Can Britain’s high-street stores survive? Is ‘click-and-collect’ key to the future?
You know what it’s like. It seems far less hassle to order gadgets from a comfy sofa at home than trek down to the nearest high street.
Whether it’s the weekly shop or buying a new camera, many take to the web to weigh up their options.
More than a third of all camera sales in Britain were made online in 2013, according to market research firm GfK.
Yet online’s share could be as high as 50% when ‘click & collect’ purchases – a booming area of the market – are added to the mix.
In recent years, high-street shops have faced a double whammy as their plight has been compounded by falling demand for cameras.
UK camera shipments fell 31% in 2013, according to Futuresource Consulting, and it’s unlikely to improve any time soon with UK demand expected to drop 25% this year.
The two-pronged attack has left its mark across Europe. Britain, France, Italy and Germany saw a 40% drop in photo-retail outlets between 2002 and 2011.
In the following two years, Britain alone lost around half its camera shops, accelerated by the closure of 19 Jacobs stores in 2012 and 187 Jessops outlets, under former owners, seven months later. Numbers dropped from more than 700 in mid-2011, to around 340 last year.
The latest casualty is Morris Photographic Centre, which ceased trading and shut down its base in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, after running into financial trouble earlier this month.
The 35-year-old business – which sold photographic equipment in-store and online – attributed its demise to a ‘hostile retail market’ that led to ‘falling profits on a yearly basis’.
There has been an ‘evolutionary shift’ towards mass-market retailers, driven by the likes of John Lewis, Tesco, Asda, Argos and Amazon, according to Simon Bryant, head of consumer electronics at Futuresource Consulting, who says the change in the photographic retail landscape has been nothing short of dramatic.
Last year, more than half of cameras sold online in the UK were bought through ‘multi-channel’ retailers such as John Lewis. Yet the high street remains a powerful force and the future is promising.
The high street made up two-thirds of camera sales in 2013. And a recent Amateur Photographer (AP) reader poll, conducted online, found that 25% still prefer to deal with retailers face to face.
More than a quarter of around 900 readers who responded said they preferred to shop online because it is more convenient and/or cheaper, while another 20% said that where they shop would depend on price.
Richard Gardner, a London Camera Exchange (LCE) customer, said: ‘I prefer buying through the high street, largely because I can look at what I am buying beforehand.’
Fellow LCE customer Ander McIntyre, a London-based professional who has photographed 40 presidents and heads of state, prefers face-to-face contact to an ‘anonymous’ internet operation, citing helpful staff at LCE, Calumet, Mr Cad and Jessops in Oxford.
‘I would never buy a significant item over the internet – the risk of loss or damage, getting the wrong item, and so on. The personal contact is crucial to weighing things up.’
For UK photojournalist Edmond Terakopian, ‘passionate’ staff are the key. ‘Jacobs in New Oxford Street [London] used to be my haunt along with the majority of Fleet Street and, sadly, they went out of business and most of us now go to Fixation [in south London].’
London-based photographer Edmond Terakopian
Waiting in for the postman or tipping off the neighbour about an imminent delivery – which can take several days – is wearing thin with many, it seems.
Although Gardner admits to browsing for gear online, he says he would then choose ‘click & collect’, allowing him to pick an item up at a local store – an option that Futuresource says is key to the future and which suits specialist camera shops in a changing market (see below).
More than just a shop
Many stores offer more than expertise. Park Cameras, which has won many awards for its customer service, also hosts photography courses and events. Last year, 1,200 people descended on its showroom in West Sussex for its Imaging Festival.
This year there were two one-day events; one in Burgess Hill, West Sussex, on 14 June and a second, on 21 June, at the new Park Cameras store in London, which opened last November. Visitors were promised free seminars by leading photographers, special deals on new kit and free sensor cleaning on Canon cameras, for example.
Park Cameras prides itself on marrying traditional retail with mail order and a thriving online business.
Websites play a key role, not only in promoting the expertise of high-street shops, but also in allowing customers to buy products – a trend that has seen online’s share of interchangeable-lens camera sales revenue rise from 25% to 38% between 2010 and 2013.
‘They [the stores] need to make sure they have a web presence,’ says Richard Gregory, GfK’s account director for Consumer Electronics, who stresses that websites must not merely serve to publish a shop’s contact details. Yet many specialist shops don’t have such a presence, he adds.
Among those that do is the London Camera Exchange, which, along with Jessops, is the joint largest chain in the UK. Yet online currently accounts for 5% of the revenue at the 28-store business.
To survive, high-street stores have had to work with their suppliers to be more price competitive, and the huge price ‘delta’ of years gone by has shrunk, according to Futuresource.
‘We are now competing with online stores,’ says LCE’s marketing and communications manager Adrian Deary. LCE says it can match prices with those of authorised sellers on other websites, high-street retailers and its own online prices.
