Peoria Camera Shop

Service and Know-How
by Stevie Zvereva

For nearly eight decades, this shop has been committed to offering “good service, reputable merchandise and photographic know-how.”

It’s simple. When you walk into Peoria Camera Shop, Nate Dobbins assumes you want to buy something. His goal is to help.

“I’m trying to get you into the right system for you—not what’s best for me,” he explains. “If you say, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and you have an expectation that you might have to spend $2,000, but you walk out having only spent $750… I look at that as [having] just made a lifelong customer—somebody who trusts me, who knows we’re not here [just] to take your money.”

Dobbins’ service-centric approach is refreshing against the common appeal to buy more and upsize one’s purchase—a customer’s true needs aside. Hard-nosed salespeople might balk at this outlook, but he calls it practical. “If somebody wants to buy something from us, I’ll… do everything in my power to take care of them,” he adds. “When [they] have questions, need different accessories, or are ready to get prints or take classes, we hope they return.”

Building a Reputation
There may be a rhyme to his reason, as the store has thrived on this strategy for 77 years. Founded in 1937 by Joe Kilton and Huber Sammis, Peoria Camera Shop’s first location was downtown on Monroe. Through a commitment to “good service, reputable merchandise and photographic know-how,” it secured a reputation locally as “the place to go for intelligent advice on all photographic problems,” according to early advertisements. In 1950, the shop relocated to a larger space at 539 Main Street, where it was a downtown staple for five decades, catering to the needs of amateurs and professionals alike.

Prospering under the leadership of Bob Wilkinson, a salesman for the original downtown team, then under his sons—Mark and Steve—a second location opened up on Glen Avenue in 1984, moving to its current location at Metro Centre in 1991. There, Steve helped Bill Dobbins, in the photo finishing business since 1979, open Peoria Color, a grand photographic lab. Eventually, the downtown location closed its doors, and the full shop moved to Metro Centre. Upon the Wilkinsons’ retirement, Bill bought the shop in 2007.

At the time, Peoria Camera Shop consisted of two separate businesses—the retail store and the Peoria Color lab. Eventually, the Dobbins merged the two establishments, and today, they have operations down to an art. Bill runs the lab; his wife, Darla, handles bookkeeping; and their son, Nate, is manager, handling the shop and floor. But despite the smooth operations, the family business isn’t without its share of challenges.

One Step Ahead
Sales tax is one such battle. Simply put, customers are looking for the cheapest bottom line, and most often, it’s online, where sales tax is exempt. “People don’t realize you’re supposed to pay that consumption tax on your income tax,” says Nate. “It’s a big deal when you’re making a $5,000 purchase—that’s nearly $500 [saved].”

He hopes the Permanent Internet Tax Freedom Act, approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in July, will succeed in giving states additional power to charge sales tax on online purchases, despite a similar bill stalling in the House last year. Presently, online merchants are only required to collect sales tax online if they have a physical presence inside the state’s borders. Until Congress helps balance the marketplace, Peoria Camera Shop often can’t compete with online competitors on price alone.

The digital market has also shifted the prices of hard goods. “Consumers want to buy stuff as cheap as possible,” adds Nate. “There’s very little margin there.” Instead, Peoria Camera Shop focuses on an area that it can make its forte: service.

“We’re more knowledgeable about the products we sell, people are comfortable with us, and everything purchased comes with a free, private lesson,” explains Bill, confident in the store’s customer-service advantage. “We stand behind our products.”

An Array of Services
Peoria Camera Shop can also capitalize on its wide variety of services. “Slowly, over time, it’s expanded,” says Nate, detailing the shop’s full line of photo finishing, from film processing to digital enlargements.

“Pretty much anything that you want printed, we can do, as far as photographs go,” he explains. Peoria Camera Shop is still a wet lab—meaning photographs are developed via chemistry and light exposed on paper, while many others have switched to dye sublimation, a method that uses heat to transfer dye, or ink jet, the popular ink-spraying technique. The major benefit of a wet lab, Nate explains, is superior archival quality. Photos developed in a traditional lab are less likely to be damaged by moisture or general handling with a faster dry and cure time, and the lasting quality is longer, Nate says, as the image is burned into the paper with a laser before going through a chemical processor. Other printing methods are simply ink or dyes applied to the top of the paper, which is prone to faster fading.

For prints larger than two by eight feet, the store uses a high-quality archival ink jet printer. Other services include stretch canvases, mounting, in-house scanning and digitization of film, film transfer from VHS, and soon, from 8mm and 16mm reel film.

But printing remains its most popular service, with an average day yielding between 5,000 and 10,000 prints from both lifelong customers and a growing mass of new shooters. The busy Christmas season can see up to 20,000 prints per day. “We’ve got four kiosks like those at Walmart or Walgreens, but ours are networked to our printers so… it’s instant,” Nate says. “We also have two different online systems that we get dozens of orders through every day. So, printing is definitely the biggest thing that keeps us going.”

Refining the Craft
Consistent with the founders’ mission, Peoria Camera Shop staff is eager to teach people how to take better photographs. “Digital photography is reinventing the wheel,” says Nate, adding that sometimes, the older generation is afraid of purchasing a digital camera. In an effort to squelch those fears, the store expanded in 2003, adding a classroom to educate customers on their camera equipment and software, such as Photoshop Elements.

These classes cater to the amateur or intermediate photographer—those who want to take pictures and may have a great eye for photography, but no intention of going professional. One popular class format is the store’s hour-long, one-on-one sessions fueled by an individual client’s questions on a specific camera or technique. Saturday group classes feature tutorials on four of the store’s camera lines—the Sony Digital SLR, Canon Digital SLR, Nikon Digital SLR and the Sony Mirrorless System—taught at a variety of skill levels. The 101 class covers the basics—what the camera’s doing and why; 201 explores exposure—shutter speed, aperture and ISO; and 301 builds on top of that, exploring flash photography, camera raw, light metering and more. In addition, two Photoshop Elements courses offer both a basic overview of the software and a more individualized, hands-on session.

The store also seeks to educate the public through its blog, which features tips, contests, service warnings and links to interesting articles. Staff caters enthusiastically to its Facebook page, responding to messages about shooting techniques or specific cameras at all times of the day.

“We get notifications on our phones, and if we can, we’ll respond right then and there,” Nate explains. “Ultimately, we’re selling service; I’m not selling you a good. You know you need a camera. I’m going to sell you a camera that best fits your needs, that works within your budget, and hopefully, that means you’ll come back.” iBi

For more information, visit peoriacamerashop.com or find them on Facebook.

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