I think it’s probably a fair assumption to make, that at some point during your photographic journey, you’re going to purchase a piece of photographic equipment. With today's World Wide Web, that can be as easy as a few clicks and a wistful look at your decreasing bank account, but I’m here to make the case for your local, “brick and mortar,” camera store. Well maybe not all of them.
First things first, besides my photography, I work in a small, privately owned, Australian camera store. Now I’m not suggesting that you support your local store out of local loyalty or civic pride, that ship has long since sailed, and chances are unless you live in a decently sized community you might not even have a store nearby. Your nearest respectable store might be on the other side of the country, but even at long distance, there’s a level of service and security that comes with a good shop.
But not all camera stores were created equal. This is a retail industry, in a capitalist environment, and with very few exceptions; one of the main aims of anyone trying to sell you a camera is to make money. Unfortunately when there’s money to be made, someone’s going to try to make a little more money at someone else’s expense. Camera stores are also usually full of salesmen, and I just don’t like salesmen. So how do you find a camera store you can trust?Here are a couple of things to consider from your local store.
Good staff are paramount to a good store. Does the store hire kids straight out of school with almost no photography experience, train them on the up-sell, and then make them work for commission so they’ll push you towards the cameras with the highest margins? Or do you get to deal with experienced photographers, who know the gear well, have an idea of how you’re going to use it, and are able to offer you honest advice on what would suit your needs best? Before working for the store I do now, I was turned down by another store for having too much photography experience to work there. They were after sales figures over satisfied customers; I wouldn’t have lasted long at that store.
Can you go into your store with a crazy new idea that’s going to require a new lighting set-up that you’re unsure of, and get honest, helpful, technical advice on how to achieve it, even if you weren’t purchasing anything. Could you go into your local with your iPad, just to show them a couple of shots from your last trip that you’re particularly proud of, that you wouldn’t have gotten without their advice. If you were thinking of getting a Nikon D5 just so you could film your little daughters dance recital would your store suggest that there may be something cheaper that could do a similar or better job? If not, why not?
Check the store's Instagram and Facebook feeds; do they use their own photos or do they just use the promotional material from the suppliers? Do the staff post images there, do they share customer images - with the customers consent of course? Do they follow many customers accounts? After looking at their social media for ten minutes could you name any of the staff?
But it’s not all about your new best friend who works in a shop, before you can buy stuff they need to have the right stuff first. The first thing nearly everyone is going to look at is price, and with the internet, there’s no reason that any store shouldn’t be relatively competitive in their prices. As a customer, you’re going to be comparing prices, so the store should have done it’s homework as well. Some stores will list their prices at full retail but discount down to the local norm when asked; to me this is a sneaky way of getting a little more money out of uneducated shoppers, and is not a way to build trust and loyalty. Avoid those stores.
Does the store stock only local products with full manufacturer's warranty? In Australia we’re really close to SE Asia, and grey market camera gear is very easy to get. We even have high-end camera shops that deal grey, or a mix of grey and local stock. There was a time when the price differences we’re quite a consideration. These days with the higher risk of fakes, and the increased frequency of product recalls, I would urge everyone to steer clear of grey market gear. Most suppliers are aware of the problem and have been working with the stores to coordinate larger shipping quantities and stock levels, so prices are starting to edge ever closer to the grey market prices anyway, but the small extra you pay for official stock is worth the trouble should anything go wrong.And while we’re talking of warranty, does your store require that you handle all your warranty claims directly with the supplier yourself, or can you return the item to the store, and have them deal with suppliers for you? Most suppliers are easy enough to deal with, but we’ve had situations where a repair centre refused to acknowledge a fault. If you were one man against the corporate machine, it could feel like a losing battle, but when you have the strength of a store with established contacts and buying power behind you, life gets easier. In fact you might not even know there’s a battle happening.
Lastly, but by no means leastly, the true benefit of a physical store, is physical stock on hand, that you can physically hold in your hand. You can check the weight, balance, and focus speed of a lens, see if you like the feel of a battery grip, or fill a new bag with all your gear to see how it sits on your shoulder. You can check the flex-vs-weight of a tripod or even put your memory card into a camera for a test shoot, to check out the image quality at home later.In my earlier, less financially sound days, when photography was just a budding hobby, I’d been tempted towards the grey market. I’d been lucky in some places and I’d lost out in others, luckily I’d been far too broke to loose much money to bad investments. These days I’m a working photographer and I still want good prices, but above that, I need both my gear and my support network to be reliable.
To paraphrase Corita Kent - Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.