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Continued: Smartphones are changing the picture for camera sales

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 14, 2013 - 2:00 PM

“Our point-and-shoot sales were down about 22 percent, which is about half of the national decline of 40 percent,” he said. He attributes the decline to smartphones and Amazon.

The company is focusing on customer service and education to keep customers rolling in, said Adam Prybelski, National Camera’s omnichannel sales manager. The number of customers enrolling for classes on basic studio lighting, digital SLR, sports photography and portrait taking is up 30 percent in 2013.

“Our long-term strategy is teaching people what their camera can do for them, whether it’s an iPhone or point-and-shoot,” he said. The retailer doesn’t yet offer classes on how to take better photos with a smartphone, but they’re considering it.

By teaching customers about the features and benefits of their cameras, National Camera hopes to make its customers aware that photos taken from 50 feet away or more at sporting events, dancing recitals, and vacations can be much more vibrant with a regular camera.

But they also want to make the pitch that their expertise trumps buying cameras, accessories and processing online or at big-box retailers that sell electronics. “And we price match too,” Liss said.

Even though overall camera sales are declining, analysts aren’t expecting big-box retailers to shutter their photographic departments yet. Instead, they’re shrinking the number of camera options, even in accessories, said Brian Yarbrough, a retail analyst at Edward Jones. Retailers are de-emphasizing camera departments by putting them in less-desirable parts of the store and putting the spotlight on higher-profit-margin items such as smartphones and tablets.

Other camera businesses are feeling the shift as well. Repair shops are disappearing, and those still hanging on are seeing a drop in business. Low-end point-and-shoots aren’t cost-effective for repair, and some manufacturers won’t provide parts to independent shops so they can keep repairs in-house, said Gus Gulbranson of Northwest Camera and Video Repair in Lindstrom, Minn.

His overall business has been decreasing for the past two years. “With the decrease in sales from phones, I’m not expecting that to get much better,” he said.

But one bright spot for Gulbranson and National Camera is in higher-end cameras. Both have seen an uptick in selling or repairing expensive SLRs. One of National’s most popular sellers is the pocket-size Sony RX100 point-and-shoot for $600.

Some camera retailers have seen less effect. West Photo in Minneapolis, for example, caters mostly to the professional photographer. “Point-and-shoots were never a strong category for us, but it has tapered off,” said President Jim Hosfield.

His overall revenue for the year is about even compared with 2012, which was a strong year. He’s not losing sleep over the smartphone affecting his business, but he’s not ignoring it, either. “I’m incorporating some smartphone accessories,” he said.

Few are predicting that traditional cameras will go the way of the eight-track tape, but higher-quality point-and-shoot and SLR cameras will become more of a niche business for hard-core enthusiasts. Retailers are hoping that some customers will still want a piece of hardware to record memorable events.

Linda Engelbert Lane of St. Paul said that she loves her cellphone pictures but there are times when something nicer is better. “I want a better camera for family gatherings,” she said. “As people get older, I want a guarantee of a good shot.”

Chute said that to stay relevant for more customers, today’s camera manufacturers will have to understand the importance of mobility. “They have had opportunities in the past decade, and they haven’t used them. Their obituary is being written.”

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633

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