographers
  3. The inability to differentiate yourself from the crowd

Outdated Business Model

I’ve already partially addressed this issue. There’s no room for the low quality/low margin/high volume/low experience business model in the custom portrait market. There’s just no margin for error and no allowance for a drop in volume. What was once modestly profitable quickly became untenable. I would submit that the closest place this model can still somewhat succeed is for school portraits, but even there the providers who treat customers like cattle will lose business to the savvy local and regional photographers who can provide a quality experience along with everything else.  National providers like Lifetouch are losing contracts left and right to local photographers who can beat them on everything but price; but here’s the rub: schools generally don’t care. They get their cut regardless, and if it’s from a larger sale, then more money for them. And typically fewer headaches, too.

Low-Cost Shoot and Burn Photographers

I hate to say it, but there seems to be no end in sight. As we work to educate the “newbies” (c’mon, they are “new”, right?  I don’t see twenty-year veterans switching to this business model), a whole new crop of “professional” photographers arrive every Christmas morning.  But I submit: How are these any different from the discount store studios of the past? Sure, there are slight differences, but in essence haven’t the new SABs supplanted the Sears Portrait Studios and Olan Mills of yesterday? If one didn’t compete with Sears in the past, why try to compete with the SABs now?  Granted, I do feel the onslaught of SABs has depressed the pricing for photography overall, but that truly is in “like” and “similar” quality and product lines.  Where there is challenge, there is opportunity. More on that shortly.

Differentiating from the Crowd

All right.  This is the meat of the issue. The real nitty gritty.  It’s time to go big or go home. YOLO.

Stop thinking of how you are alike. Stop following the crowd. Stop fitting in.

Be bigger than life. Be different. Be outstanding. Be outrageous. Be remarkable.

If you aren’t familiar with Seth Godin, stop what you are doing and read a book: The Purple Cow.  Now.  I’ll wait. Then read The Icarus Deception. Both books are relatively quick reads, and are very apropos to our situation as professional photographers.

The market for portraiture is growing ever more polarized each day.  The low end is swamped with newbies. That leaves…the high end.  It’s time to go big. Bigger, more elaborate sessions. Conceptually bigger images. Create an incredible experience for your clientele, from the moment they call or email, to when they first step through the door, to when they leave with their prized portraiture. Not on disc or USB, either. Printed. On beautiful gallery wrapped canvas. Or textured, mounted, sprayed and framed in an artisan wood frame. Or in high def glory on a dimensional metal print. Or in a high quality bound book or album.  Be the best, give your best, and offer only the best. And charge accordingly for it. Need a lab that provides ultra high quality professional products?  Check out American Color Imaging.

The time is now.

Go big or go home.  It’s the only way to win and thrive.

wayde - April 5, 2013 - 2:57 pm

Thanks Mike for your inspiring words, here in Brookfield,there is no shortage of clients who love beautiful portraits, matted, framed, gallery wrapped, let the fun begin again this year.

Michael Mowbray - April 5, 2013 - 3:25 pm

Thanks, Wayde. Be a believer! 🙂

Rob - April 5, 2013 - 5:30 pm

Thanks for everything you give back, Michael.

Michael Minturn - April 5, 2013 - 6:54 pm

Michael,
Thanks for the article… I’ve needed this for a while i suppose – hence my post a couple days ago about lowering prices. I’ve straddled the fence for a few years believing that the best position to be in was to provide an upper quality product in my area at a middle of the pack price point. It worked for years but you are spot on given our current situation and I’ll be working to increase both my prices and quality. Thanks again for the nudge. Have a good weekend.

Mary Quick - April 5, 2013 - 9:50 pm

Michael-wow! Your evaluation of the photography industry was amazing. You nailed every aspect down piece by piece! You should definately be teaching business at a university level! I am so impressed. You should have your educated thoughts published! Go Michael go! You are right on the money! Smiles to your big thinking, Michael-Mary Quick

Christina Hyke - April 5, 2013 - 9:54 pm

Thanks for the insight, you are, as usual; right on.

Dave Olson - April 6, 2013 - 11:48 am

Your comments in this article match your work…outstanding brother!
You Freaking Rock!

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