Camera Shop Spotlight: Are Brick and Mortar Stores Still Relevant? Spoiler Alert: Yes

Camera Shop Spotlight: Are Brick and Mortar Stores Still Relevant? Spoiler Alert: Yes

I was 14. After a year of mowing lawns and shoveling driveways I had finally saved up enough money to buy my first real camera (a Canon S30). At the the time, online stores like Amazon barely existed. Still growing in their late-90s infancy, the global online marketplaces we have become so accustomed to (like eBay) were barely a blip on the retail radar. Instead, I got in the car, and my mom drove me to an amazing place that felt like the center of the photography universe. Housed in an old bank (vault and all) was this incredible, gear-packed mecca called Milford Photo. My visit that day changed my life forever.

A Quick History

Fast forward to this past Monday, I had the real joy of stepping back into Milford Photo to sit down for a one-on-one with Jesse Thompson, the co-owner of Milford Photo and a 35 year veteran of all things camera retail.

I worked at Milford Camera for 17 years, and I’ve been with Milford Photo for another 22 after that. I always figured this was a good business to be in. I’m selling to people’s wants, not necessarily their needs… what’s better than that?

Milford Photo is located in the heart of downtown Milford, Connecticut, a small, affluent coastal town just a few blocks from the ocean. For any photographer, walking into a store like this is quite the experience. Walls of camera bodies and lenses from all the major manufactures flank you as you make your way to the center of the room. There’s studio lighting and equipment, accessories, straps, bags, and even a section dedicated to drones. It is so much more exciting to be able to physically hold, feel (and even test out) the equipment you want to buy, rather than just reading about it online. 

Downstairs is a dedicated classroom, a room for designing photo gifts (mugs, calendars, etc), and a custom framing shop. If you need it, they probably have it. If you need it done, they can probably help you do it.

Owners Jesse Thompson (left) and Jim Wilson (right)

Brick and Mortar

On the surface, it might seem odd. An actual camera store? This is 2017, how can this be? I had the same question myself. We live in such a global economy, and every day it seems more and more major retail chains are shutting their doors. If a business like Sears can’t survive, how could a small local camera store?

We’re consistent. We communicate well and we have the right product. That’s not easy to do, and we are constantly assessing our inventory. We also make things accessible to people. If you’re thinking about a new lens, come snap it on your camera and try it out. That’s where our advantage is.

Jesse and his experienced staff take an interesting approach to retail. 

We call it the Montessori approach to selling cameras. Someone comes in and wants a lesson on how to take better photos of their kids. It starts with their phone, but soon they want more. We grow with them as they grow as photographers. It’s exciting to watch, and it keeps us relevant.

That might have been the most surprising aspect of my visit. With nearly 4,000 people in their Meetup group, Milford Photo does hundreds of personal photography lessons every year. That’s in addition to their huge calendar of group classes, and visits from brand reps showcasing new gear. Education is truly the way they connect and maintain relationships with their customers. 

The group classroom space at Milford Photo.

The Resurgence of Physical Media

I asked Jesse about the impact of the new obsession with old media. In the music world, it’s all about vinyl right now. In photography, film has made a bit of a comeback. Take a quick walk through any college campus near you, and you’ll see plenty of Fuji instant cameras, throwback Kodaks, and even a few Holgas. 

It’s popular with younger people. It’s cool right now… old school. I don’t know what it means for the hobby as a whole, but for us, if we can sell it, we want to stock it. It’s also got people thinking about prints again, and that’s very exciting. Not just to us, but to all photographers.

He’s right. I would love to see a day where printing photos became the norm again. There may be some evidence of that at Milford Photo. Recently, the store hosted a rep from Hahnemuhle Paper where 35 people came to hear the presentation. It was a diverse cross-section of people who all came from all over to find out more about home-printing on fine art paper. 

That’s encouraging. That’s what I like to see.

Advertising

If you live in New England, and you have ever made the drive on I-95 between Boston and New York, you have no doubt seen the Milford Photo billboards. They are a mainstay in this area, and have been for decades. I asked about the other kinds of advertising Milford Photo invests in.

The billboards work. They give us cache, and people remember us from them. Word of mouth is obviously huge for us. Print is too expensive, so we’ve really turned towards a strong social media presence instead. Our bread and butter comes from our classes. We can build relationships with people that last forever. There’s a lot of brand loyalty that comes from the teaching aspect of our business.

The Future of Brick and Mortar Stores

I wanted to get a sense of what the future might hold for a store like Milford Photo. The camera industry has changed a lot in the last 10 years. Mirrorless has become a big force in the industry, and it’s pushing the big companies like Canon and Nikon to innovate again. There’s the retro-throwback trend that’s happening, but who knows how long that will last. How does a traditional camera shop stay relevant? 

