|Olympus E5 with 35mm f3.5 macro lens|
I actually enjoy shopping with my daughter and wife sometimes because they get so excited about it and it's a chance to connect with them. Of course I also like to pop into camera stores for as long as they'll tolerate.
While walking around we went into several clothing stores and shops and my mind was on marketing and business. We underwent a key change in our photography business last winter and as a result raised our prices substantially in an effort to move up-market and make more while working less.
For a couple of years we had been getting pressure from other photographers to raise our prices. We felt that we were still learning and hadn't earned a reputation that befitted a premium price yet. This past year, after having some success, and finding ourselves and feeling confident, the time seemed right to make a change.
And our business dropped off. We lost a lot of inquiries to price shoppers. And I was OK with that.
Frankly, we are booked for only half the weddings we had last year, but our profit line should remain about the same.
I'd like to say that this means less work, but actually I think I'll be devoting more time and energy to the clients we have. I recognize this as an opportunity to wow the people that are willing to pay us a premium. An opportunity to move into a premium market catering to premium clients.
My walk through shops was timely because I saw lessons there from an industry not related to photography that I was able to digest for my own use.
When we began our walk we started on a main road with lots of tourists and several of those t-shirt and novelty stores that have huge signs advertising $10 shirts and $15 sweaters as well as buckets of cheap plastic toys. We'd then cross a store selling $8 shirts and $11 sweaters. My daughter loved it, but my wife and I couldn't wait to walk past.
We didn't go in, but we were the exception, not the rule. The stores were jammed with people.
Being a little hungry from the drive we were looking for a place to eat, but we've been on a health kick lately so it couldn't be fast food. But walking by Rogers Chocolates, we threw that out the window because they are simply amazing. For $10 we each had a little tiny chocolate treat. They are pricey, but if you've never had one, you don't know what you're missing.
After a quick stop in a really nice sandwich shop to add some good things after the bad, we headed out looking for some better clothes shops. On one side street we stopped into three different stores, all catering to the high end customer.
I noticed a few things in these stores. First up, they didn't have a lot of stock. No jammed bins or tables piled high. Several of the items only had one or two of each in stock. The price tags weren't prominent either. You had to look for them neatly tucked away in a very discreet way. There were no sale or clearance racks.
The quality of the clothes were obviously high, but not really that much higher than your average Gap or Eddie Bauer stores. But if you were to buy one of the pieces here you could be pretty much guaranteed you wouldn't see it being worn by someone else.
The staff were nice, but professional. Friendly, but not at all pushy or eager. They simply greeted us and offered to help if we liked. In fact they didn't really talk about the clothes, they talked more about us. They chatted with my daughter and only once when I picked a shirt off the rack did they comment on a piece of clothing suggesting it was a nice choice for me. They seemed to mean it.
After seeing the $175 price for the shirt I put it back, but I did like it. I liked the idea of owning it. I was actually sort of flirting with the idea of a splurge. It wasn't really better than the shirt I was wearing, but I've never owned a $175 shirt before.
After leaving my wife and I agreed that it would be a nice thing one day to walk into a store like that and spend several thousand dollars on clothes. A wonderful decadent treat.
We cruised on and found the local Lululemon store. Now I don't get Lululemon. My wife does though. She practically ran me over to get in the door and I sat outside on these little benches they provide with a bunch of other husbands.
Lululemon is a store that is a smash success right now. A successful brand that appeals to a particular person. Mainly middle class women who are or want to appear athletic. They aren't expensive, but they aren't cheap and their clothes are of a good quality. Very much middle of the road. But they do have a recognizeable brand.
We ended up stopping into a used camera store where the staff were friendly and really knowledgeable about the camera I had over my shoulder. I was impressed. Most people don't even know what it is. I enjoyed being there and found myself wishing they had something in stock I was looking for so I could buy it. But they didn't. I'll be back.
We stopped at two different art galleries and looked at the unique pieces. Some I liked (blown glass and photography) and some I simply ignored and walked past (water-colour paintings) as they weren't my taste. Everything though, whether it appealed to me or not was exclusive and carried with in the appropriate sticker shock.
Before heading home we stopped at this ice cream place (I know, the healthy eating took a beating) where they advertise that they make their ice cream fresh every day, then take it, put it on a cold stone slab in front of you and add whatever you want to it (I chose raspberries). $11 for two ice creams (my wife and I shared) in their smallest size no cone. More than a popsicle treat for sure but I admit it wasn't my cup of tea, not a huge fan of the heavy cream flavour.
