What Does It Mean When Sears/Wal-Mart Portrait Studios Shut Down?

So what does it mean to the photography industry when more than 2000 studio locations across the US shut down? That was the announcement last week when financially struggling CPI Corp, with locations in Sears and Wal-Mart stores, decided to shut down its outlets.

You can look at it in two ways.

1. The photography industry is doomed. Digital photography has done so much damage to the industry as we know it, that even big box store can no longer make a profit. People can take quick portraits with their own smart technology, and share it in dozens of ways. They don’t want the 8×10 on the wall anymore, and have no desire to sit through a traditional family portrait anymore.

2. People have no desire for the “stand on the x” portrait experience. Everywhere they go, there is someone with a “camera” in hand. From standing in line at the movies, to playing at the park with friends, cameras and quick action images are now something that’s part of our every day life.

What Does It Mean When Sears/Wal-Mart Portrait Studios Shut Down

Which one resonates with you?

I go with option 2.

People use to go to Sears or Wal-Mart for a quick way to remember the year in photos. When they wanted to send out holiday cards, or even update the photo on their desks, they loaded the family up in the car and spent a couple of hours at the big box store. It was their best option.

Not so anymore. Now, everywhere they go, they have the ability to shoot an image. If their child looks cute in line at school, they take a picture. If the family is enjoying a picnic in the park, they shoot a few pictures. Then they load those up as wallpaper to their computer screens, and voila, instant memories on their desks at work. Who needs a frame with a photograph?

The big box stores made people dress up in ways they didn’t want to, stand on an x they really didn’t feel comfortable with, and pretend they are all happy, even though they’ve spent the last 45 minutes trying to keep “Johnny” happy as they sat in line, waiting for their turn. That fake smile just wasn’t worth it anymore.

Today’s world is changing. People’s ideas of photography are changing too. And unfortunately, many photographers don’t get that. They’re still trying to sell old world photography to a new marketplace. I hear all kinds of questions surrounding this issue every day.

“Should I give them the images on CD rather than make them buy a package with a 16×20?”

“Should I be concerned they only want digital images?”

Nope. Its not clients that need to change. Its us as photographers that need to change.

Its not that people don’t want photography any more. They do. But they want something more than the standard “stand on the x” format. They can do that themselves. They want something that says “WOW”.

And they don’t want an 8×10, they want a digital file to do with as they please.

Is there a problem with that? Nope. You just have to charge for it.

Dig Deeper >> Making Them Pay For Social Media

How do you think this latest shut down will impact the photography industry? I’d love to hear your take on things.

11 thoughts on “What Does It Mean When Sears/Wal-Mart Portrait Studios Shut Down?”

  1. I cut my pro teeth one Christmas season (from September to January) at a Sears Portrait Studio in the mall in Casper Wyoming in the early 80’s. We were a mill of babies, little ones, families, HS seniors, and businessmen needing a quick passport or resume portrait. 6 days a week from 10 AM to 10PM and Noon to Six on Sunday. I certainly loved the photography and working with the clients. The photography was very straight forward. Every light was nailed to the wall/floor and the camera was a 120mm longroll shooting VPS film. All poses were stock. We shot three on the studio background (1 short light, one face on, one broad light) and two poses against the black velvet with the second velvet set including a double exposure. (Remember the head floating in space pictures?) Each session was done in less than ten to fifteen minutes. Slam-dunk portrait photography! I learned posing, lighting (even though it was locked down), facial analysis, diplomacy, salesmanship, and patience. (Lots & lots of patience!) I was absolutely positive the CPI executives sat around in their hot tubs on weekends thinking of ways to stick it to the employees. Emps were blued, screwed, and tatooed! And when Christmas season finished and all the package prints were delivered, I was laid off as a seasonal emp. I’m not surprised CPI shut everything down and disappeared without a word. Bankruptcy couldn’t happen to a more well deserving company (but I am sympathetic for all the employees and their families that are out of work or screwed over by CPI). Sears was a good place to learn my craft. Bittersweet memory.

  2. Ahhh..but it still holds true that just because there is a camera attached to seemingly every piece of electronics these days, and just because one can click it doesn’t mean one is a photographer…perhaps a picture taker…but not a photographer. Technology can often cheapen the artistic & technical value of those of us who make a living from photography. I believe that yes, we should ” keep up” but there is a need to be unplugged once in awhile. What sets apart the pro photographer from the picture taker is the knowledge and the improving of our craft. Technology can be our friend…but it can also be our Nemesis!