We too have to innovate. What if people stop wanting to take classes in person? Should we be looking into a more web-based classroom model?

What if a company like Fuji or Sony overtakes the big two? How will that affect their customer base? 

We don’t have these answers, but we’re always asking the questions. Our rental business is big, and our used buy/sell/trade has started to grow again. We’re always trying to anticipate what’s next, and stay current with the trends. People come here because they love photography, and we want their experience to be memorable every time.

A sign on the door leading to the basement.

Jesse left me with a final thought that stuck with me. Something I think we could all apply to our own businesses one way or another.

Our job is to find a way to say yes to someone, no matter what. You can never really say no.


Milford Photo opened in 1995 and has been at its current location since 2000. In addition to their retail store, they offer archiving, video transfer, photo retouching and restoration, scanning, passport photos, headshots, classes, custom framing, large format printing, and a myriad of other services. If you’re ever in Connecticut, stop by and check it out. If you have a local shop in your area, stop in. You won’t be sorry you did.

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22 Comments

There is nothing better than being able to walk into a store, test the equipment, know that it's right for you, and then purchase it. It's a sad situation to see these locations disappearing from our locales.

Robert Callahan's picture

Unfortunately for brick and mortar stores, their prices are rarely competitive with online pricing. So savvy shoppers will go to a store, test the equipment, and then go home and order what they like from an online source at a cheaper cost.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Shoppers with little moral code will test in-store and buy on-line, and alas there are too many of these people around.

If I take the time of a store, then I'm buying at that store. If it costs me a little more then that is fine - I want them to be around next year.

In years to come, when we're all lamenting the loss of real shops, we can think back to how we didn't value their presence. But I'll have a clear conscience. Besides, shopping for toys should be fun and I'd rather interact with a real person than click "order" on a website.

Robert Callahan's picture

Completely agree. If everyone was like you, we would still have thriving camera shops. Unfortunately the majority of shoppers don't hold the same values you do.

@Robert Callahan- Your statement is simply and totally untrue. Camera manufacturers regulate pricing quite strictly. If you've found a camera priced much lower somewhere else, it is very likely a grey market item with no warranty, or something else is wrong with the deal. In the USA, all of the major manufacturers have minimum pricing requirements and if you break those requirements the dealer will face penalties.

Robert Callahan's picture

Trust me, I understand. What I'm saying is that brick and motar store prices are usually higher than the minimum price map provided by manufacturers that many online retailers sell units at. This has caused a shift to online retailers.

Taz Rahman's picture

Many will disagree with me, however, I feel that not only are the bricks and mortar stores relevant, the local bricks and mortar store, or at least a bricks and mortar store within one's own country is very relevant. I am a UK based photographer and since I am always appealing to my clients to hire a local photographer, what right do I have to order something online, but not just that order something from a different country which does not pay any taxes in my own country? The problem with many is that we just want the cheapest deal rather than the cheapest local deal and the latter benefits the community we live in a little more. Rant over!

Lenn Long's picture

I'm not a fan of more government regulation, or having to pay more than I have to, but until the internet is taxed, and the B&H's, Adorama's and Amazon's of this world all have to all charge and pay state taxes the field is never going to be level for the local camera store. Some online retailers operate at a 7-10% advantage over brick and mortar stores in state which is sometimes the margin of profit of a business. Thankfully camera stores like this one have learned about business relationships and the ability to offer a more personalized service which does have a value-add to the consumer over simply price.

Tony Reitz's picture

Actually, my local camera shop has beaten Amazon pricing a number of times. Even after paying tax. You just have to ask them.

Randy Nicholson's picture

I'd much rather go into Adorama than order online from them... but yes the tax variants are a big one. In Canada when our dollar was stronger, our local shops were matching prices and usually beating prices of B&H... I don't think that is the case right now (still cheaper to buy local for some things).

Eric Brushett's picture

When I was at Milford Photo (referenced in the article) I actually picked up a 35mm lens for $20 cheaper than it was on Amazon. It obviously depends on the item, but I looked at a lot of their prices and thought they were right on par with the online stores.

Chris Ward's picture

The problem I've noticed with brick and mortar stores around me (Ontario, Canada), is that they don't carry the higher-end items im looking for. Im not talking Hasselblad or Leica, even just pro-sumer Nikon and Fuji. They are flush with the entry-level DSLRs, but are trying to compete with the Best Buys and other box stores who are able to sell it cheaper. I have found one store local to me that usually stocks the lenses and bodies im looking for (or can have it shipped in within a day or two), and they still manage to give me a nice discount, but I can't imaging their margins are that great especially when compared to the likes of B&H or Amazon. I'd like to see the B&M model continue, because its great to stop in and talk cameras for a bit with guys that actually know and use the product...but it seems that stores are becoming more and more centralized (online), while support and knowledge of the products they sell continue to dwindle (or fail to exist at all).

