Thursday, April 10, 2008

End of An Era

I hate becoming an obituary writer. Not for friends, but for businesses. If you are one of the lucky people that still has a thriving camera store in your town, I am jealous. After something like 40 years, Big George’s closed their photographic department in their new store last week. The management line was that they lost the camera business to the office supply stores, the Wal-Marts, and the Meijers stores. No, they lost the department when they decided that they would rather move fridges, stoves, and big TVs and not filters, in-store processing, and real photography gear.

When I first started shopping for cameras and darkroom equipment at Big George’s in 2000, I was awe-struck by the photo department. I could spend an hour just looking at things. If I had a question, Lee Kitada or Mike Myers or another sales associate would answer with patience and good humor. The moment I walked in the door, I was taken care of, whether I was buying a bottle of developer or looking to purchase something far more expensive. In addition, they sold USED cameras and accessories, and took in trades. My daughter was able to purchase a used Hasselblad outfit because of that. One does not lose customers to that kind of service. However, in the past 2 years, the photo department kept shrinking in the old store, with fewer items, and the management told them they could no longer sell used equipment. It’s not like they had stuff piling up. In fact, it was the ONLY place in town after Dave’s Photo Emporium closed, and Adray Camera closed its store later on. It was the place to go if you are a pro or serious amateur, because if you needed an item that day, they might actually have it in stock.

As the new management at Big George’s started planning for their new store, it was plain to see where things might be heading, and it wasn’t encouraging. Before the move last year, they closed the mini-lab. Big mistake, there. That meant people that usually went there for film developing now had to go elsewhere, and they didn’t purchase something else while they were there. When the new store opened last summer, the new photo department seemed like an afterthought, jammed into a corner with a fraction of what they used to carry. Despite the best efforts of Mike and Lee to show that things would work out if they were listened to, the management felt otherwise and didn’t restock or reorder. That alienates customers, so it all became a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the photo department was closed last week. Not because people shopped online or because of Wal-mart, but because the owners did not understand that market. I’m not saying that digital cameras and the online shopping didn’t affect their sales, but it has affected every camera store.

A photo department in a bigger store CAN survive. If they were worried about the length of time stock might sit on shelves, then I have to ask, why sell summer furniture and gas grills? Second, they had a city the size of Ann Arbor with lots of student photographers, pros, amatuers, and people willing to spend money IN THE STORE, and basically told them they didn’t think they mattered. Ultimately, people went elsewhere because they had to, not because they wanted to.

Mike at the counter in the "new" Big George's July 2007.

OK, I’m not in retail sales. I don’t have an MBA, and I worked in a store only once in my life. I can tell you though, that I know what constitutes good service, what inspires customer loyalty and what draws me into a store. Someone commented to me that a photo store can’t make it anymore because of all the little things it has to carry - perhaps, but then hobby shops and craft stores should be extinct, too. I know there are constraints when one has to order products by the case to be able to order at all. There are issues with inventory, rent, etc., but a town the size of Ann Arbor ought to be able to support one full-service photographic store. That store should have a mini-lab, a self-serve kiosk for digi-prints, film, used and new equipment, books, supplies, and the ability to do custom orders if necessary.

Big George's In better days...just a few years ago.

I will miss going to the photo department at Big George’s. I will miss seeing Lee and chatting with him. He really knows photography. Mike, I will see pretty often, as he is a friend that I met there, and he’s a big part of my Crappy Camera experience. As for the Big George’s store... I will not set foot into it again, for anything.

If I won the lottery, I’d open a photographer’s co-op with a gallery, mini-lab, used sales, and a bookstore. I’d also make people feel welcome and valued, just like Lee and Mike did.
Mike Mike at the old store, 2006.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this, Mark. Let me know when you open "O'Brien's Photographic". I want to fill out an application :D.


Sid said...

Well, I too was saddened to see the Photo Dept at Big Georges close. I have worked in retail, and I think a town the size of Ann Arbor, with enough people interested photography, would have been able to support the photo department.

heliocentric said...

You almost made me cry. A store like that used to be should be present in a corner of every city.

I like to talk to real people, people who listen and can talk back with knowledge of the products. They shoudl have time for that. Time is as scarce these days as is pure water. I think that with the shrinking jobs for mature and knowleadgeable people behind the counters, society is promoting the extintion of customer service. The new boys and girls do not know of stability, endurance and knowleadge. Everything is a passing "gig", and next to the future they go. What future?

We need people that support the old store feeling, the camera shop is something we all should be able to have a taste of... We are watching how it fades from the horizon as Internet sales grow; sales in which you cannot touch or see things and customer service either speaks in foreing languages AND is missing.

Anonymous said...

Big George's closing the camera department sucks big time, and management doesn't understand the photo community and all that. But here's the real problem. How many people spent hours asking Mike and Lee questions and comparing cameras, then went home and ordered the equipment from B&H? So you saved 20 bucks, and we're all the poorer for that.
Bill Bresler

Mark said...

Bill: I don't know how much that happened, but even if it 10%, it would piss me off. I have heard the stories from Mike, and some people expected them to answer the questions AFTER they bought the camera elsewhere. The only new digital cameras I bought came from Big G's.

Sid said...

Bill- I uesed to be the manager of another famous mom-n-pop store in Ann Arbor. And about 40% of the people who came in, spent my and my staff's time, only to use that info to go and order online.
I havent worked at that place since 2005, but the current manager told me that now the situation is worse.

Like the experience of Mike and Lee, I used to get people who bought items online, bring them to me,and then demand that our store provide them with free service etc. Or sometimes folks would buy stuff online,and then bringthem to our store and try to return the item to us!!! And get real mad, when we said no. In fact, I have had to call the cops on a few such people.

Such folks, who only think about t he bottom-line, and are concerned about saving money are the reason whya lot of small, local, mom-n-pop stores are going under.
We have lost photo stores, art-supply stores,and musical-instrument stores.
If one is a serious musician plaing horns like trumpets, saxophones etc, the nearest place where one can try outand buy a professional grade instrument is in Chicago. There isnt one single hi-end music store left in the whole state of Michigan!!!!

Marc said...

My sentiments exactly. Nice post, Mark. Big George's blew it. For BG's to not understand the photo market they could have had in a photography crazy place like Ann Arbor is unbelievable. On top of that, the knowledge and friendliness of the folks behind the counter was unmatched. I already miss hanging out there. Big George's has lost a customer in me, too.
Marc Akemann

Kayce Baker said...

First off let me just say...I LOVE THE FILM RIBBON! My name is Kayce Baker and I work for Fujifilm USA. I personally jsut sold off my digital camera as I have been shooting more with my xpan and hassy and holga and all my other film cameras more often than that digital thing. I would love to have a converstation with you about photography and your perceptions on it's future in your part of the country. Great Blog.

guy said...

I just clicked on Big George's
to look for a camera for a graduation gift for my son, and read your terrible news. A Leica user since 1964, I decided to buy a SLR in about 1977 for a trip to Asia. I knew I could do comparison shopping at Big George's so I drove down from Bay City and spent about 3 hours contemplating their Nikons, Canons, Pentax and Olympus'. I selected the Olympus OM 2 and never regreted it. I later bought an OM3 and 2 OM4s though not all at BG's. Their patience with me was great and I have tried to stop back in whenever in Ann Arbor. Now I guess I'll have to wait for you to win the lotto and open your store. Let me know when!