Two stores at the top of the hill defy industry trends

Electronic giant Best Buy posted a $1.7 billion loss in the first fiscal quarter of 2012. This April, it announced it would close 50 stores across the nation. Meanwhile, Internet retail giant’s revenue increased 34 percent compared to their first quarter earnings last year, from nearly $10 billion to $13 billion.

Yet as online retailers’ pummel brick and mortar stores there are a few stores that somehow defy this economic trend.

Why are they still standing?

Chestnut Hill Camera, the small mom-and-pop camera shop first founded in 1952, family owned then and still, continues to capture consumers’ interest and make a profit. The numbers tell a story of an economy where folks are buying. The question is, how does a small independent camera shop compete with the convenience and accessibility provided by the internet.

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And what about at Hideaway Music, the independent record shop located at 8612 Germantown Ave. next to Chestnut Hill Camera (8614 Germantown Ave.) across the street from the old Border’s location, which closed in 2009, and is now occupied by Children of America Daycare Center.

Photographers like to talk

“They wanna deal with a person,” said Frank Garber, owner of Chestnut Hill Camera, about consumers. “They want someone they can talk to.”

For Garber the key is providing his customers with a serviceman (himself) who is friendlier, more knowledgeable, experienced and dedicated to his profession. His shop is a community shop. One can walk along Germantown Ave. and buy cheese, or spices, shoes or clothes, bank or answer a caffeine craving, have a camera fixed, perhaps purchase printed versions of scores of photos stored on memory cards. Or maybe buy a record. It’s foot traffic from other stores that helps generate business.

“They have a bigger problem than I have,” said Garber, referring to Best Buy. It’s called showrooming. That’s when a consumer browses a large showroom at a large retailer like Best Buy, finds the product they are looking for, perhaps a Nikon D 4100 DSLR camera with 16 megapixels and an 18-55 millimeter VR lens, and questions the salesperson.

Can they offer the television for a better price than the consumer has discovered they can purchase the same product somewhere on the internet (and have it delivered to their home). It is as simple as utilizing a smart phone application designed for such that purpose.

Internet often has better prices

If Garber is questioned as to whether he can beat or match a deal offered by an internet retailer or Best Buy, he tends to have to “let the sale walk.” It’s an issue small shop owners are faced with. How they respond can determine their financial success.

Garber has supplemented the sale of his cameras and supplies by offering services like repairs, transferring old VHS tapes to DVD’s, and providing various custom finishing options like sepia tone prints, scans to CD’s, greeting cards, sports cards, calendars and creating power point slides from files.

The economy the past few years forced him to have to cut his overhead costs “to the bone.” He used to employ two employees. But they often lacked the knowledge customers entered the store to find. Now, the shop started by his aunt and uncle, Henrietta and Jack Zankman, and his uncle’s brother, that moved from around the corner to its current location in 1963, is run by Garber and sometimes his two daughters. Garber himself has worked at the shop since 1974, when was 16.

Some people are into vinyl

At the same time, at Hideaway, owner Brian Reisman has competed with the rise of internet music sales, iTunes, Pandora, Spotify and before that Naptser and Limewire since he opened the store over a decade ago this upcoming October.

“The vinyl has really helped quite a bit,” he said. “People are buying less and less CD’s.”

Vinyl is as popular in new music today as it was with youths in the sixties and seventies, when Reisman and his friends carried their records to parties where friends listened to them together. According to Nielsen Soundscan, vinyl sales in the U.S. topped $3.9 million in 2011, a 39.3 percent gain from 2010. Not only are people buying new music on vinyl, but they’re buying the old stuff, too.

At Hideaway, vinyl sales account for almost 50 percent of sales, compared to CD’s, which account for 40 percent and equipment, which accounts for 10 percent of sales, according to estimates by Reisman. Reisman has tried to appeal to consumers by maintaining a store he considers to be fashionably-designed with easy to find records, as well as a selection of one dollar crates (six records for five bucks) for those so interested.

He sells records he calls hard-to-records like compilations, imports or albums like Black America Sings Dylan or Lennon/McCartney. He also carries vintage sound equipment. And there’s record store day, celebrated the third Saturday in each year, and international event dedicated to music, where each year, independent stores host performances by local artists.

Sometimes shopping is more fun with real people

These small shops appeal to the locally-oriented consumer who’s after a more personalized experience, where people are people and business is conducted amidst conversation and happenings along the street lined with other businesses.

“I could have downloaded it but I really wanted to have the hard copy I guess,” said Tyler Wagner, outside Hideaway one Saturday July afternoon, after he purchased a Bon Iver album.

Wagner, a Center City resident raised in Chestnut Hill, was in town to see his family and went to Hideaway for a box-set he still has yet to find. “I don’t buy a lot of albums or DVD’s,” said Wagner. “But when I do, I like to do it locally.”

And there’s high-school student and Chestnut Hill resident Schulyer Alig, a photography enthusiast. She’s shopped at Chestnut Hill Camera and learned about the craft from her father. She purchased her camera on the internet. That’s also where she gets—downloads—most of her music, like her friends, she said.

“In order to potentially charge more for the same product, customer service has to be top notch,” said Chris Altman, a Tacony resident who also happened to be a professional photographer. Altman traveled to Chestnut Hill that day to purchase spices at Penzey’s on Germantown Ave. She purchased the majority of her gear from the internet.

“It’s sort of the bastard child of the fine arts world,” she said about photography. And as camera phones are almost at everyone’s disposal, while it may be competing with services offered by professionals who have developed the refined, learned craft of photography, it might at the same time expose a form of expression to millions who otherwise might have not ever experienced the beauty of the frame.

“Someone can take a marginal looking shot and make it look fantastic,” said Altman about the prevalence of digital editing programs. Yet, still, “it is a great tool to open up a person’s creative voice.”

And as long as there are people to purchase cameras and music, and people to make cameras and music, there will be stores filled with people filled with a passion for photography and music who bring the pictures and songs a little more to life, and know a little more about the thing than a picture on the internet.

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