by Ron Pybus Published 01/01/2009
Many years ago shops tended to remain static in their appearance for long periods of time, which is why many theme parks have imitation shops and many museums have actual shop contents from the 1920s or the 1950s - times when little changed and one shop was representative of many others. If a museum of the future plans to capture a shop image of the beginning of the 21st century it will have a hard time deciding which image to select. It has always been the policy over the last 30 years or so for shops to have major revamps from time to time. Just at the moment my local Boots Opticians has judged that it will be worth closing for two weeks to revamp and restyle. The shop was only opened five years ago, but images and styles have changed. Even our big Currys superstore has closed for a revamp. Many other shops have done the same and even organisations such as Oxfam have attempted to change their market position by a restyle.
To many photographers a revamp is to change one or two of the photographs they have on display, to re-hang some signs that are coming loose. Venture, when it first came into the marketplace brought with it bright new images, design, shop layout, etc that equalled the high-street leaders and it captured a considerable amount of business. The average photographer has remained much as they were a few years ago. If you have read previous articles you will be aware that I am undertaking a complete revamp of my studio and my image and this was to be the basis of the article. However, only a few minutes into the article and my thoughts have changed. In the last few days we have seen the collapse of XL holidays, another London-based holiday company, Alitalia only having enough fuel for a couple of days' flying, Lehman Brothers in the US going under, the Halifax nearly going under and having to be rescued by Lloyds TSB, AIG Insurance being taken over by the American Government along with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. There is no question that we are in a time of change - dramatic change. If we just take Alitalia as an example, whilst many other airlines have constantly updated their fleet and introduced more fuel-efficient aircraft, Alitalia stuck with its existing fleet of fuel-guzzling planes and is now paying a heavy price for its high demand on fuel.
It is true that photographers are always keen to have the latest equipment, but I suspect that this is more to do with their perception of their image with other photographers than it is a defined need in order to improve their standing/position or image in the marketplace.
Financial times are undoubtedly going to become harder, with more people being made redundant (the HBOS-LloydsTSB merger is suggested to create 40,000 job losses. The numbers claiming jobseekers' allowance rose by 32,000 in August (the highest rise in 16 years). As well as people being in financial difficulties due to job losses, the housing market, and the increased cost of petrol, electricity, gas and food is putting pressure on the funds of those in work. If you couple all this with the instability in the money market we, as photographers, need to be reviewing our position and taking action to maintain our income level in these troubled times.
January and February are traditionally the quietest times for both portrait and wedding photographers, and an ideal time to plan a total revamp. Believe me, it takes a lot longer than you actually imagine. Changing seems to have a domino effect. A new logo or design means everything needs a new design; a change of price or a change of package also results in more rewriting and reprinting. Then of course there is the decor of your studio, viewing room, office, etc. It all needs to be done.
Portrait photography is a luxury to many and even wedding photography is a luxury to others. With weddings, people want a day to remember but at a cost they can afford. Many years ago weddings were far more family affairs and wedding photography was limited to about 36 images. Photographers, hotels and all the others involved including magazines have turned weddings into costly affairs. With the cost cuts that are taking place, it is interesting to note that photography is one area where discounts, buy-one-get-one-free, sales, etc never take place. However, we have to ask are people going to continue to pay the current prices for weddings or portraits? If I were going back into the wedding business again I would be seriously looking at the way I operated in the 1960s. I used to photograph six weddings on a Saturday, starting at the church or registry office and finishing with a mock-up of the cake cutting at the reception. There were no bride and groom 'pretty pretty' poses. A very simple album contained the 36 or so photographs that had been taken. By mid week the prints were back from the lab and were slipped into the standard album and as soon as the honeymoon couple returned they had the final images. I agree it takes away most of the art, but it was based on a price that people could afford.
If you look at the portrait scene, nearly everyone I speak to takes 60-100 images at a simple portrait sitting. The customers have to wade through these, usually projected or on screen, to select the images they want. If you really think about it carefully we do not help our image by taking hundreds of photographs at a portrait sitting for them just to select a few. Most ordinary people with digital cameras can put together 10 or so images if they take over a hundred, taking that many does little for our image. Until we made that change a normal portrait sitting would result in a maximum of 12 images being taken and we offered customers a package choice of seven or 10. In reviewing customer comments we have found that seven or 10 is probably too many, so rather than putting our charges up this year, we have reduced the number of photographs in the basic packages down to five or eight.
If people have been to other photographers in the past they are often amazed that I am able to get a perfect picture each time and love the idea of not having too many to choose from. They also prefer the idea of choosing from actual prints rather than from a screen image. It also makes it considerably quicker for us.
To sum up this article I have to say that studios have to maintain or improve their image to the best high-street standard if they are to compete. They have to be properly branded with images that are recognisable to a growing number of the population. You also need to review your charges and your services, change your displays and, above all, listen to what your customers are saying.
It is always good to finish on a positive note and just as I have been talking doom and gloom it has just been announced that three new major shopping developments have got planning approval and within one week of this happening work started on two of the sites. The old brewery site is to have a complex containing Sainsbury's; the old Wincanton site is having a new Shires Gateway with possibly M&S and another supermarket, and both Boyers factory site and the County Hall site are being developed into main shopping areas. The result will be a quadrupling of the shopping capacity in the town and a whole shift of the image from a rural market town to a major shopping centre (with free parking!). If I do not keep pace with these changes, I will become a backwater. Interestingly few retailers had realised the effect that the new image of Trowbridge would have on their image and standing within the town.
Do you want to change your image? Do you want to manage your way through any recession that happens? Ron runs a series of courses ranging from those who are just starting out to those who just need a rethink.
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