Mike’s Camera developing enlarged exposure

BOULDER — Getting the perfect picture sometimes takes some luck and perfect timing. Maybe the same thing is true for tripling the size of your business.

Mike’s Camera Inc., a hub for Boulder-area photographers for decades, is opening 10 stores in Colorado and northern California. It currently operates three stores, including one in Boulder at 2500 Pearl St.

“It’s certainly a big leap, but a lot of things lined up well for us,” chief operating officer Alex Christianian said. “We have been looking at expanding into more stores in Colorado as well as other markets. … It just seemed like the timing was right.”

It’s a leap, but it’s also the story of a small retailer surviving upheaval in an industry when larger competitors could not.

Mike’s Camera sells cameras, camcorders and equipment, processes images and hosts educational programs. The company was founded in 1967 and focuses on professionals and dedicated amateurs.

Mike’s Camera opened stores in downtown Denver, Wheat Ridge, Thornton, Greenwood Village and Colorado Springs the week of Nov. 12, according to the company. The California stores — in San Francisco, Mill Valley, Menlo Park, Dublin and Sacramento — opened the next week.

The move fills a void left in those markets by the liquidation of another prominent camera retailer. The locations Mike’s Camera has taken over were previously operated by Ritz Camera & Imaging, which went bankrupt in June and liquidated in September.

Ritz bought Colorado camera retailer Wolf Camera in 2001 and retained the brand name. Wolf Camera bought Robert Waxman Camera and Video in 1998.

Christianian said the new stores were among the best performing in the Ritz family. The expansion should be aided by the decision to keep on old Ritz employees.

“We have hired basically all their staff that was interested in staying on with us,” Christianian said. Currently that’s about 80 people, but it could grow to 100 soon, he said.

The retail camera industry has been shaken deeply by the revolution in photography brought about by digital imaging. Ritz was a victim, despite having more than 1,000 stores at one point nationwide. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009 and shuttered 300 stores then.

Mike’s Camera looks to have weathered the transition and thrived. Christianian attributes it to its decision to stay small, offer competitive prices and good customer service and host educational events for aspiring photographers.

“Our formula really seems to work for us,” Christianian said.

Running a specialty shop might seem like an uphill battle in the days of Amazon and large camera displays at stores such as Costco, but that’s not the case, he said.

Passionate photographers “want to learn more about their gear, and not just buy a box,” Christianian said. Pros and corporate clients need the best, while aspiring amateurs want to know how to get the most out of their camera as they learn their craft. Nothing meets that need better than face-to-face interaction between clients and knowledgeable sales staff, and Mike’s Camera has capitalized by offering a variety of classes covering technique to digital editing.

There’s also a hidden market segment that’s constantly replenishing: parents of young children, especially first-time parents.

In the camera industry, Christianian said, prices are largely set by manufacturers, which allows Mike’s Camera to compete on price. Bricks-and-mortar retailers were at a disadvantage when Amazon did not collect sales tax, but recent laws have leveled the playing field, he said.

In the big picture, it adds up to a sustainable business model that can scale.

“We’re just very excited,” Christianian said, “and think this will be a great move for us.”

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