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What would you do?


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Hi All,

This is my first post, although I have read most of the archived messages on this board since joining a few weeks ago, to get some idea of the optimism or otherwise if those of you left in the industry.

My situation is as follows and I am looking for honest opinions from the rest of you:

After 40+ years in photography - the last 20 years running a pro lab, which has collapsed since the introduction of digital, I can either change direction to stay in photography or give up completely and join my peers in an orange coat working at B&Q!

Currently I am in the process of selling my premises, which are in completely the wrong position to consider retail/public work, and if I continue it will mean leasing a shop with reasonable footfall potential. Currently looking at a 2000sq ft unit in a secondary shopping centre location, putting a studio, digital printing - including mugs, tee shirts etc., photocopying and retailing a few frames, albums, batteries ect. - would you go for it or not?

Before decrying the idea I should probably add that I will take some current machinery (RA printing up to 40"x30", heatsealing and mounting) and keep a turnover of approx. £1k a month from past professional customers.

I will need to buy a digital minilab (not new - just in case), 24" inkjet, mug press etc. but proceeds from sale of current property means there would be no finance payments to carry.

Having read most of the past posts I expect and welcome different suggestions and opinions - over to you, and thanks in advance.


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Clive, good luck with whatever way you go. For myself, I had a chance to get out last August. Life now is very different.

I have free time, no, or should I say very little stress, no longer working silly hours, have my weekends free, and come and go as I need. I earn a bit of money here and a bit of money there, doing web sites and IT work, but no 9-5

I do miss the trade, but not the hassle or the worry... I know lab owner that sold up years back, he was making more money selling sweets at a car boot on a Sunday morning, than working 6 days a week....

It is a big step to walk away though, when it is what you have done all your life.

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Hi Clive,

           You have obviously thought about this very hard. You have something more to offer than the average highstreet lab, (40x30 prints on silverhalide are unusual to find on the highstreet). The only problem I can see is....... 'dumbing down', although you have a good professional customer base, you will be meeting a LOT of the general public. You will be surprised at the amount of knowledge you take for granted, and the public have no idea about. Your staff may find the change a bit of a strain, but if you wrap it up as a challenge.........

  After saying that, it can be very rewarding dealing with the general public. Our personal favourites are the little old ladies with their tattered and faded print from prints. A challenge at times, but the history can be increadable, and when you have performed your magic on their prints, their reaction is beyond price.

  Highstreet work and professional work can be as different as chalk and cheese, you obviously realise this, and by posting your question, would seem up to the challenge. I would urge you to do it, and enjoy, as at times it may well seem like a career change.

  If you decide to go on, let me know, I could do with knowing where I could get good large 'proper' prints from!

best of luck.

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Great question. Here's my perspective...

You don't see many labs going in these days - except to the mass merchants who have a completely different agenda to those of us that need to make money. Unfortunately the returns are not what they used to be - particularly when we consider the initial and ongoing investment required. Really you have to consider the opportunity cost if you were to invest in another type of business.

I have been involved in the industry for 25 years, the first 5 in pro-lab and the remaing 20 in minilab. From my experience I would not bother re-locating the RA4 machine - even though it probably owes you nothing, I've seen the changes in large format inkjet and with our latest Epson 9800 it would be hard to beat. Most importnatly if there is nothing going through it there is no electricity cost or chemicals to go off.

Products like mugs, t-shirts and large format are not really stand-alone and need (lots) of complimentary lines to help them along. To put a few frames in doesn't show the consumer that retailers are serious in that market so sales will never be that successful.

If you put a minilab in you'll need a minimum of 4 kiosks to go with that. Don't forget tha associated costs of network, server, software, online solution etc. Adc to that some proper shofitting otherwise the whole thing will look temporary and again sales will reflect that. If you're a 'techie' life will be easier, if you're not prepare for a very steep learning curve ahead.

There is some good potential in studio photography - especially if you concentrate on family portraits that are well marketed. In this case you don't neccessarily need all the output gear. There are plenty of labs that will provide fantastic value on package prints and large format.

Lastly the property. Think about how much that has been appreciating over the past few years. Will you get the same compound growth in your investment if it's going into printers and other machinery - albeit second hand? You will be selling something you own now and putting money into a landlords pocket plus you'll probably have to sign up for some time. That means your business proposition will have to be rock-solid. You mentioned it was a secondary site and that is always reflected in volume and potential business. The products you're trying to sell need good footfall to get serious sales.

