Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Another Change, Another Adjustment

Ritz Camera, the nation's largest chain of camera stores, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy a couple of weeks ago and I was at a breakfast this morning with a local manager who seemed almost totally bewildered--if not at all surprised--by it.

The breakfast was one of those small gatherings of business people that Roanoke City Manager Darlene Burcham puts on every month or so ("One of my favorite things about my job," she says) and it gives people in business a chance to meet each other, to express their concerns and hopes and--on a bad day--to grumble at the city for real or imagined slights.

This day was pretty upbeat until it came Glenn Hall's turn to give us an accounting of his company. "We've just filed bankruptcy," he said, "so I hate to throw a wet blanket over this meeting. Not much I can say." What he finally said, though, was revealing. Ritz is in a business that--like mine, publishing--is changing dramatically and rapidly. Technology is affecting both my business and his, mine because of the Internet and his because of the digital camera--and the Internet.

I mentioned that several years ago, before the advent of the digital camera, a small publication like the one I worked for at the time, spent several thousand dollars a year at Ritz for camera equipment, film and processing. When I bought my first digital camera, our bill at the Blue Ridge Business Journal dropped to $0 immediately. Not only did I buy the camera online (the Internet strikes again!) because it was roughly half the price, but I didn't need to process anything any longer.

My photography was better, quicker and cheaper instantly. An old colleague of mine, Danny Rudder who had a photo processing business in Roanoke for years, once said that in photo prints there were three elements: speed, quality or price. You could have two. With digitals, you get three. And I become a better photographer relying on my own editing skills instead of having to depend on a pimply-faced, 19-year-old lab technician who'd just had a fight with his girlfriend and then went into the darkroom to process my pictures.

Ritz simply never adjusted. It had the double problem of being in the luxury boat business, which tanked with the economy. But it was the photo story that fascinated me. I asked Glenn if he thought old-style processing--especially some of the very good black and white work--was a thing of the past. "Probably," he said in a voice that said he'd miss the character of that kind of photography.

We're changing and there's not much to do about it except adjust. Every day.

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