CHAMPAIGN – When it comes to merchandise, Rod Bates has lots to offer: digital cameras, lenses, tripods, flashes, film, memory cards, even lighting and darkroom equipment.
But when it comes to employees, Bates has only one – himself.
In late October, the owner of Bates Camera, 210 E. Green St., C, had to let go one full-time and four part-time workers.
"Business slowed down the past six months or so to the point I did not have enough business to support more than one employee," said Bates, who has managed a camera store in Campustown since 1978.
He's not alone facing that situation. Across the nation, specialty photo shops are becoming scarce. It's a combination of the digital camera revolution, the rise of e-commerce and changes in the way camera companies market their products.
Since 2000, the number of specialty photo stores has dropped from 8,800 to 5,500, said Dimitrios Delis, director of marketing research for the Photo Marketing Association in Jackson, Mich. Hardest-hit are stores that rely on film processing.
There's evidence of that in Champaign. Film Processing Ltd., at 309 S. Neil St., plans to close Dec. 15, ending a 24-year run of optical printing and film processing services, primarily for professional photographers and commercial clients.
Owner Richard Becker said once the business closes, he plans to sell off the furnishings, including filing cabinets, desks, countertops and darkroom equipment.
"Everything's going to be cheap," he said.
Bates Camera plans to be around longer, though Bates had to trim expenses to do so. He blames the falloff in business partly to the switch from film cameras to digital cameras, but also to other factors.
Chief among them: consumer tendencies to buy equipment on the Web.
"People do a lot on the Internet, and I can't compete pricewise on what they can get there," Bates said. "The prices people see for things on the Internet are sometimes cheaper than what I can buy them for from the manufacturer."
The way cameras are marketed has also changed. Bates sells only Nikon and Canon cameras, and those manufacturers now sell through "big-box" stores as well.
"We're not as unique a place as we used to be," he said.
Still, Bates Camera plays an essential role for many photographers, both professional and amateur.
"It's a great place," said Brad Jones, who runs Focus Photography, an architectural and commercial photography business in Decatur. "If I need any little gadget, I come in and get it."
But it's getting harder to find camera shops like Bates.
"I have a minimum of a 50-mile drive to find anything, even if it's a simple little cord. Batteries are hard to find as well," Jones said.
"You can get a lot over the Internet," he noted. "But when you're on site on assignment and a cable goes bad (and you rely on the Internet), you can't just run over and pick it up quick. You have to carry the stuff with you or reschedule the shoot – and that's not good for business."
Unfortunately, convenience sales alone won't cut it for Bates.
"When people have the time to order things on the Internet, that cuts out sales I'll never get," he said. "If everybody buys on the Internet, I'm not here."
Bates moved to Champaign-Urbana in 1978 to manage the Helix camera store in Campustown after working for Helix for two years in Chicago.
In 1997, he bought the store from Helix, and the following year he changed its name to Bates Camera.
Today in central Illinois, the choices for camera stores are more limited than they once were, Bates said. Tallyn's in Peoria remains open, Cunningham Photo Service still sells cameras in Danville and Camera Corner in Bloomington continues to carry some goods. But Walt's Camera Shop in Mattoon has closed.
Bates stopped carrying film cameras a year and a half ago. Today he carries only digital cameras, both the point-and-shoot and single-lens reflex, or SLR, varieties.
He hopes that as digital SLR cameras become less expensive, the market for digital accessories will pick up. Accessories sales have dropped as fewer film cameras are sold.
"Tripods, flashes and bags – everything is way down in volume," Bates said.
Jim McGraw, owner of The Finish Point store at Old Farm Shops in Champaign, said he, too, has seen a change in business in recent years.
The Finish Point does film processing and printing and video transfers. It also sells film, cameras and accessories.
"It's been a downward spiral as far as printing goes," McGraw said. "The industry says people are buying digital cameras, taking more pictures and printing less."
McGraw said a pickup in his video-transfer business – putting old 8mm films on DVD – has offset some of his expenses.
"I've been in business almost 10 years," he said. "Originally my bread-and-butter was film processing and developing, but I think the video side has caught up to that."
Delis, the Photo Marketing Association spokesman, concurs that competition from discount stores such as Wal-Mart and Walgreens, as well as competition over the Internet, has hurt specialty photo retailers.
But he said not all is doom and gloom in the photo equipment market. Some camera stores, especially those catering to high-end consumers, have been able to capitalize on the move to digital.
"The digital camera market is growing about 30 percent every year," Delis said. "Since 2000, it has had a 36 percent average annual increase in terms of units sold."
Also opening up opportunities for retailers is the flexibility consumers have as a result of digital photography, Delis said.
No longer are consumers satisfied with having just 4-by-6 prints. Now people can make calendars and screen savers from those images, and retailers can help supply those needs, he said.
Meanwhile, Bates intends to remain open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. six days a week. But he said he likely held off too long in cutting staff.
"I probably should have done it earlier," he said.