The Death of Another Cookie Cutter Photo Studio

The Death of Another Cookie Cutter Photo Studio

Just a few weeks after Olan Mills threatened to shut their doors, both Sears Portrait Studio, and Walmart brand PictureMe Portrait have announced that they're closing their doors permanently. Both stating that because of the digital age and smartphone photography, they're no longer able to maintain profits in the industry.

Reports from the St Louis Dispatch show that CPI Corp., which operates both the Sears and Walmart studios is shutting down after defaulting on its lenders. Sears Portrait Studio and the PictureMe Portrait Studio have posted the following statements on their website --

“After many years of providing family portrait photography, we are sad to announce our Sears Portrait Studios [PictureMe Portrait Studios] are now closed. We appreciate your patronage and allowing us to capture your precious memories. If you currently have an album or have had a recent portrait session, you can order products at [] thru April 18, 2013.”

So does this bode concern for the typical professional photographer, or is it just another case of competition failing for not adjusting to modern technologies?


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If you can't adapt to the current trends or create your own trends, you probably won't be in business long.

Kim Lee Zeung's picture

Adapt or die. That was the war cry since 2001! Kodak learned that the hard way also. . .

Spy Black's picture

Yes, but adapt to what? We are in the age of Corporate Imperialism, where corporations call the shots and decide what you're worth, what your work is worth, and what they're going to pay you. If you don't like it, there's plenty of people in places like India, Vietnam, China, and the Eastern block countries that will do it for pennies a month.

Somewhere in not too distant future, every professional photographer will be "teaching" photography howtos, workshops, how-to-become-a-pro-photographer classes, selling ebooks, and running affiliate sites disguised as photography sites. :)

The closings have nothing to do with failure to adapt. These studios didn't exist to make a profit, they were simply a way to get people to come into the store and think, "Since I'm here I might as well look around." The last time I looked at a PictureMe store display, they were barely selling portraits above cost. It was something like 10 sheets for $5.00 with no sitting fee. Nobody can do the kind of volume necessary to turn a profit at that price.

While that may be the reason the store allowed the studios to operate out of them, CPI is a separate company who is (was) out to make a profit. Yes they advertise $5.00 packages, but they expected their employees to up sell that to something closer to $100. Obviously this is ridiculous and happens rarely, thus they are closing their doors.

It doesn't happen rarely... I work for a Wal-Mart portrait studio and it can happened at every session if I do my job the way I should be... the company is closing their American stores... Canadian stores remain profitable and will continue to serve customers

I managed a Canadian location for almost 10 years, and yes, $100 is more than possible at each and every session. I think many factors contributed to the failure of this specific company, too many to list. My heart goes out to all the staff that are now left without employment :(

SCREW THE STAFF! If you collectively do bad business (which includes dropping your prices and under-performing) you deserve to be gone!

How about having a little respect for the thousands of people now out of work? The staff don't set the prices or the business practices of the company. I'll admit that there were a lot of bad staff, but there were a lot of good ones too. And good or bad, they all had to work for a company that didn't support them, didn't provide adequate training, paid poorly, constantly changed things, had unrealistic expectations, had poor hours, and constantly treated the staff like they were a necessary evil. Even the best staff member with the best work ethic is unable to perform to their utmost ability under those circumstances.

How about having self respect and not working for a person or company that treats you like garbage? How about being a photographer if you're applying for a photography job and then you won't need training? How about getting another job instead of putting up with all that you said for years? Finally, how about survival of the fittest?

I'm going to be the devil's advocate and say that most people getting a job at one of these 'studios' aren't actually trying to become a professional photographer but rather just looking for gainful employment. Does every person flipping burgers at McDonalds have aspiration of owning their own restaurant or becoming a chef at a real restaurant? I don't think so...

I'm guessing you've had a poor portrait studio experience. That's a shame, some of them were really great!

I think my previous comment may have been a little harsh in retrospect. My thoughts were that these companies established a policy of under-whelming performance by advertising CHEAP, CHEAP, CHEAP. Then they hired and poorly trained their staff and treated them poorly. So I see your point that it was the companies that established the poor policy and the employees were simply following their lead. Sadly, none of it is helpful as these people weren't really in it for a career, just a fast buck! Me personally, I know many truly great artists and even non-artisan photographers that have a true passion for their work and hopefully, now, they will get the business increase and recognition they deserve.

The only way it can be done "every" time is by being borderline dishonest with customers. I found that when I did get customers to make that leap, they often didn't come back, because they realized that the advertised prices weren't honest or because they didn't like being pushed and pressured. If they did come back, they usually under bought, because they felt they had to make up for spending so much that first time.

When I did my job "the way I should" (aka, with the photography and sales techniques that the big wigs, who probably haven't set foot in a studio in 20 years if at all, said I should do it) my sales and customer service scores were mediocre at best. When I threw out the rule book and did things my way (photographed more creatively and didn't pressure customers into breaking their bank) my sales and customer service scores did soared.

