ONCE UPON A CAMERA

If the upcoming winter holidays are anything like the fall has been for sales of single-use cameras and film, Jim Pieprzak is about as anxious for Christmas as a 6-year-old kid.That's because the Gristede's Foods executive is just finishing up overseeing a highly successful major campaign involving the New York Mets and club merchandise to promote traditional-film packages and single-use cameras with

If the upcoming winter holidays are anything like the fall has been for sales of single-use cameras and film, Jim Pieprzak is about as anxious for Christmas as a 6-year-old kid.

That's because the Gristede's Foods executive is just finishing up overseeing a highly successful major campaign involving the New York Mets and club merchandise to promote traditional-film packages and single-use cameras with Konica Photo Imaging.

"It has been unbelievable -- much better than anyone had even expected," said Pieprzak, director of nonfoods and health and beauty merchandise for Gristede's, the New York City-area chain that operates 45 supermarkets and two freestanding drug stores.

Among other things, Gristede's and Konica brought in Mets outfielder Timo Perez for the grand opening of a store, "and in two hours, Timo signed 500 photographs and 200 baseballs," Pieprzak recalled. Meanwhile, Konica one-time use cameras were flying off the shippers that had been set up for the event.

Consumers who purchased combinations of Konica film packs, single-use cameras and ink-jet paper at a Gristede's beginning in March got free Mets hats and jerseys. Mahwah, N.J.-based Konica was able to deliver Perez to Gristede's -- and similarly to Pathmark and Food Emporium supermarkets -- as part of its marketing relationship with the Mets and their ballpark, Shea Stadium.

Konica and its retailers are getting ready the upcoming transition in seasons: Among the promotional initiatives by Konica aimed at the winter holidays is a gift-wrap package for single-use cameras that will better position them as stocking-stuffer gifts. Pieprzak is starting to anticipate the Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa season.

"It's too early, in our industry, to know exactly what we're going to do yet," he said. "But I know we're going to be doing lots of floor displays again. We have all of our single-use cameras and film up by our customer-service centers, and they generate lots of incremental sales."

"It's too early, in our industry, to know exactly what we're going to do yet," he said. "But I know we're going to be doing lots of floor displays again. We have all of our single-use cameras and film up by our customer-service centers, and they generate lots of incremental sales."

Other manufacturers also are gearing up their support for single-use cameras. For example, Eastman Kodak, Rochester, N.Y., has boosted its television advertising expenditures this year by about 45% over a year ago, said Gary Briddon, the Atlanta-based vice president and general manager of business development. "And one-time cameras are getting very heavy weight within that spending, compared with previous years," he said.

Felpausch Supermarkets, Hastings, Mich., is planning on a strong holiday season for single-use cameras, including an extra large spinner or other auxiliary display dedicated to the category in each of its 19 stores scattered across southern Michigan. "That's in addition to all the new facings that we're giving to single-use cameras," said Linda Schroeder, director of general merchandise. "It used to be that 200-speed film was the biggest seller in the category and you could never have too many facings of it. But now, we give first consideration for space to these single-use cameras; it's film after that."

Sentiments like those are music to the ears of key players in the photographic-supply market, because supermarkets are becoming an ever-more important channel for the only product offered by the traditional-film industry that is growing in sales.

Disposable-camera sales at supermarkets grew 4.2% by dollar volume and a whopping 11.8% by units during the 52 weeks ended in mid-August, according to data from Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

That's faster growth than the 3.9% dollar volume and 7.4% unit growth posted by drug stores, and the 3.5% dollar and 7.4% unit growth generated by the leading mass merchandisers surveyed. With disposable camera sales of $236 million during the period, supermarkets held about 34% of the total market of $700 million, according to IRI, while drug stores still held nearly 48% of the overall market.

Supermarkets didn't do as well as other channels during that 52-week period in year-to-year sales comparisons for conventional film and instant film, IRI reported. But neither of those categories is showing the growth single-use cameras are. Sales of conventional and instant film continued their recent slide, dropping 10.9% in dollar volume and 14.6% in units during the period.

Food channels have outpaced all other channels in unit growth recently, said Brian Hammock, director of marketing of consumer film products for Fuji Photo Film USA, based in Elmsford, N.Y. "Food outlets were slightly over 10% growth for the year ending August 31," Hammock said, citing ACNielsen data to which he's had access. The figure for all food, drug and mass-merchandising outlets combined, he said, was just over 6%.

