Exposure to the internet isn't all bad for camera business
FUTURE PROOF: Conn's Cameras
Never mind two recessions, the advent of online shopping has proved one of the greatest hurdles for Dublin-based camera shop Conn's Cameras.
The family-run business was established more than 40 years ago by Phil Conn, and is now run by his sons Mike and Bob.
“Cameras are in my blood,” says Mike. “I was born over a camera shop in London. My dad worked for Dixon’s. He ran a superstore in Piccadilly. We then moved to Wales where he set up a superstore.”
Phil moved to Ireland in 1968 and opened his first store on Dublin’s Capel Street. He quickly expanded the business, opening shops in the Grafton Arcade, on Dawson Street and in Dún Laoghaire.
“He sold the Dawson Street and Capel Street shops in the late 1970s/early 1980s and bought a shop in the Ilac Centre. He then sold the Dún Laoghaire and Ilac stores to concentrate on the Grafton Arcade store.”
In 2003, the Grafton Arcade store and a photo processing lab on the Hibernian Way were sold, and the family bought a building on Clarendon Street, opposite Brown Thomas.
“Thankfully we bought it before the boom,” Mike says. “We felt there was no point in having locations everywhere, especially with the advent of online shopping. We decided to concentrate everything and focus on service and excellence.”
The previous year, online buying started becoming popular, so the family decided to make some changes.
“I met a customer in Tokyo and he told me he would never buy a camera off me again as he’d be buying them online.
“People thought it would be the end of brick and mortar retailers. There were alarming price differences, as there were no overheads with online businesses. We had to get cost effective and look at out prices.”
However, the rise of online shopping also led to the removal of the middleman, which lowered costs in the industry.
“There has been a massive demise in the wholesale trade in Ireland. We now deal with the manufacturers directly, which we weren’t allowed to do before 2004/05.”
The internet has been as much a business opportunity as a problem, he says.
“If you break a product, we will give you another as a loan, to tide you over while the product is being repaired. That . . . doesn’t really happen when you buy online.
“A lot of people are also prepared to pay the tiny extra cost for the immediacy of getting the product there and then, seeing how it works and having a demonstration.”
He believes the mass emigration after the downturn has helped their online business.
“There is a huge Irish diaspora living abroad now. They know our shop, so buy from our site. They know if there is any problem, they can pop into us when they are home. You can sell VAT free outside the EU. We import cameras and then send them out again. The VAT rate is very high here so, without it, they are very cheap. Who would have believed you could export cameras out of Ireland?”
Rise of digital
The rise of digital cameras affected the company’s developing business.
“Hardly anyone prints photos now. We’ve had a huge fall-off in 6x4 photo printing. However, we do a lot of work for professionals still, and high quality enlargements. You can obtain a higher profitability on specialist printing.”
The business re-examined its cost base in 2010 following a 10 per cent decline in turnover. “We went out to all our utility suppliers and made sure we weren’t paying over the odds.
“Before the downturn, the average mark-up in a store was 25 per cent on each product. That today is between 4 per cent and 10 per cent. A very specialist, unique product might have a 12 per cent mark-up.”
The firm also started running courses so more people might become interested in photography and buy equipment, a move that proved very successful.
“We started doing training days to teach people about photography and demo our equipment. A lot of people were so enthused they bought cameras and gear. We created a new market through knowledge.”
Mike has also noticed an increase in buying local as a result of the downturn. “During the Celtic Tiger days, people were popping on planes every few weeks and purchasing more abroad . . . People are at home more now, so they tend to do their shopping here.”