After 28 years, well-known Victorian photo retailing couple John and Sue Maple have retired, closing the doors on their Ashburton store, Digital Photo Place.
Unfortunately, the premises at 214 High Street, Ashburton – in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs – will no longer be a photo store, with the Maples selling their freehold title after the store had been on the market for two years.
‘We could have gone on for another year or so – the business was going well – but when do you stop?’ asked John Maple.
‘If the industry was going better we would have stayed on, but I can’t see any future so what’s the point?’
– The alternative of spending more time with the grandchildren understandably has more appeal!
Owning the property in a busy shopping strip has given the Maples something to walk away with, where not all other retailers who have decided (or in some cases, been forced) to pull up stumps over the past few years have had that advantage.
‘You’ve got to have something at the end of the day. For us, that was the freehold,’ said Mr Maple.
Looking back on the recent history of photo retailing, Mr Maple identified the introduction of the GST has having a deadening effect on photo retailing.
‘The first thing someone did when they were going overseas was buy a camera and a watch ,’ he said, adding that there was effectively a 33 percent discount on every duty-free camera sold.
‘We were doing half a million dollars in camera sales and half of that was duty free,’ he said.
‘In those days there was good profit in selling cameras, then everybody started discounting. Volumes went up but profits went down.’
The handling of the transition from analog to digital photography and the (not unconnected) stewardship of Fujiflm Australia by Dave Marshall was another setback to photo retailing, according to Mr Maple.
‘Dave Marshall came into the business from white goods and he saw he could elevate his standing within Fujifilm so he went with Harvey Norman and Big W. He grew the business and killed the business.’
Specialty retailing was basically abandoned by the industry leader, according to Mr Maple.
‘We were number two or number three in the state selling Fujifilm (paper and chemistry). The day we shifted they didn’t even come to see what the problem was.’
He makes a direct connection between Fujifilm’s differential treatment of the mass merchant and photo specialty to the failure of many ‘mums and dads’ businesses.
‘Up to 1800 families out there lost a hell of a lot,’ he said adding that some even lost their houses.
‘The shift from film to digital was poorly handled. It was sheer greed.’
He maintains that film was killed off prematurely, alienating the baby boomer customer base which had been using it.
‘Digital photography put baby boomers out of taking photos for a long time. They weren’t familiar with digital cameras and still wanted to use film.
‘Film should still have 30 – 40 percent market share,’ he said ‘People using film were good customers of a lot of the labs.’
Yet even though Mr Maple has regrets about what he sees as the premature passing of the film era, The Digital Photo Place has been an innovator, as an early adoptor of Frontier minilab technology, a beta site for the digital Ilford Printasia system back in the 1990s, and among the first stores to offer an online printing service.
He isn’t optimistic that the mass market will go back to printing photos and if they do, they will likely print them at home.
‘The younger generations just don’t want to print, and the industry has done nothing to help them,’ he said, noting that there is little funding available to promote picture-taking and printing these days.
Having had what could be called a ‘red hot go’ at Fujifilm, John Maple nominated IPS (they’ve been fantastic’) and framing companies such as Profile and In2Print as great businesses to work with.
‘All those smaller companies have been fantastic,’ he said.
The future for the Maples is all about ‘enjoying ourselves, and going off and looking after the grandkids.’
As for the industry he and partner Sue have just left after 28 years: ‘The good stores will keep going and the ones that aren’t so good will disappear.
‘It’s a sunset industry, but there will still be some demand.’
– Photo Counter wishes John and Sue all the very best in retirement. (And thanks, John for your robust contributions to comments on the website over the years. You will be missed – probably not by Dave, though!)