At one point, 33 specialty camera stores dotted the Greater Milwaukee area. Now, there are only three.
Art's Cameras Plus has seen it all and kept itself in the frame despite the drastic changes.
The business, which owns two of the last three camera shops in the area with locations in Waukesha and Greenfield, is celebrating its 50th year in business, but it hasn’t been easy.
The number has dropped drastically due to the popularity of online shopping and the inability of brick-and-mortar stores to adapt to economic, technological and marketplace changes.
Snapshot of past
Art Miresse founded the business in 1967. His son, Tony Miresse, joined the business in 1979 and eventually, along with his wife, Geneen, became the owner of the camera shop.
"The original name of it was Art's Thrifty Cameras, and as time went on and I came into the business in 1979, we decided to kind of get off of that cheap warehouse type image,” Tony Miresse said.
The rebranding came with an emphasis on customer service, education and the addition of higher-end gear. It would turn out to be viable in the economy of the future.
That, of course, was only the beginning of changes.
Film to digital
Even before iPhones found their way into people's pockets and purses, the switch from film to digital photography was well under way, though digital cameras didn't take hold immediately in the mass market.
When the first digital cameras hit the market, the quality wasn’t the greatest, prices were too high for most consumers and there were issues with printing digital photos.
Even with these stumbling blocks, digital advanced as the dominant product, Miresse said.
At first, no one knew exactly what that would mean for camera shops, particularly when it came to printing photos recorded from modern cameras.
“Everybody thought the business model would be the same as film. People would come in with their memory card, they'd just order a whole bunch of four by six prints and that’d be it,” Miresse said. “It turned out to not be that way.”
When digital photography took hold, it was nearly as fast as a rapid-fire shutter.
“(Everybody) could see that film was going to be pretty much phased out in favor of digital. It just happened twice as fast as anybody thought it would," Miresse said.
New photo labs
Many businesses that solely relied on photo labs quickly went out of business due to the high cost of digital printing equipment. Those who did purchase new equipment soon found themselves unable to recoup their investment.
Art’s Cameras Plus invested a quarter of a million dollars in new lab equipment so they could print digital files, even though there wasn’t sufficient business to justify the cost.
“We were fortunate because the camera business was booming with digital," he said. “Every two or three years you had to upgrade your camera because it was so much better, and the prices had come down.”
Today, the camera shop still views its photo lab as a viable component of the business, but it has been changed to fit the realities of today’s economy.
“Now, the emphasis is to get a really great image and let us do something cool with it. Let us make a metal print, a gallery wrap canvas print or several of them to have an entire wall decorated at home," he said.
As the internet became more prevalent in homes, Miresse began to see the business competition move from brick-and-mortar stores to online retailers like Amazon.
Miresse understands how convenient shopping online is, but he disagrees with the notion that camera equipment is cheaper online.
“The camera and lens prices and everything are, for the most part, set by the manufacturer, and you can buy your camera and lenses for the same price from us that you can online," he said.
Miresse hopes consumers in the Greater Milwaukee area start realizing the benefits of supporting local retailers. He feels like most people don’t understand the impact local businesses have on the community.
“We support the local community,” he said. “Not just in the 25 to 26 people we have on our payroll, but we support a local CPA, attorneys, ad agency and things like that.”
Another big change in the camera market was the customers.
"The camera market was changing from what 20 to 25 years ago was almost solely male,” he said. “Men were the picture-takers. That is just the way it was.”
When digital cameras entered the market, women increasingly started pursuing photography.
"The female head of the household is more likely to be in charge of the family archiving, and all that so the moms are taking the pictures moreso than the dads,” Miresse said.
“Long ago, we knew it would be necessary to find out what would set us apart from Amazon,” the business owner said. "Service is going to do that, but it's also education, and that’s become a huge part of our business now.”
Both of Miresse’s stores offer anywhere from 16 to 18 classes a month, and they also have a “focus group” program in which customers, accompanied by Art’s Cameras staff, have the opportunity to go on trips to practice their photography skills.
In the past, the local camera shop has taken its customers to the Wisconsin Big Cat Rescue and the Porcupine Mountains for day and weekend photo shoots.
"A year and a half ago, we took 17 people to Costa Rica on an eight-day trip, which was really awesome,” Miresse said. “You don't get that stuff from Amazon, right?"
The camera shop also has made an effort to make their stores more attractive to families. For instance, both stores having a train set and toys to keep the kids happy.
"Oftentimes, husbands and wives may come in with their kids,” he said. “If you don't have something to keep the kids occupied, you don't have their attention to be able to really show them the products."
The camera shop is celebrating its 50th anniversary for the majority of the year with summer specials ranging from $50 off to 50 percent off on an assortment of products.
"We continue to play this up with the vendors – that we are going to celebrate this for the better part of the year. We continue to look for specials and closeouts or any kind of deals that the vendors will offer us so we can continue to offer these deals to our customers," Miresse said.
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