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Developing a Digital Future

By Karen E. Klein Q: I have owned and operated a small photo lab since 1991. With the introduction of digital technology, the business has worsened dramatically. I have upgraded my equipment to print digital, but I'm still finding it hard to get customers into my store. Any suggestions?

-- A.S., Sussex, England

A: Yours is a familiar story. Many small businesses that sell and/or service one form of technology or product find they must adapt or die when technology shifts radically. In your case, as customers are making the transition to digital photography, many are printing pictures at home or at self-service kiosks in drugstores and supermarkets.

Your scenario demonstrates why every company, whether technology-centered or not, must stay well ahead of industry news and trends to ensure that the business will remain viable as times and circumstances change.

FULFILL NEW NEEDS. What you must do now, experts say, is expand your product-and-service offerings, making yourself into the customer's best asset in terms of guidance and convenience. Start by thinking about the problems consumers may be having with those new-fangled digital cameras. Often, the companies that manufacture them provide less-than-stellar customer support. The camera and its accessories may seem complex and confusing to laypeople.

So, become a photo expert, not just a photo chemical-developing expert, says Marty Shindler, a small business consultant based in Encino, Calif. "Offer to print digital pictures for customers while they wait, at a very competitive price," he says. "Suggest to customers that they e-mail the digital files to you and that the prints would be ready when they arrive at your store, thereby saving them time. Set up an online order slip for their submissions."

And, take advantage of the developing market (no pun intended) for converting old family or historical photos to digital formats for long-term storage. To that end, do some market research into your local senior citizen community, suggests Robert M. Donnelly, a New York City-based entrepreneurial consultant and author.

CAST A NET. "Senior citizens have accumulated a treasure trove of personal and family photos, but since they are by and large not tech-savvy, they cannot convert them to any of the digital media that's becoming more a part of our everyday lives like CDs, electronic albums on PC, and flash videos," he says. "In addition, they are probably still taking photos the old-fashioned way, because they don't know how to use digital cameras, camcorders, and other digital devices."

How do you hook up with these seniors and other prospective customers for your new services? "Be proactive and get out of the store -- don't just wait for customers to come into your shop," advises Donnelly. "Tap into a segment of customers who have a problem for which you have a solution."

Go to senior centers or recreation facilities and offer workshops on using digital photo equipment and software at home: converting existing prints to CDs (perhaps as electronic photo albums with family-history voice-overs), and creating photo greeting cards. Instruct participants in how to e-mail photo files to friends and relatives, or offer to do it for them yourself as a service, Donnelly suggests.

OFFER INCENTIVES. Along with providing help and expertise, you should sell supplies for those who print at home. Buy in volume to keep your prices competitive.

Collect e-mail addresses from your customers and provide them with periodic coupons to save on home-printing supplies or in-store printing services; mail the same coupons out as postcards. You might also consider creating a frequent-visitor program, offering a discount on every 10th order, Shindler suggests.

Another idea: Specialize in large-print jobs -- banners, poster-sized photos, and oversized greeting cards -- hard to do on home computers and printers.

BE A ONE-STOP SHOP. Meanwhile, of course, don't neglect your current customers who are sticking with film and photo developing for artistic or cost reasons. And, keep in mind that if a marketing or advertising program for conventional photography service worked for you in the past, there's no reason why it won't work again if you update it to add information about digital services as well as film processing.

Positioning yourself and your shop as the helpful, go-to spot for all things photographic will help put your business back in the picture.

Have a question about your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at Smart Answers, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 45th Floor, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues

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