A Bad Service Experience at Tall’s Camera

Local Camera Stores, it’s time to change your business model… Well, I’m bound to make a few enemies with this one, but I just finished reading Jason Burn’s post on a bad experience he had with his local camera retailer and have to agree that your local camera store is increasingly becoming a bad place to buy camera gear.

In Jason’s case he had to deal with a snippy camera store clerk at Tall’s Camera store who chided him for buying his camera online. Jason went into Talls to buy a camera grip and instead met a hostile and inquisitive clerk who questioned where Jason had purchased his new Canon 40D:

From Jason:

“Now when I said Circuit City, you would have thought I said I traded some kiddy porn to a Nazi for it. The salesperson launches into this “Oh really, and will those zit faced kids be able to teach you how to use it?” routine. I was kind of taken aback. First, why does he assume I would buy a $1,500 camera and have no idea how to use it? Second, who’s business is it where I bought my camera? I just want the grip at a fair price.

The fair price is where the rub comes in. The local camera stores, and honestly all of them in my experience, charge Canon retail for pretty much everything. If you like the feeling of paying too much to support a local business, I can dig that, but the idea that these stores provide some service and support that you can’t get from B&H; Camera online is bullshit. Excuse my language, but it’s time to change your business model.”

Unfortunately I have to say that in general my experiences with local camera stores have not been good. Typically they are way over priced and the service there (despite their claims that it’s better) is usually far worse.

Recently I went into Adolph Gasser locally here in San Francisco to buy some cleaning solution. Even though there were three clerks there (two chatting each other up), I had to wait about 10 minutes to get to talk to someone. It was annoying.

On a recent visit to Looking Glass in Berkeley, I had to wait over 15 minutes and then when I finally got a clerk to ring my purchase he chided me about my interest in a lens that they didn’t have in stock (saying it wasn’t a very good lens and trying to sell me his choice for a replacement instead) and then grumbled at me when I chose to use a credit card to pay for my purchase rather than a debit card. He tried to get me to use my debit card because he said that it didn’t cost them as much. That’s fair, except for the fact that I have to pay to use my debit card *and* I was already paying their inflated prices. They even had a sign in their store trying to convince people to use debit cards rather than credit cards.

Personally these days I only go to the local camera store as a place of last resort. If I need something right then, that day, in a pinch.

In general I buy everything camera related from either B&H; Photo (who are the best online camera retailer in my opinion) or stuff I find on Amazon.com.

While I can understand how the whole “shop local” people might be disgruntled over the internet invading their jobs and space, the best way to compete and handle it is to truly offer superior service and support, not insult customers, provide bad service or give lip service responses.

Obviously some people have great experiences and great relationships with their local camera retailer, but for too many I think the opposite is increasingly the case.

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  1. Bryan says:

    I completely agree with your (and Jason’s) observations. I have had nothing but bad experiences at local retail camera stores. My last bad experience was at a Talls camera in downtown Seattle. Truly bad customer service and high prices–no fricken thank you. In my mind, they serve a very small purpose, to serve novices and people who don’t want to buy online. In the very rare case when I do walk into a local store, I do not hesitate to tell them I bought my 5D and lenses online and why. B&H; is great, so is Adorama, and a few select others. They got it right. Local stores need to learn but will probably die out soon anyway.

  2. Anonymous says:

    My local shop (Hunt’s Photo and Video) recently ran a big demo day/sale. 15% of all Sigma lenses.

    Interested in the Sigma 30mm f/1.4, I looked it up on their web site, and then drove over to the store.

    Turns out that Hunt’s is competitive on the web, but their in-store price is much more. Even with their big, once a year sale, in effect, the in store price was still more than their own web price! They were willing to get closer to the web price, but not match it, because of “overhead”.

    Top that with being fed misinformation more than once by their ill-informed clerks, and I don’t frequent the store any more.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I agree 100%. Online is my first research stop and usually my first purchase stop.

    That said, I’ve had some good experiences at the Ritz in Oakland in the 51st and Broadway mall. They really understand that they’re competing with the online stores, claim to try to stay competitive, and are pretty friendly. If they have something I want and it’s not much more than online+shipping, I’ll get it there, if only to support a place where I can go in and handle my prospective purchases.

  4. Tom Kimmerer says:

    Thomas, you have the local shops pegged. My local store, Murphy’s Camera, is making no serious attempt to provide the superior customer service needed to keep business.