Eric Brushett's picture

That's interesting. The shop I visited doesn't carry Leica or Hasselblad, but they had every high end body from the major brands you could think of. Lots of 5D Mk IV bodies, a few D5 bodies, etc. Lenses too.

I would think the investment into carrying a line like Hasselblad would be huge, and too cumbersome for a small shop. Thanks for the read!

Hans Rosemond's picture

I definitely think there's a place for brick and mortar stores. To me, the biggest edge a local store can have is that of face to face customer service. When I'm treated right, I will happily pay a bit extra for the same product, knowing I'm helping good people make a living in my community. That said, if a place talks down to me and treats me like I'm at a used car lot, I'll buy online in a heartbeat.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I am sure there are many good brick and mortar stores. There are three hops in my area. The largest in LA has a good selection and some knowledgable sales clerks. But in order not get shafted you need to have a printout of BH or Adorama prices. If not they size you up and charge MSRP.
The other two are in the Southbay. I wanted to shoot some 120 E6 film, they had 4 rolls of 220 in E6 but told me that Portra 400 was "better". Hmmm, not as a reversal film...
So I am at the counter next to a woman who just bought a mid priced Nikanon with kit kens and a zoom. Total was $1650? Then comes the protective filter pitch. $26 each (his cost $2.50), clerk tells her they are really good filters. I interject that when I bought a really good filter it was $90 and suggested that she only use them when at the beach or desert because you don;t need them 97% of the time. She went for it and the clerk gave me the stink eye.

So there are good shops and some BM stores that are like car dealers selling $130 floor mats or paint protection or extended warranties.

Caveat emptor at the store.

PS: I love the "we can order it, it'll take 2 weeks" I can order it can have it tomorrow or even today!

Hans Rosemond's picture

Yeah, it's always interesting to watch someone sell a beginner on a $4500 package they have no clue about. There's a local store like that here in Denver. I just spend the extra 20 minutes in the car and take my business elsewhere.

One store 3 hours from us in our State. Don't carry the films I use. Don't have various camera bodies to hold and check out. Don't have the darkroom chemistry or papers I use. On occasion I have stopped in after the long drive and get "we can order it" and you can pick it up in a week or so. I can order it and get it in 2-3 days! Doing so I don't have to drive 300 miles to the camera store. If they did have a good selection I would go there a couple times a year. Without it, I order from B&H because they have what I use.

Kirk Darling's picture

I bought my first 5D online in Illinois from a brick-and-mortar store in Dallas. Now I'm in Dallas and that brick and mortar store is my neighborhood store. I know of a several brick-and-mortar stores--including B&H and Adorama--that are also popular online stores. The fact is that niche and boutique stores continue to survive against online merchants in many genres, and photography at the enthusiast and professional levels is a niche, and they can make themselves boutique. For many people, visiting their favorite online store in person is a vacation destination.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Agreed. I was like a kid in a candy store the one time I visited B&H. Absolute heaven for a photographer.

Ray Hardy's picture

I buy most expendables, cables, HDs, and computers online, but for most camera gear I almost always buy local. If my camera or glass goes down or I need a favor, I can always count on my local shop to step up and produce miracles. You can't get that on the internet.

I like to save money, just like the next guy. However, I also recognize that sometimes one needs to spend a little more to get quality merchandise or quality service. I've had the pleasure of shopping for cameras and supplies at both Milford Camera and Milford Photo over the years. Perhaps I've spent a bit more at times, but some of what goes in to a purchase price is the service -- Is this really the right model for me? Can I try it out? Can you give me some tips to help me get more out of my purchase? Additionally, there is the service after the sale -- hey, I'm having some problems, what do you recommend? I'm not a professional, by any means, and I am not a camera expert, so I appreciate the in-person tips and personal assistance offered by a brick-and-mortar retailer.

Sometimes, the money one saves for an on-line purchase isn't worth the post-sale difficulties. I've yet to have any kind of exceptional customer service experience with an on-line retailer. However, my experiences with Milford Photo have always been no less than satisfying. Here's to brick-and-mortar.

When I bought my Canon A-1 in 1980, there was a local photography business that had multiple locations; I bought my A-1 from that store and had them process many rolls of film. There was another photography business that had SLR, medium format, and large format. That guy retired. The local chain was bought by Ritz/Wolf and we all know what happened to that company.
In 2011, I needed to find ISO 100 film (Ritz/Wolf) was still in business. The lone standing Ritz/Wolf store looked like it took over a gas station convenience store; what they had was meager and had no film. I found a store run by university students and bought their remaining stock of Kodak Ektar 100.
I would love to be able to able to hold a potential purchase to see how it handles.