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.
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 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.
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.
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.