    I went in one day to buy a flash, and the guy talked me into 2 SB600 instead of 1 SB800 (which was out of stock), saying that I could use one SB600 as a remote wireless. Of course, as I was shooting with a D1X at the time, this was not true. Now that I have a D300, I can use the two SB600’s but at the time, it was a waste of money.

    The lack of technical competence on the part of the local store obviates any advantage they might have over B&H.; I agree with you that B&H; is the best online ship. I buy 100% of my stuff at B&H; and nothing at Murphy’s.

    I suspect that most local shops are surviving on the shrinking population that doesn’t like to buy online.

  5. Gary Denness says:

    I try as hard as possible to avoid visiting shops if I can do it online. And even if you do get a screwy service online, you haven’t trekked for miles for the pleasure.

    But (just for some balance!) I did come across a post on a blog I read recently that shows online stores can give crap service to.


  6. Larry says:

    This has been very much the same experience I have had in the last year or so. I used to visit my local camera shop here in Chicago 2-3 times a month, to buy, browse, and chat, but lately it seems to have created enough negative energy to put it in the avoid column.

  7. The only way for local stores to compete is for them to provide better service and/or better price. Shopping there when they provide neither just for the sake of “propping up a local business” is immoral. You’re being an enabler by making it profitable for them to provide substandard service and/or prices. Capitalism has a way of dealing with businesses that don’t take care of the customer.

  8. JeffH says:

    Thomas, I agree whole handedly with your assessment of brick and mortar camera stores. I to buy all of my gear and supplies form either B&H; or Amazon and occasionally Adorama. On the very rare occasions I have set foot in a camera store over the past 10 years, I generally have been met with complacent counter clerks or in a couple of cases, just down right rude sales people. There are a few exceptions. I have twice rented lenses from Keeble & Shuchat in Palo Alto, CA and had a good experience with that, although I have not bought any gear from them so I can’t comment on their sales people practices. I live very close to San Jose Camera, but generally only go there if I absolutely need something right now. I have experienced some rather rude or at least complacent sales people there and in the past their prices have been rather high. I did buy a lens from them last summer. They were offering zero sales tax and their price was very close to B&H.; So maybe they are getting a clue and are at least price competitive with the web. I will have to take note of the prices in their ad next time I see one in the Sunday Paper. There should be one soon as Father’s Day is coming up.

  9. Bryan says:

    Has anyone ever tried to get an online price matched at a local store? I’d be interested to hear how that went. Probably no where and an “interesting” experience most likely–that would be a good youtube post! I might try it for kicks.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Pro Photo Supply in Portland Oregon changed the way they do business several years ago. The rude clerks are gone. The people they have know their stuff. Ask for a better price and they do what they can. In general they approach B&H; prices, when you include shipping from B&H.; They are always bringing in local reps from manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, Lensbabies, Epson, and paper manufacturers for seminars and Q&A.; I do hate their prices on ink for my Epson 2400 but it’s about the same as the net when shipping is included.

  11. Colin says:

    Don’t you know that being served by young hipster employees that would rather talk to each other then talk to you is part of the value-added experience?

  12. Eric says:

    I must be the only photographer in the world who’s not enamored with B&H.; Shopping online, they’ve *never* had the best price. And while the physical store is pretty cool… there’s nothing to justify the higher price.

    The “shop local” dictate only works for me when the whole supply chain is local – handcrafted goods and farmer’s markets. Photography equipment certainly isn’t made locally, so we’re really only talking about who gets the mark up and how much mark up there is. I see no value in buying from a guy down the street vs. amazon.com, especially given the price differentials.

    (Amazon.com, via the reviews, usually has better and more reliable opinions anyway)

  13. Dan says:

    I have a camera store literally across the street from my apartment, and I still order my stuff from B&H.; I really did try the whole buy local thing, but every time I went in there, they attempted to sell me something other than what I went in there for, and in most instances they didn’t have whatever it was I wanted, but could “special order” it for me. The special order thing is what really gets me. It is slower (2 weeks), more expensive (full retail price + shipping + tax), and more of an inconvenience than just ordering it myself from B&H;.

  14. Spencer says:

    I agree with B&H; being among the best online retailers. They excel also when you show up at the store–amazing service and efficiency. If you’ve never been, it’ll remind you of Santa’s workshop.

  15. Spencer says:

    Oh, by the way, the prices at B&H; store is the same as online (with taxes if you live in state).