And so how did this all relate to my own business? Or yours?
Well here is what I was thinking:
- Cheap prices bring lots of customers and lots of sales. If you plan on competing on price then you need to advertise effectively on price. Forget high quality, forget customization, just pump the price in your message and you'll draw the crowds. You can make great money doing this.
- Great branding builds excitement, but does it last? Lululemon is a hot brand right now. Will it last? I don't know. But remember Ocean Pacific? Club Monaco? Hypercolor? Branding is a great way to build temporary excitement. What you do with that excitement is what counts. Branding like this seems build around advertising. If that isn't for you, don't compete here. And remember, there is a good chance you are going to be caught in a cycle of promoting "sales," "specials" and clearance items to bring in volume.
- Exclusivity demands a higher price. High priced stores don't stock a lot of any one thing. They sometimes only have one. This tells customers that it's special. It doesn't need to be of much better quality than middle tier items (it does have to be high quality of course) but it does need to feel exclusive.
- The experience of an environment can help build loyalty. Having a camera store be friendly and knowledgeable or a boutique shopkeeper spend the time to engage with my daughter in a friendly way made me feel welcome and comfortable and left me wishing I would have spent money. Do you think I desire to go back to those stores and spend money?
- The high end shops don't mind if you browse and leave. They understand that they are exclusive. They understand they are an object of desire and they want you to want them even if you can't buy from them. Just like we all want a Ferrari even though we can't have one. But I never felt unwelcome anywhere. Their prices are not in your face. They are tucked away, discreet.
- Middle of the road shops offer high quality at fair prices. They have some volume, but usually only when they have sales or discounts. They live off of branding and can be at risk of being a 'flavour of the moment.'
- Unique experiences demand higher prices. Ice cream hand made and custom mixed on a cold stone, shirts that won't be worn by lots of people, chocolate that is unique, small, delicious and sold individually instead of in big boxes.
It occurs to me that there are two sweet spots in any market where making money is most likely. High volume and cheap or low volume and expensive. Well, maybe expensive is the wrong word. Exclusive. That's better.
Middle range shops are exciting for a moment, they offer something that may even be more in fashion and desirable than high end shops at any given moment through a strong advertising message. But they are stuck at discounting for volume sales and spending heavily on advertising for profitable sales. They are always at risk of losing desirability or falling out of a trend at which point they are destined to be a bargain option. You can and should relate this to a photographer that shoots in a trendy manner, experiences success and hype and then struggles as the style becomes common or falls out of fashion.
So for me personally, I realize that my company was competing in the middle market. We had a look in our photography that was recognizable. Our quality was good. We had a strong brand and were well known. Our prices were average in our market. We worked hard for small profit margins, but had steady business based largely on the above strengths.
Truth be told though, it seemed we worked too hard for the profit we turned over. And then other photographers started doing what we did. They used off camera lighting, their edited images started looking like ours and they worked harder at being friendly and fun. We risked being similar in trend to people charging less than us and that's a bad place to be.
And so, we decided that we wanted to provide higher quality products to our customers. Better books, better prints and higher quality production on everything we did. We wanted to work less for more money. We wanted to dress nice, be friendly, be personal and get to know our customers and cater to their needs with a custom experience. We were a good fit to move upmarket.
Another very good option would have been to move downmarket. We could have lowered our prices to match our competitors. Shot more weddings. Not sold high end books, but pumped out big box store books. Did the shoot and burn to a CD with minimal editing. And probably worked a lot less on the back end of product delivery and customer service saving a lot of time and effort. Profits would have went up, we would have been shooting more, but working less at the after shoot post production.
But being stuck in the middle was a recipe for death. We had to narrow our brand, figure out how to appeal to customers looking for something exclusive and looking for a high end experience. It's either that or shoot and burn and charge less which I don't feel would have been a good fit for my personality.
And so if you've made it to the end of this text, then you might know why the blog is called Photography Ramblings. I'd encourage you to look around you in your community and world-wide at brands and shops that are outside of the photography industry. Stop getting your marketing advice from photographers (yes even me) and look at other industries or risk becoming just like all your competitors. Think about what appeals to you and how you can apply that model to your business.
Higher priced photographers are always going to push you to raise your prices so they don't keep losing jobs to you based on price. Lower priced photographers are always going to swear that you are no better than them and simply just in possession of a huge ego.
Whatever you do, don't get stuck in the middle if you can help it. Don't get too excited about the temporary fame and fortune of being slightly better than average. It's a short lived rush and one I'm hopefully done with.