We are still doing well in the business but it takes lots of hard work and we have plenty of goodwill helping us along.

Good luck with your decision and I look forward to hearing what others have to say.

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Good analysis Photosave. Another solution could be to consider one of the many labs on the market now and move your goodwill there. You should be able to pick up a reasonable site for little investment and you have a ready-made business. I hear there are quite a few franchise labs on the market from a broker who has been trying to move them. From what I understand there are a some who need to sell up and there are not too many buyers.

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Ah Clive  :).  If you've been forty plus years in the industry then I'm figuring you're a mid-post war person probably close to retirement age, or not quite there yet.  The message I'm hearing is "this is all I know" and if I leave it "what do I do now?''  I'm also figuring you're not a quitter.  But as someone once said to me long ago, it's often a more insightful and mature decision to say, "I'm not going on", and turn your face to the breeze, than to continue doing something that is doubtful.  I'm guessing that B&Q is a chain store....low wages...but no stress.

I'm an ex-psychologist for 30 years and entered the industry 3 years ago (dragged in, acutally, but).  Love it to death.  Wish I'd found it in its heyday.  But, Clive, FYI we're selling up.  We're selling up because digital is way too dirty and competitive for little business to survive.  Our major suppliers do the deals with the major chain stores and expect us to compete, as do our customers, when you carry a brand name across your door.  We're selling up, because we understand DIY and the digital revolution.  You can educate people all you like that it costs more for them to print at home, but really, it is about them being able to finally exercise their personal power and therefore not about the cost.  The big guys picked this right.  There is a nice little loop going on between major digital camera/printer makers, big outlets, and home consumers and the middle people like us are gone.  Straight from major name to home user.  Now, don't think me negative.....just realistic.

What you're planning sounds to me like you're trying to find a niche that will cost too much, both personally and financially, not to mention having to compete with these major players.  My head hurts just thinking about it.  It seems to me you've already worked out that you've got a big financial investment in front of you, and can you compete in this arena?  Well, my question to you is, why bother?  Mate, I don't know about you, but I want more $ for my precious talents and time (as I think Neil commented on).

Do you know, you will never lose your talent.  It will just fit in somewhere, elsewhere.  If you're selling up, don't lose courage in your abilities to apply your talent at a time of your discretion.  Take it easy, look around, and a whole new world might open for you.      

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Not sure if this is for you, but you made me think of it...

www.photomart.co.uk is in the process of introducing the successful U.S. LabTricity network (from ExpressDigital) to the UK. This will allow labs to be found  by photographers online, and receive jobs from them (and from the photographers' customers) over the Internet. One of the implications of this is that it might not be necessary to pay rates on a high street store front in order to offer a lab service to pros.

...just a thought!

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In my opinion:

Retail - don't bother unless you are prepared to go kiosk/cafe route and become an out and out retailer.

Studio - maybe, have a look at http://www.thisisventure.co.uk/ - this is what people are expecting these days, big investment in shop fit, computers, staff etc though.

Lab - Consider taking your £1000 turnover, add a digital lab, wide format inkjet and move to a low rent location and try and pick up more pro digital customers by mail order. Mounting/laminating are still sought after services too.




Assuming you're 55+ I would look at Liz's post carefully.

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Mmmm  a 2000sq ft unit even in a secondary trading position could be up to 70k rent alone, your existing £1k a month is nothing against this,

What makes you think you can succeed where your pro lab failed?, These are very difficult times for our industry (see post christmas poll 25%want to sell) big companies are getting their fingers burnt many smaller ones are struggling along think very carefully,but if you do go ahead make sure you get a get out clause in your lease.

But if I was in your shoes I'd take the orange coat.

Best of luck withwhatever you decide

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Many thanks to those of you that have found time to offer suggestions and help so far.

Photographis/Photosave.  Both fairly encouraging with good points made which will be taken on board.

LIZ.  Sorry about your situation and I certainly wouldn't be considering a stand alone processing operation without a decent size studio facility, but not the Venture type suggested by JP.

Askey.   £70k per annum rent for a 2000 sq. ft. shop? These days, out of town shopping centres have resulted in most high streets having a fair number of charity shops/ empty units which makes for a buyers market. The premises I favour at present has been offered at £10k per annum and there will be any get out clause I demand, or I will look elsewhere.

