The future of photographic retailing in the UK

As a specialist photographic supplier we actively deal with over 150 suppliers of equipment and materials to keep our customers satisfied. The other day a Sales Manager from a very large multinational photographic supplier came to visit us. In the course of our conversation, we were shocked to hear him confirm that their forecasting for the Japanese parent company now relied on just twelve retailers in the United Kingdom. The problem of declining numbers of photographic outlets (High Street or On-Line) continues with its obvious consequences. Lack of choice, in-depth product knowledge and lengthening lead times for delivery remain a challenge for the whole photographic trade. Of course the flip-side to this scenario is an opportunity for those minded to fill those gaps – like Firstcall. This started us thinking about what’s happened to Firstcall in the last 25 years. At our start point in 1990, the UK had over 2,500 photographic outlets. Admittedly this included photographic chemists as well as camera shops but the choice of retailer for photographic materials was both wide and more importantly, local. Our best estimate is that there are now only 10% (250 businesses) left selling photographic products left in the UK. What’s more, in the “Pareto Principle” of 80% of sales coming from 20% of the outlets, it would mean 50 businesses doing most of the turnover. From our opening statement this is clearly not true. But how has this decline happened and is it a recent malaise with the symptoms being sociological or industry created?

It’s generally acknowledged that in any business area the strong will survive and weak will fail. Ten years ago we would have summed up the photographic trade as being divided in three categories: 1)    Bricks and mortar with adequate equipment stock and knowledgeable staff. 2)    Bricks and mortar with either adequate stock OR staff....but not both and sometimes    neither. 3)    On-line


It was not surprising that with photography lending itself to on-line ordering since 2000 that many in the second category would fail, but our experience shows that the decline in numbers has been in all three sectors Jacobs, Jessops and Digital Depot are examples (although the latter  two are trading again under new owners).     We believe that the decline is due to a combination of sociological, technological and most importantly financial changes. Sociologically, we’ve saw an estimated 25,000 high street stores close in the UK between 2000 and 2011. Add to this, 21% of all UK retail is now being conducted online with many retailers seeing over half of these orders collected in their shops. Technologically, the sector is still fraught with problems as photography loses its appeal following the growth in Smartphone use. We’re convinced now that the future is in providing high quality imaging solutions for specialist customers. Financially though, as a direct result of declining numbers, the photographic industry continues to underperform on sustainable profit levels as a whole. Our predication then for the coming years is clear. If you want to handle your equipment before you buy it, you’ll definitely have to travel further to do so, but more importantly we see the survival of the photographic retailer in two new categories: 4)    Bricks and mortar with adequate equipment stock, knowledgeable staff and a website with click and collect 5)    On-line with adequate equipment stock and knowledgeable staff The common thread here is knowledgeable staff and convenience – something that Firstcall, although we fall into category six, has practised ever since 1990. If photography is your passion, let us know of your own photographic retailing experiences. Rodney Bates Sales Director

31st July 2014

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