Growth in the grocery channel is so important now that Eastman Kodak took the step earlier this year of expanding the availability of its value-priced FunSaver camera. The "slightly de-featured model" retails for a typical retail price of $6 to $7, compared with Kodak's MaxFlash, priced at $7 to $8, and its newest entry in the category, MaxHQ, at $8 to $9.

"Food is beginning to aggressively support [FunSaver] now," Briddon said. What's most encouraging to Briddon, he said, is that "with the food stores that are picking it up, it seems to be incremental volume -- FunSaver isn't cannibalizing the higher-priced models that they've had before."

Such results are encouraging to companies such as LTA International, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based concern that has handled more than 50,000 front-end merchandising racks at supermarkets and convenience stores around the world. Until recently, supermarkets as a whole haven't had a good share of the single-use-camera market because "they've tended not to take advantage of the impulsivity of the category," said Loyd Tomlinson, LTA's president.

"They've tended to have very few displays around the store. Customers actually purchase all of their meals and other goods and may not have the camera category on their list because they're concentrating on food. When they get home, then they realize they could have picked up a single-use camera there, but they end up going to some other outlet instead," he said.

There are other ways that supermarkets "don't satisfy the needs of consumers" in this category, Tomlinson said. "There are 13 major events in the consumer's life cycle during each year, such as birthdays and holidays," he said. "But how often do supermarkets do anything about that with reference to single-use cameras?"

Fuji Photo's Hammock agrees that supermarkets may have the single best opportunity of any major type of retail channel to boost single-use camera sales, in part because they're starting from a relatively low base, and also because "they have the best built-in foot traffic. They just have to capture the sale while consumers are in the store." And in the growing number of supermarkets that also offer photo processing, "you not only get the initial ring of the product, but consumers have to bring it back for processing to stores that offer that, so there's a second trip. Then they come back to pick up the prints," he said.

Because women tend both to be the "photographic manager" of most families and also do the vast majority of supermarket shopping, there's a strong synergy, and it fits well with other nonfood additions, such as flower departments and banking services, said John Phillips, senior vice president of marketing and operations for Konica. "Single-use cameras really leverage all of that, yet it's still an extremely underdeveloped class of trade in food stores."

Supermarket and film company executives agree with Tomlinson, of LTA, that the best way to exploit their advantage in this category is to position single-use cameras -- along with traditional film -- aggressively as an impulse buy. "The beauty of it for retailers is that its lends itself to a lot of locations around the store that can take advantage of the purchase impulse," Hammock said.

Tomlinson pushes for the front of the store around services areas, cash registers and other impulse-item displays. "Our customers put the photo center in the front of the store," he said. "And the data show that when they're not doing that, and they're not promoting cameras and film with displays, they're actually losing market share."

The biggest hindrance to supermarkets' more effective handling of the category, Tomlinson said, is that most chains still lack the buying and merchandising expertise necessary to succeed. "It may be a magazine or confection buyer doing the front end of the store, so the film or disposable-camera category gets left out because they don't understand all the facts," he said.

Supermarkets ignore single-use cameras at their peril because they continue to be the lone bright spot in sales of traditional -- vs. digitally based -- film products. Sales are projected to hit 200 million units this year, according to the Photo Marketing Association International, Jackson, Mich. Sales through the first half of the year rose at least 10% compared with a year ago, reported the trade group. That is down somewhat from even more torrid growth rates during the previous few years, but an executive of the association believes the mild slowdown mainly reflects less travel by Americans.

It's no wonder that single-use cameras have caught on. They're convenient and increasingly offer high-quality lenses and flash systems, giving consumers confidence that they'll serve as a reliable fill-in for the expensive camera that they may not want to risk taking to the beach or on an amusement park ride. They are most popular with women, who comprise 72% of one-time camera users; 35 mm single-lens-reflex camera users are split evenly between men and women. Men, who tend to be the early technology adopters in new categories of consumer electronics, are 54% of digital-still camera users.

Some argue that the popularity of single-use cameras also owes something to the rising popularity of digital photographic systems. "The convenience and low cost of single-use cameras become more compelling to consumers as they begin to cope with and learn about digital imaging," said Konica's Phillips. They're interested in digital, and they've got the camera, but it's still foreign technology."