  3. Not quite ten years ago, I worked at a “big box” portrait studio for about ten minutes and that’s almost not a joke. I took the job because on an instinctive level, I love photography, and while I hadn’t had a lot of experience in its practice, I figured I might learn something. Anyway, the interviewers at Big Box seemed enthusiastic at that prospect.

    My trainer was lazy, mean spirited, and unenthusiastic. Training, as such, was unimpressive, consisting of one reading of a used workbook, and about ten minutes with the digital camera. Most of the day the trainer was content sitting at her table kvetching, (the Big Box kiosk was only visited a couple of times, and it was located in a reasonably busy “One Stop Shop”.) and out of boredom and impatience, I began practicing camera work on my own–why not? It was all digital, and the trainer didn’t seem interested. The self-initiative wasn’t appreciated.

    Then came questions about my employment status–I had been led to believe that I would have a permanent position and assignment after training–and this was not proving to be true, that I might be a floater, I might be waiting a week or longer for something to do. When my questions weren’t answered, I quit. I was told something in effect of, “Well, not everyone can be a photographer.”

    I wrote a long letter of complaint to the Big Box corporate office. I personally received no response.

    The kiosk was closed in less than a month.

    To answer the question, “How do I think this will impact the photography industry,” I can only say two things. One, I’m not surprised. Two, it’s long past time. That Big Box was pretty well dead, even then, and I can do better job with my iOS devices than these unimaginative “photographers” can do with with their studios!

  4. I actually think that it will help the industry. Since these big box store studios are closing, people won’t be able to compare a professional photographer’s prices to Walmart or Sears prices. And if they still try to, a professional photographer can explain that their pricing practices were not sustainable, so they had to shut down. And besides, I think those kinds of portrait studios are completely cheesy, so I do understand why someone wouldn’t want to spend much money there–especially when you have a student working their part time job taking cookie cutter type photos.

  5. And if you’re going to just sell digital files, at least charge enough to make a living. Giving them a session plus digital files for $80 is not sustainable. Clients need to be educated that your time and talent are worth more than minimum wage or less.

  6. That was a short, but really great article. Thank you. One particular thing you said, “They want something that says WOW”, was the golden key. All those crap quality phone cameras out there taking blurred, poorly exposed images make a decent professional’s photos look like works of art. Now more than ever – one has to win over clients by quality instead of gift of the gab.

    I have so many friends with sub-standard, so-called professional images hanging on their walls and now photographers just cannot get away with that. As you said, people can take those shots themselves. The pro photography industry will benefit from this as the pretenders are weeded out and the true professionals shine.

  7. I actually enjoy both studio and lifestyle photography. I don’t think the cheesy studio portraits are going away anytime soon. While “Lifestyle Photography: is the new “Hot” the majority of people out there CAN’T AFFORD IT and won’t even consider it unless it’s FREE or around $50 at most. People just don’t wanna pay a whole lot for pictures, unless you have a lot of money to pay. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “Are you reasonable?” Who in their right mind (unless you are rich) is going to pay $400+ for digital images, when they can go to JC Penny Portraits or Olan Mills and by portrait sheets for $3.99 a sheet. Unless everyone out their learns the art of Studio or Lifestyle photography, there will ALWAYS be a large group of people who go to the bigbox companies.

  8. This has been something I’ve struggled with for some time now. I have been a photographer for 6 years now and I’ve slowly been burned out from it. It’s the client that has made it not fun anymore. I’m so tired of hearing that Aunt Martha has a camera and she wants to tag along at a wedding. There are so many people that think that just because they have a camera, they can do photo shoots themselves. I actually see more than just the Big Box studios going out of business. I’m not willing to bust my butt for these people that want Walmart prices, or that feel they can do it themselves. I applaud those photographers that can still get 100s for one sheet!
    I, on the other hand, am going a different direction and am starting to teach and sell to those who want to take their own photos to save money. At least I can still stay in photography mode and profit, just not taking the photos anymore.
    I’m really curious to see if in 10 years, there even are photography studios!


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