JP.  To expand a little on my previous remark, I have in my varied past run a high street studio and must admit I shed a few tears over the demise of the Olan Mills group in December - laughter can do that!  As the forerunner of the American idea of offering 'free' sittings and then screwing the customer for prints, using the psychological blackmail that any pictures not purchased will be destroyed, never appealed to me. The nearest Venture outfit is run by a long time friend and even he cannot explain to my satisfaction how to justify their cheapest offering - a 7x5 print in a very average frame for £70.00.

I have always believed that anyone that wants decent photos of their family/baby/pets should be prepared to bear the cost of the sitting in return for sensbly priced reprints - especially in these days of easy copying available everywhere regardless of the copyright issues.

Orange doesn't suit my complexion - but may become necessary, we will see.

Anyway thanks again to all - no decision reached yet so I'm still listening.


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YES !  Someone who feels the same about venture as I do !  And, moreover, not afraid to voice opinions in an open forum.

The number of highkey (burnt out) 'photo's I have seen from really dissapointed people whom swear they will never go to a 'professional' photographer again. They felt they could trust the connection with kodak, and learnt the truth the hard way.

Kodak's 'get rich quick' scheme for chosen photographers is fine for them for a while , but it IS doing lasting damage to the industry.

  It may be different in your (the reader's) part of the world.

You are spot on in your analysis of the highstreet at the moment, if my rent was no so uncomparably low, I would have the choice of several prime sites in my local towns. The other thing that makes me stay is my small carpark (takes six/seven cars) and my proximity to the main carpark of my town. Big plus.

Good luck Clive, with whatever you decide.

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I agree with all the posts here, an interesting thread.

I think that there is a lot of potential in studio portraits, if they are done well and you obviously have some experience in doing this. But do you really need to go the full digital lab with this? It seems to me that second hand digital labs are a bit of a liability in terms of the potential cost of parts / repair, and new labs are expensive. Either way you need a lot of work just to cover the cost of operating any digital lab, and you might be better off concentrating on just a few services rather  than trying to offer everything. Digital prints for the consumer market, as you will be aware, is extremely competitive, and small labs get no support from the major suppliers. But .... if you have a dream, you need to follow it!

Whatever you do, best of luck.

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The nearest Venture outfit is run by a long time friend and even he cannot explain to my satisfaction how to justify their cheapest offering - a 7x5 print in a very average frame for £70.00.

Why do you need to justify it? As long as people are prepared to pay... It seems that the Venture business model works, not so sure about the 'pay upfront for sitting, cheaper print prices' business model.

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  No justification is needed for any business model. My observations, which were reflected by cliveanton, have led me to believe that a lot of people feel 'suckered' by the venture business model, definately in my area. One could argue 'till the cows come home about this aspect or the other of this business plan or another.

  The Truth is that if customers FEEL suckered, end up spending more than they thought necessary, they will not be happy, and their displeasure WILL damage your business. This doesn't matter if you are running a 'get rich quick' scheme, but if your interest is in sustainability, then it is of prime concern.

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JP  Sorry if you took my dislike of what I regard as hard sell, American style operations as any form of personal critism - each to their own.

I ran a prominent high street studio (opposite Marks & Spencer) for some years whilst Olan Mills were at their peak and survived very well, largely on their ex customers that became regulars with me, mainly because of the fair pricing policy outlined in my previous post.  It was a large studio and I had different areas with various backgrounds, boudoir setting and a front-pro unit, so results provided varied styles, and customers bought lots of pictures, which we printed ourselves so still did very nicely. Before anyone asks, the business remained good and I moved on only because I gave away a house (the first of two!), needed somewhere to live and started the pro-lab with living accomodation above, which was great until some swine invented digital.

In fact I would suggest that the public generally vote with their feet with most retail operations in this country, provided that they can find clear, fair, upfront pricing policy, and you can fool some of the people..........

Any talented photographer that makes some effort to use varied lighting and provides a genuine choice of styles in the finished product can raise prices and still be busy, even if he is upfront about pricing.

Anyway, visited my solicitor this morning so the sale of my present premises is underway and a decision on my next move is getting closer.  Incidentally they charge £160 per hour so maybe I could retrain, or just start charging my customers £16 for each phone call made or received!!

99.9% of lawyers give the others a bad name.  (Change to Estate Agents, Politicians, Trafic Wardens etc. as required.)


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