I also think location has a lot to do with it. My studio was notorious for having a picky clientele. Which is another reason CPI failed. It refused to break the cookie cutter mold and customize to different markets.

Valid point Matthew. Lowering your cost will put you out of business! This has been studied and found to be a proven fact. If you discount your service too much, people won't see it as a value but something that is WORTH-LESS (worthless). It's killed many industries and until people learn that you simply can't have all the business and you have to accept that there will always be competition, the madness will continue. RAISE your prices if you want clients!

A majority of the people hired in their portrait studios don't even know how to use a camera. At least now people will have to look for local businesses! :)

Of course it's worriesome for professional photographers. If they can no longer operate in today's environment at the low ball prices they're charging then everyone should be concerned. While they may be able to justify low pricing as a "loss-leader," obviously their volume is so low that they can't even break even. The question is that if all of these new, so-called photographers are taking their work, what kinds of prices are they charging. I suspect that many people are taking their own photos. What I know for sure is that it's extremely difficult for anyone to make a living as a photographer. Even if your work is superb, people don't recognize a great photograph when they see one - especially all of the "so-called" professional photographers.

This is not worrisome for professional photographers, it had nothing to do with price. Look at the quality of the shots done in these studious, why bother going in to spend 20-40$ when you can get a great photographer mini session shot on location, not in a studio with their crappy lighting and get 5-10 amazing photos for around 100$? This is what my family does, portrait studios just have horrible quality and charge too much for it. We used to use them until we found out that we could pay a little more to get MUCH better pictures.

Self-fulfilling prophecy here. With that kind of attitude you'll definitely fail. The reason these 'studios' failed is because they didn't provide anything people couldn't do for themselves with a decent point and shoot. They provided a bad customer experience that didn't entice people to come in and have pictures taken. They went from offering occasional loss leaders to being the loss leader. Epic fail.

It amazes me what the iPhone and other smart phones have done to professional photographers. Sadly, few people want prints anymore, they just want the 'quick-clik then post' that can be achieved on most phones. Do smartphones take great pictures, no, but they do give people (at their fingertips) the ability to capture moments that otherwise would be left to a pro at a staged shooting event. I think there is a middle ground but it will take some time for the general public to establish what that is. Business professionals (realtors, executives, corporations, architects, property owners...) will all still need professional photographers but sadly the days of the 4x5 film camera in the studio, taking the family portrait are long gone. My family had a family portrait taken years ago under a big oak tree, all wearing suits and dresses, done by a pro using a 4x5. That photograph is remarkable! Not because we looked so good but because it shows true detail and was done by a pro. Today's portraits, even the best you can find, are done with 35mm DSLR equivalents, by people with far less passion for the craft and far less technical knowledge and sadly, it shows!

Seshan's picture

Failing to adapt? Adapt to what? Where they still using Polaroids or something?

Zach Sutton's picture

A lot of these studios were still shooting film aged equipment.

No they were not. They have been digital for many many years.

Zach Sutton's picture

Perhaps not these particular branches....but I can speak for personal experience...

A few months ago, a local studio went out of business, and I checked it out to possibly purchase the building and open a store front. The company had been in business for over 30 years, and was still shooting in film and developing it in store. Not to mention, this was a very popular photography studio locally...even though they were doing the cookie cutter images, with backdrops and props that were straight out of the eighties.

So perhaps they weren't shooting film per say, but they were certainly not current with a lot of their shooting styles....which shows their failure to adapt.

I love shooting film

But do you love shooting in film in a single indoor environment that never changes, or would your rather go digital for that use and lower your margins so you can go take awesome film shots anywhere else?

Do you have any idea the cost associated with having an entire market (U.S. & Can) of chains 'adapting'?? Our studio (in Can) had a Canon 40D DLSR. Pretty good I'd say.

Erinn, the 40D is crap! The only people that think it's not don't understand the level of detail you can get from a field or studio style 4x5 film camera. There's NO comparison on ANY level! My Pentax K-5 IIs is LIGHTYEARS ahead of the 40D in terms of dynamic range, noise control and image quality and even it cannot compete with a Wista 45SP or Sinar camera and good Schneider lens.

I find it remarkable that my eye has become accustomed to recognizing detail in 4x5 film that is not there in 35mm or FF DSLR formats; not even in MF film. Sure most people don't care about blowing up their images (portraits) more than 8x10 these days but believe me, when you go up as much as 16x20 the difference is NIGHT and DAY! Leafs in trees POP on 4x5 film. Details in clothing, hair, skin, eyes, all POP when produced on large format film. 35mm doesn't pop, even with good Zeiss lenses and on the few occasions it does, the background will be completely blurred, creating bokeh. 15 years ago, bokeh was considered the product of amateur photographers. Today, the majority of people think Bokeh is something to be heralded as genius. Ansel Adams said it best, "If the entire frame isn't in focus, you're lying!" Which is another way of saying, you're just an amateur and you don't have a true passion for your work.