  16. I rather suspect that the days when the amateur enthusiast would work in a specialist shop are, if not over, on the wane. And in London at least, I’d be wary of any advice offered by a camera store employee – they’re simply not in the wage bracket that can give them real exposure (to coin a phrase) to the best equipment.

    And that’s fine – if I want considered, worthwhile opinions when I have a question then there are plenty of places I can go online where I can tap into a global community of expertise. how can the spotty youth in the local Jessops compete with that?

    So I’m afraid I’m in the camp that only enters a shop when the purchase has to be made Right Now. And even then I’ve travelled to the online store’s edge-of-town location on occasion…

  17. Fazal Majid says:

    In the Bay Area, Calumet Photo (Bryant @ 18th in San Francisco) and Keeble & Shuchat (California Ave in Palo Alto) are both good choices. Calumet is often cheaper than B&H;, and I paid $200 less for my first Leica M6 at KSP than the B&H; price. The staff at both are helpful, and sometimes you just have to see the item you are buying, e.g. Gitzo tripods. For supplies, Photographer’s Supply (Bryant @ 3rd) is excellent.

    I agree entirely about Gasser’s (the darkroom guy is helpful, however).

  18. Dave! says:

    Well, fortunately, being in Chicago Calumet *is* my local store. 🙂

    That said, I don’t mind (sometimes) paying a little more to support a worthwhile local business. I usually go in and say, “Look, we both know I can get this cheaper on-line, but I want to support local business. So if you can give it to me within X% of the B&H;, Circuit City, where ever, price, then I’ll buy it from you.”

    I’ve had quite a few places take me up on it–but they are always *really* small shops where I’m dealing with an owner… otherwise, they just give me attitude.

  19. Pilotship says:

    Unfortunately I have to agree entirely with Thomas. And, unfortunately, I have to disagree about Pro Photo in Portland. It is an amazing thing. I was just having these thoughts last week, when I just happened to purchase a new Canon 40D here in Portland.

    After months of research, and browsing online I decided to head out to Pro Photo to check things out in person, and more importantly, get some advice. I excitedly rode over an hour on the train down to the “toy store” to look around, and possibly buy a camera. Despite the fact that there were only a few people inside, and many staff, it took more than fifteen minutes to get even an acknowledgement of my presence. And then I could not get anyone to move from the consignment, or Nikon section, to the Canon, much less talk about comparisons. When I started talking to the gentleman firmly placed behind the Canons, I could barely get him to talk with me about the cameras!

    The next day I returned out of desperation, frustration, and under a time crunch, I returned to buy my camera, only because of the special Canon weekend taking place. Even then I waited over a half hour to get acknowledgement, and wasted ten trying to chat with the Canon rep, who was also little help. A week earlier I had a wonderful talk with the Nikon rep who was at a chain store. If my mind was not made up, or if I had more cash for a D300, I may have changed camps. But, I Love my 40D!!

    I am off to B&H; until the camera stores can pull their collective heads from their a**-es.

  20. Zara says:

    Samy’s Camera here in Culver City, CA (formerly in Venice, CA) is pretty good. I know that Samy’s gets pretty poor online reviews, but my experiences with them have been pleasant and helpful.

    Having read Thomas’s post, I checked my receipt for my most recent purchases, a Nikon D40 as a gift for a friend and a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L zoom lens for myself. On the D40, Samy’s charged me in-store $20 more than their online price and the online prices of B&H; and Amazon. I also paid tax, so buying from either B&H; or Amazon would have saved me about $50, about 10%.

    On the lens, though, Samy’s charged me $30 less than their online price and the online prices of B&H; and Amazon. I did pay tax, so the lens would have ended up $60 cheaper online.

    But, like Violet Beauregard, I wanted both the camera and lens now, so I essentially paid the extra money for “instant shipping.” Overall, though, Samy’s does not seem to be gouging, like some other stores do.

