New dawn at Katoomba

Maxwell International Australia’s managing director, John Swainston, provided this article to Photo Counter, part of our series of articles on new entrants to the industry…

Three Sisters, Blue Mountains, picture © John Swainston, 2014

Three Sisters, Blue Mountains, picture © John Swainston, 2014

One of the big changes for photo specialist retailers over the past decade has been the decline in profitability of two key sectors of the business, both through technology shifts. First as print gave way to social media the primary source of income for most retailers – processing and print – shrank significantly.

The second has been the decline in profitability of primary camera sales, as well as the recent fall in compact volumes. This has been due to relentless efforts by brands to gain or maintain share, and new entrants in the online retail space here and overseas driving down consumer retail prices to levels previously only seen in government and education business.

Katoomba Camera House  has fostered a

Katoomba Camera House has fostered a thriving photo community in The Blue Mountains. By helping customers get more from their photography, everybody wins. (Pic: John Swainston)

So it was a pleasant experience earlier this month on the first chill night of winter to visit the Blue Mountains to address a committed Camera Club group with my ‘The Power of Light’ Talk.

Maureen and Steve Norris, owners of Katoomba Camera House, have used their regional location to advantage, concentrating on developing a photo community and forming The Darkroom Camera Club. This has ensured their customers become major advocates for their business, without the attendant costs of high volumes of advertising spend.

‘Once again, now the boom of the early 2000s is over, it’s primarily a hobby industry,’ said Steve

‘Without a genuine passion for photography, today’s consumers quickly would see through you, and then you might as well pack up and go home. There is never a week when someone doesn’t come in having been referred by one of our club attendees, or another existing customer.

‘The Darkroom Camera Club came about at the request of some half dozen customers, wishing to share knowledge and advance their skills,’ said Steve.

‘We already ran 6-week courses for two hours a session, as well as a regular half-day Adobe Photoshop Lightroom course. People were looking for a shared environment different to existing Camera Clubs nearby. Now we have 30 members, usually attending monthly, as well as field trips, with people waiting to join. Thirty is our physical limit for now. It’s really a group of photographic friends with common purpose, and each takes turns to share in administrative duties or booking speakers.’

While using the buying and marketing strengths of the Camera House brand, and their exclusive ProMaster range of accessories, Maureen and Steve also support major branded accessories.

‘Our customers expect us to stock the major accessory brands, so we do, in depth. They are a significant ongoing part of our business. It gives us a point of difference, and our customers appreciate the added choice and value on offer.’

I asked Steve if print was now a thing of the past for his customers.

‘Absolutely not. We still do film processing! The versatility of our Agfa D-Lab, which still does great prints, enables us to promote print, canvas and other services which are still well patronised, and which are solid profitability.

‘We now also cover film processing for two regional chemists. A big chunk of our work is bulk print conversions from disc where people respond to the message that Fujifilm is currently promoting, the old PICA campaign motto of “Print It or Lose It”.’

Steve related that recently one customer had come in with a pile of discs, asking for all images to be printed. It ended up being a 6000 print job taking a couple of weeks!

When I drew the door prize of a Lowepro Slingshot backpack after my two-hour talk, I was convinced that Katoomba Camera House is the model for many regional and suburban specialists going forward. The quality of the questions and the skill and enthusiasm for photography and videography was remarkable.

At 6.30am the next morning, after a late evening with his Club members, I went down to the famous lookout above The Three Sisters. There, as promised, was Steve complete with his own Nikon DSLR, to join me in capturing the magic that is the morning light of a mountain sunrise.

‘Engage, educate and enthuse! The rest is up to one’s selling skill and the quality of our advice, rather than the absolute lowest price,’ said Steve.
– John Swainston


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