Here we go again. Photographers in the D.C. area have now lost another great resource – this time, as national specialty dealer Calumet Photo filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy & immediately closed all 15 of their USA stores.- including the 3 former Penn Camera locations that they took over just 25 months ago.
Yes, it was just a little over 2 years ago that Penn Camera abruptly filed for bankruptcy protection, and closed 5 of their 8 locations immediately. Calumet purchased the assets, & took control of Penn’s three most popular locations soon thereafter. Back in 2012, all of this came as a huge surprise to me. I was surprised & saddened to learn about the Penn bankruptcy, and I was surprised when Calumet decided to jump into the D.C. camera retail market. Unfortunately, this time around, I wasn’t surprised at all – and I don’t think that I’m alone.
For many months, photographers and industry insiders have been hinting to me that the inventory levels at the D.C. & Philly Calumet locations were not anywhere near where they should be. As a photo retailer, I know how hard it is to turn a profit even with a large inventory of the most wanted items. (it ain’t easy) With a less than sufficient inventory, along with an insufficient cash flow, it is only on a matter of time until any retailer will fail – and the process will be much faster for a photo retailer, where profit margins are extremely thin. Many former Penn & Ritz employees of Calumet have been through this process before, and I can’t help but think that they saw the handwriting on the wall, fairly well in advance. As a retail employee, it must be a helpless & demoralizing to see it all taking place on a daily basis. First & foremost, my thoughts are & best wishes are with them.
I have not met anyone in management at Calumet Photo, other than previous Penn Camera staff. They are good people, and the businesses that they have helped grow over many years have been a major force in our industry – both regionally & nationally. Like Penn camera, Calumet had been a valued supplier to many photographers, businesses, & government agencies, and they will be sorely missed.
Contrary to what some may believe, I am not happy to lose a competitor like Calumet. They promoted photography in many ways, and their presence was good for the photo industry. When a specialty photo dealer leaves the marketplace, it is bad for the industry and bad for the local photography community. This time, the effect will be felt throughout the USA in many regions, where Calumet had a physical presence.
Calumet’s bankruptcy will not have a huge impact on my business, because of their distance. D.C. & Baltimore are somewhat separate retail markets. Sure, I expect to pick up a handful of customers for Nikon, Canon, & other high-end items, – because some will always see the value in buying from a specialty camera dealer. However, the vast majority of D.C area photographers that used Calumet, and Penn Camera previously, will now find themselves making both major & minor purchases online.
Who would have thought that D.C. area photographers would need to travel a so far to get a “hands on” demonstration before they purchase cameras, lenses, lighting, studio, & printing equipment? Unfortunately, most will simply choose to go online to make their purchases from sources that offer little or no support, instruction, & guidance to their customers. This constantly growing shift in consumer buying is troublesome, because camera & photography gear is not usually simple & self-explanatory. And, it is particularly distressing to anyone operating a retail business that is based on a high level of personalized customer service, guidance, & instruction. (i.e., Service Photo)
The model for making large (and expensive) camera gear purchases used to be simple: Find a reputable dealer, get a “hands on” demonstration, learn about various products, work out a competitively price deal, and make your purchase – knowing that you have established a relationship, and that the dealer will work closely with you throughout the life of the products. Now, the process is often a little more like this: Read the reviews online & buy online. And, if the product isn’t exactly what is needed (or if the review was incorrect) – return it & begin the process again, and again, and again if necessary. Fewer photo dealers mean product demonstrations, fewer relationships, more incorrect purchases, and more product returns. This cannot be good for the manufacturers, or photographers – and it has already caused the demise of many photo dealers.
In the long run, those who value their time and who know that they need guidance & instruction will seek out a specialty photo dealer. Photo specialty dealers are better equipped to help with any special situations that occur throughout the life of any photo product – even if it is an order that was shipped a distance. We value the long term relationship that we have with our customers, and we want to help. The photo dealers that are doing business today are also very price competitive. Add in the service, guidance, & instructions, and I think that we offer a much better deal for most photographers.
To get the most out of their equipment, photographers need to buy the right products for their needs – which is often a decision that cannot be made without assistance. And, they need to know how to use the items properly. These services can only be provided by a local specialty dealer that provides one-on-one “hands on” consultation with its customers. Calumet was a full service dealer that helped many photographers, for many years, and the loss of their services is a loss to the entire photographic community. Here are a few places that I know about, that will offer photographers great service, in a handful of markets previously served by Calumet:
- Service Photo, Inc – Baltimore, MD – 800-344-3776 – http://www.servicephoto.com (Baltimore / D.C. Area)
- Ace Photo – Ashburn, VA (D.C. Area)
- Photocraft – Burke, VA (D.C. Area)
- Webbcam – Philadelphia, PA
- Allens’s Camera – Levittown, PA (Philly Area)
- The Camera Shop – Bryn Mawr, PA (Philly Area)
- Cameras Etc… in Wilmington, DE (Philly Area)
- W.B. Hunt – Boston Area – multiple locations
- E.P. Levine – Boston Area
- Paul’s Photo – Torrance, CA
- Tuttle Cameras – Long Beach, CA
- Samy’s Camera – L.A.
- Bel Air Camera – L.A.
Chapter 7 bankruptcy means liquidation. And although there is a glimmer of hope that Calumet will reemerge in some form, I have heard that it is unlikely. A specialty camera dealer needs to be “lean & mean”, so that it can compete in a photo industry that is dominated by giants, while still offering a high level of customer service. It’s not easy, but it is possible. Hopefully, specialty camera dealers that are currently servicing their markets will continue to operate & thrive for many years to come.
And hopefully, other dealers will keep in mind that friendly competitors like Service Photo will always be happy to work together with them or offer assistance if it is needed. Specialty camera dealers are all a little different, with unique personalities and mixes of products & services. When we all work together in these difficult times, both photographers and dealers will benefit – which will create deeper bonds & better relationships that I hope will keep this industry healthy for a long time.
Service Photo welcomes all Calumet Photo customers in the D.C. & Philly areas, and throughout the USA – and we hope to work with them in the future. We also hope that photographers who used Calumet will consider finding other regional suppliers like the ones listed above – to ensure that they receive the best mix of quality products, prices, instruction, guidance, & total customer service. A healthy specialty camera dealer network in this & every region gives photographers a choice – and that’s what we all need to stay healthy.