  21. Christelle says:

    Well, I’ll leave a very positive comment for once. I live in Manchester,England,and there is this little shop called Wildings, where I have been for quite a while. It’s lovely to see they recognise me when I go there, and their service is impecable. lately, I wanted to by a 40D. of course I made my research on line, but I popped at the shop (they let you try the camera, but i did not need that as I’d held the beast already..) and asked for the price. In fact, the 40D was at £629, which was lined up with the lowest prices on the internet – and remember, on the internet you get delivery waiting time+ shipping costs+ if you ever had to return it, it’s a lot of time wasted going to the post office, make sure it’s well packaged and delivery time again.
    i wanted a Tamron 28-75mm 2.8, and they did not have it, they tell me to try the next local shop (Jacobs)who had it (again got it straight away)and i paid £240 again, lined up with the lowest prices on the internet. It was a supperb experience: all straightforward, very helpful, knowledgeable,and safe in the knowledge that if something was going wrong I could go back to the shop with a mere 10min walk from home and get it sorted quickly.
    these shops are very aware of the competition, and they have adapted themselves to the market. They understand that you might want to buy on the internet for price reason, and adopted a customer care strategy.
    It is the third camera I bought there. I bought a canon S3Is last year (great little bridge by the way) and it failed after a day. when back to the shop and they changed the camera instantly…
    these shops are quite small, and they don’t store that much, however, they study their market well, and get the cameras and equipment you are most likely to want… And they definitelty know what they are talking about, and they don’t look down at you because you have another opinion.

    So I hope this happy story cheers you up….

  22. Jeremy says:

    Amen to it all for the local stores *except* Pictureline in Salt Lake City. All the other home grown and national chains in Utah are pretty much as described here, limited inventory and none of the service that should make them desireable. Pictureline on the other hand is fair in their pricing, not always lowest but far better than most others, and their service has been great. I have always been quickly helped, shown all the options I want to try out, and even once had them open the doors when I arrived 5 minutes after closing to allow me to find and make my purchase.

    Pictureline “gets” it.

  23. Chris says:

    My experience with my local camera store has been completely on par with yours. In fact, I think it is worse. Their supposed better service is a joke. They have a bad selection, poor organization and aren’t really that interesting in answering your questions. I had one experience where I had some questions about my D80 and the clerk at the store had the nerve to tell me that he doesn’t answer questions about consumer grade bodies and he only used Pro bodies.

    Needless to say my effort to support my local store is pretty much done.

  24. Danno says:

    I’ve been living in Boston for 5 years and still can’t find a decent camera store that is both competitive and knowledgeable. Calumet comes close, but it’s easier and cheaper to buy online.

    Before I moved to Boston, I lived in Portland, OR, and Pro Photo Supply was always top rate. They’ve improved themselves during the digital revolution, and I still make a point to visit when I’m in town visiting family.

  25. Michael from WI says:

    I went to my local camera store to buy a remote cable release. Like the kind the old film cameras used. I had built an adapter to use the cable on my P&S; at the time. For 30 minutes the store owner tried to not sell me the $10 cable. Claimed my camera had a electronic remote cable. Told me he could get in by the end of the week. That mechanical release won’t work.
    I told him there was no electronic release, only computer control over USB and I didn’t want to take my desktop computer out in a thunderstorm to take pictures. I have an adapter for the cable. Please ring up my sale. Back and forth we went. I finally agreed to not return the cable if it didn’t work.

    It worked. But it hasn’t really stormed here since.

    I went back after a couple of years. Service has improved some what but is much better if you shoot film.

  26. Bill says:

    Try Foto-Hall in Placentia, CA for good price, excellent service, friendly help at any level of customer expertise and none of the problems often found in the chain stores.

  27. Jon says:

    Lets start with some basic economics. Buying in bulk reduces price. Large retailers online or not can buy multiples the volume of a smaller store. Often times B&H will sell products at the COST of a smaller store. This is not by any means an excuse for poor customer service and product knowledge.

    It is simply not possible for small camera stores to get close to that price point on everything.

    Sadly stores are stuck in a continuous loop. Poor sales created by lower prices online creates a drive to decrease store expenses. Superior sales people are replaced by cheap sales people. Cheap sales people reinforce the desire for customers to shop online. And loop.

    It needs to be understood that no camera shop outside mega retailers can match those price points on most items.

    What happens in 5-10 years when your local shop is gone and you want to get your hands on the new “X” camera? No local retailer means no local testing.

    I’m not here to defend all local shops. I’ll be the first to turn out the door if I’m not being treated well. There is a place for these shops and a purpose for them. Also remember that these are humans we deal with. Are you always the best you can be at work?

  28. […] shops need to rethink their business models and Thomas Hawk seems to agree. You can of course read his take on the story. I’ll add that I’ve had a couple of run ins with camera shop employees who […]