There was a time when Michael Patterson didn’t think his camera shop in downtown Missoula, Mont. would make it. Already having to compete with big discount chains elsewhere in town and online, the sour economy made even his most loyal customers scale back their spending.
But the Dark Room is still standing, down but not out. The 31-year-old camera shop that Patterson took over in 2006 started to see a bigger pick up in business than expected at the beginning of 2009, while at the same time, Ritz Camera, the country’s largest high-end camera chain, declared bankruptcy.
The Dark Room has been able to weather the storm while bigger names in the camera business have not. Patterson attributes this to his staff’s expertise and their ability to cultivate loyal customers—secret weapons that small businesses can take advantage of when they need them the most.
“I think being there as a resource is probably the most important thing,” Patterson said.
Patterson remembers getting a phone call from a customer outside of Glacier National Park in Montana. The customer was using a digital camera that he bought from Patterson’s store, and the pictures he was taking were over-exposed. Patterson knew the camera he was using well enough to walk him through some troubleshooting steps, and the customer’s problem was solved in minutes.
“That’s perfect,” the customer said after taking his next picture, “and that’s why I buy my camera from you guys.”
For businesses that specialize in sophisticated equipment, price isn’t the only thing that customers consider when deciding to buy. They also need to know that the person they are buying from knows what they’re talking about and will be there to help even after the cash register closes.
“The crew working here, we’re pretty much all photographers,” Patterson said. “We know photography.”
That expertise can give your business the upper hand when compared to bigger chains that relegate their competing merchandise to a few shelves in the electronics department. The same goes when a customer looks at your business for help versus looking for help online. So while there can be a temptation to want to squeeze every penny from customers with service fees, Patterson tries to approach smaller repairs—like lens cleaning—a little more casually. There’s nothing wrong with doing a few services for free, Patterson said, especially if you want that customer to come back.
“They go away feeling very good about us,” he said. “We may not make money off of them right then, but we may down the road.”
The Dark Room is also able to use its knowledgeable staff to help new or less experiencing photographers get to know their cameras better by offering classes. Patterson says that they usually charge for the classes, but customers can go for free if they buy more high-end merchandise.
But just like most businesses right now, the Dark Room does have to make some sacrifices, and it can be just as much about saving money as it is about making it.
Overhead costs can be especially ruthless when money isn’t coming in as quickly as he’d like it, Patterson said.
“I can’t just arbitrarily lower my rent when it’s a bad month,” he said.
But there are certain expenses Patterson can control, such as advertising and merchandise. For example, the Dark Room is sticking to basic cameras and equipment and has stopped carrying big-ticket items from its vendors for the time being. And while cutting back on advertising may seem like a risky move, Patterson said he’s able to do it because of customers who are eager to stick around and spread the word while they’re at it.
So while it’s essential for businesses to adopt new strategies in order to slog through and maybe even make a profit, there’s one axiom that the Dark Room hasn’t set aside: Customer is King.