Although supermarkets have mostly watched digital photography dominate over film — many of them shuttering their traditional photo labs in the wake of film's demise — digital printing technology continues to improve. With it, the door is opening again and again for supermarkets to step in and take advantage of a feasible and profitable alternative to film processing.
The speed and convenience of in-store kiosks and online ordering services continue to improve, as do their variety and the ease with which retail stores can adopt them.
Consumers are apparently eager to leave their printing to the professionals as well, preferring to use the same retail channels they trust and find themselves in often — namely mass merchandisers, drug stores and supermarkets.
“Customers already have a trusting relationship with us, and they know they can pick their photos up from the same folks they did when they were doing film processing, and that is both a comfort and a convenience to them,” said Rebecca Sanders, spokeswoman, Brookshire Grocery Co., Tyler, Texas.
The retail channel accounted for a total of 49.1% of prints made in the 12 months ending October 2007, according to the latest “Monthly Printing and Camera Trends Report” from PMA — The Worldwide Community of Imaging Associations, Jackson, Mich. PMA was formerly known as Photo Marketing Association International.
About 14% of prints were made instantly by consumers at a retail kiosk, up slightly from the same period last year; 23.5% were sent from a kiosk or ordering station to a mini-lab for printing or gave their memory card to a store associate, down slightly from last year.
Households also ordered 11% of total prints online and later picked them up at a retail location, up from 8% for the same period last year.
Otherwise, 14.1% of prints were ordered online and mailed to the consumer, up from 11.4%, and 35.7% of prints were made using home printers, down from 41.5%.
Consumers almost universally pick and choose which type of photo service to use based on the circumstance, said Gary Pageau, group executive for content development and strategic initiatives for PMA. “Very few people exclusively do one or the other. For instance, home printing is good for special projects, but if you have any volume, retail is more cost-effective.”
Still, rising consumer interest in ordering products online for pickup at retail was noted by every type of outlet this holiday season, those with digital photo services included. For instance, Brookshire saw “a lot of activity” around the holidays on the photo finishing services area of its website, according to Sanders.
“Besides prints, we offer cards, calendars, photo books and all sorts of other unique items that are great for gifting,” she said. “We had just launched before the holidays, so some of the activity can be attributed to the service being new as well.”
For Brookshire to offer its photo services, the retailer partnered with digital imaging solutions provider Life-Pics, Boulder, Colo., to host the site. LifePics provides similar service to a number of supermarket retailers, including Schnuck Markets, St. Louis, which signed on with them just over a year ago, and, more recently, Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif.; Supervalu, Eden Prairie, Minn.; Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh; and Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa, according to LifePics spokesman Ken McDonald.
“Our target market is almost exclusively women, most with kids,” he said. “The ability to order photo prints online after the kids have gone to bed is huge, especially when you combine it with the retail channel. They trust their supermarket and probably need to go there anyway, so they are saving money and time.”
Digital photography has gotten extremely popular in the past few years, Sanders said. “This is a way people can easily get pictures and gifts printed with professional quality.”
One of the most prevalent trends for retailers in 2008 is the rising popularity among consumers to order retail photo products online for in-store pickup, Linda Jankauskas, spokeswoman for Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, Calif., told SN.
“Anticipating this trend, HP has expanded its online-to-retail ordering capabilities to include creative products,” she said.
HP is the service provider for Meijer's new “Meijer Photo Center Powered by HP,” which launched just before the winter holidays. In addition, Snapfish by HP hosts Meijer's online photo site, which includes capabilities similar to those at Brookshire's: Consumers can have online orders for prints and creative photo products mailed directly to their home or sent to a specific retail location.
“The entire [HP] photo solution became a holiday destination for many of our customers,” Frank Guglielmi, spokesman for Meijer, told SN. Meijer promoted the solutions via in-store displays, at meijer.com and through sales ads, he said.
Many supermarket websites offering photo services give customers the choice of prints, enlargements, cards, calendars, photo books and a large number of gift items ranging from simple prints with decorative borders for about 25 cents to personalized throw blankets for about $120.
In addition, education — whether to cross-promote or to simply remain relevant to the customer — is an important part of marketing photography services, sources said. For instance, part of Brookshire's online photo offerings is a Web newsletter the retailer uses to educate and stay in touch with consumers. The key, according to McDonald, is including tip-related information.
“Personally, I'm signed up for the email newsletter,” said Brookshire's Sanders. “It includes great tips like setting up lighting and framing.”
LifePics as a whole saw a dramatic increase in order volume through dealers across its network during the holiday season. Transactions for online-to-retail templates and gifts grew between 200% and 300% from 2006.
These are products that take a bit more time to build than a set of prints, McDonald said. “You want to try different texts, and that is much easier to do from home than at a kiosk with two kids and people behind you. It is more comfortable at home.”
“There is a more complex set of products available than there was in the past,” McDonald said. “A year ago you had maybe six different photo gifts to choose from, and now there are upwards of 800.”
In addition, the in-store kiosks themselves are “very bright, colorful and inviting,” Guglielmi said. “They are also flanked by display elements that show how to use them and what types of services they provide.”
According to Venture Development Corp., Natick, Mass., kiosks are continuing to experience significant growth across multiple vertical markets, with the global market for kiosk systems having approached $940 million in 2006 and expected to grow to $1.6 billion by 2009.
Meijer's Guglielmi often witnesses the in-store manifestation of kiosks' popularity. “We have seen a lot of customers who have become familiar with the new system jump in to help other customers because they are so excited and enthusiastic about the numerous options available, as if to say, ‘Let me show you what I created,’” he said.
Ease of use for consumers stems from a fundamental shift in printing technology, Pageau said.
Fast, dry printing systems are finding their place in the retail environment, he said. “Traditionally, a film or chemical-based process was used, even for digital printing on photo paper. But now we are seeing several systems from major vendors, dry systems which are either ink- or toner-based, and some even use thermal technology.”