‘High street [stores] have had to change their cost base a bit as well, renegotiate rent with landlords and look at staffing levels – perhaps having to let go of an extra person who was there just in case…’
London Camera Exchange marketing man Adrian Deary
Asked how LCE can deter customers coming in for expert advice, then simply walking away empty-handed, Deary replied: ‘We can’t force people to buy and we don’t charge a fee for our advice, but once they’ve come in the store, they’ve had the advice and the product’s there.
‘I don’t see too many circumstances where you would just walk away. I think it’s human nature that you’ve engaged with someone, and they have given you advice and we should value that.’
It is clear, however, that the ‘customer journey’, according to Futuresource, has changed.
High-street stores will be hoping that such a journey does not start and finish at the click of a mouse, but leads to customers making a return trip. Even if it is just to collect their shiny new purchase.
‘Click & collect’ key to future
Traditional mail-order delivery means customers can research their prospective purchase in-store, but then leave without making a purchase. The growth of ‘click & collect’, where customers pay online and then collect their new toy at a nominated store, could be the saviour of the high street, it seems.
It enables people to ‘re-engage’ with their local shops, says Futuresource – providing somewhere to go back to, as well as seek advice on other services and buy accessories.
This, coupled with camera makers’ focus on higher-end models – and away from low-spec compacts crippled by smartphones – could play into hands of high-street specialists with knowledgeable, spec-savvy staff.
‘Not everybody is happy to sit in their rooms, order something online and receive it by post in the next few days,’ adds Bryant, who says some are uncomfortable with a ‘faceless’ organisation.
‘People are spending more on cameras now than they did a year ago… albeit in much smaller volumes, but that lends itself to a more specialist, hobbyist market and a retail landscape where a face-to-face engagement will play an important part.’
Simon Bryant, head of consumer electronics at Futuresource Consulting
Price gap ‘diminished’
We did a quick search for a Canon EOS 6D body only on 2 June, and found that it can be bought for £1,099.97 on Amazon, plus £5.61 post and packing – a total cost of £1,105.58.
At LCE, which says it matches its website price to that quoted in-store – the EOS 6D costs £1,379.99, plus £4.99 postage. The LCE price also includes Adobe software and it’s also eligible for £150 cashback from Canon, bringing the cost down to £1,234.98.
The same model costs £1,383.99, including delivery and software, at specialist online photo store Wex Photographic (also eligible for £150 cashback).
Meanwhile, a Nikon D3300 costs £393.10 from the lowest- priced Amazon seller, including delivery. However, at LCE it costs £364.98 including postage and £40 cashback, so it is £28 cheaper, plus customers can get face-to-face advice.
Futuresource’s Simon Bryant says: ‘The huge gulf we saw in prices between the likes of Amazon and some of the high-street retailers has diminished, there is no question. To survive, these companies have had to become more competitive…’
He believes people will pay more for being able to order and reserve online and then picking up the item from a high street store a few hours later, rather than having to wait three to five days for home delivery.’
Online shoppers may encounter ‘grey’ importers. They sell goods brought into the UK through an unofficial route, meaning they may avoid tax and import duty and are able to undercut authorised dealers on price. Among the potential pitfalls is the camera not including a UK warranty.
‘If something goes wrong, you have to send it back to whichever country you bought it from,’ warns photographer Edmond Terakopian. ‘For me, as a professional, I can’t have my equipment away from me for weeks on end, it’s just not do-able.’
LCE’s Adrian Deary adds: ‘There are a number of problems with buying online. One is the warranty issue, especially if it’s come from a grey import, an overseas source. You don’t really know where it’s come from. The warranty could be shorter than is offered in-store. It can also be provided by a third party – whoever they may be.’
Futuresource’s Simon Bryant agrees that buying from an online brand that customers don’t recognise poses a risk. ‘There isn’t that tangible situation where they can discuss the problem,’ he says. He acknowledges that consumers are becoming ‘more savvy’ about the potential dangers, however.
AP asked Amazon to explain how it can be sure that equipment sold through its site has not been sourced from grey importers, but it refused to comment.
‘We accept that online is very important, but it’s more a first point of contact for our customers,’ says LCE’s Adrian Deary.
‘It’s where they can find out where we are, what time we open, the range of products we sell, prices and so on. We also have a lot of second-hand on there.’
Deary explains that used equipment can only be ordered for delivery by phoning the relevant store, although customers can use the LCE website to order new cameras.
SOME KEY STATS
• Demand for cameras in the UK is predicted to drop by 25% this year, according to research company Futuresource Consulting
• Britain’s photo industry was worth 13.4% less in April, compared to the same month in 2013, according to GfK
• 34% of camera sales in 2013 were online. Most (18%) were from ‘multi-channel’ retailers such as John Lewis and Argos (Source: Futuresource Consulting’s 2014 Digital Camera Retail Distribution Report)
• By the end of 2014, total UK camera shipments are expected to have more than halved in the three years since 2011, falling from 5,571,000 units in 2011 to 2,557,000 in 2014. (Source: Futuresource Consulting’s 2014 Digital Camera Retail Distribution Report)
• Between 2011 and 2013, specialist photo outlets in the UK fell from 731 to 340 (Source, GfK)