Recapturing the incredible disappearing woman

When complicated digital photography drove half its customers away, Black's figured out how to win 'em back, and now they're about ready to publicize the results.

Two significant events in the six-decade history of Toronto HQ’d Black’s Photo will occur in late November. The first is the opening of the chain’s fourth women-shopper-friendly ‘new concept’ store in the downtown Toronto-Dominion Centre. The second, says brand marketing communications director Jennifer Yamamoto, is the launch of a national campaign set to break in late November, inviting customers ‘to rediscover our revitalized brand positioning and to celebrate the holiday season with Black’s.’

With Gaggi Media Communications handling the media and Riddochcommunications doing the creative (both based in Toronto) behind this new consumer-insight driven push, Yamamoto says the elements will consist of: 1.5 million flyers inserted in community newspapers coast to coast; a national radio campaign in major markets for a six-week period extending through New Year’s; 250,000 direct mailers sent to select households across the country in the same time frame; messaging on Black’s website and email blasts, as well as banners on other sites; closed-captioning ads within the dialogue boxes on popular TV shows; plus in-store events. The basic messaging, she says, will be ‘celebrate the holidays and gift-giving with Black’s.’

Black’s president/CEO Murray Souter says it all began about 18 months ago, when his company realized that roughly half its customers were disappearing because they no longer felt welcome in its stores, or confident about using its products. ‘Women have traditionally been the family archivists,’ he explains. ‘Even if they didn’t actually snap the pictures, they were the ones who got them developed, put them in albums, sent them to relatives.’ But when high-tech digital cameras and home printers came to dominate the market, Souter says that female customers stopped stopping by Black’s, and ‘digital photos started going into a Bermuda Triangle – they went into the cameras but they hardly ever came out.’

Even though Black’s remained number one in Canada as its distaff customers dwindled away, Souter says understanding what would bring them back was given top priority. Leveraging his extensive experience in consumer marketing at Nabisco, Frito-Lay, Reebok, Bauer Hockey, MT&T/Aliant and Sprint Canada, he set the wheels in motion to solve the disappearing woman dilemma. ‘We did a variety of research including commissioning usage and attitude studies from On Survey. We also used Grey Matter & Associates for most of the strategic side, and the research was done by a variety of companies including Ipsos-Reid. The insights we came up with were quite astounding, but made a lot of sense.

‘First of all,’ he continues, ‘we found that about 8 out of 10 (photo-related) purchases are either made directly by the female head of household, or are directed by the female head of the household. When we asked women to name the most precious thing they had, after their children, they said it was time.’ A guiding statement came from ‘a woman who told us she didn’t want to feel like an idiot when she walked into our store.’

After doing extensive research with consumers in focus groups and online surveys, the Black’s team ended up with the concept of an imaginary mother they nicknamed ‘Kate.’ Keeping her in mind, Souter says they then ‘set out to understand how we could help Kate get the most out of digital photo technology and how we could make our stores more welcoming to her.’ Great effort was put into designing the ideal store environment and services to entice ‘Kate’ into coming back and sticking around to use in-store computer programs to process and customize her photos.

The first three of the new ‘Kate stores,’ as Black’s staffers refer to them, opened in September in Ottawa, Oshawa and Burlington, Ont. Designed by Toronto’s II by IV Design Associates, Souter says they’re the polar opposite of the old-style, ‘very male-influenced, very technology-focused stores, with a lot of red and black and bright fluorescent lighting.’ The Kate stores have soft lighting and are full of taupe, tan and sandstone wall colours and flooring of wood, ceramics and stone. The aisles are all wide enough to accommodate strollers, and there are play areas for children as well as library-style carrels where, he says, ‘a mom can come in with a coffee, sit down and work on her photos, create albums or photo blankets and express her creativity, with or without help from our staff.’

What Souter calls ‘special staff training camps’ are being held to teach customer service that extends not only to being friendly and helpful, but communicating respectfully with people who may not have high-tech vocabulary. ‘Contrast that,’ he says, ‘with a mass merchandiser I won’t name, but it starts with a W. There’s just a photo kiosk where you line up like at an ATM machine and there’s always six people behind you tapping their foot and saying: hurry up.’

Even though Souter pegs the investment in each new-concept stores as ‘hundreds of thousands of dollars,’ he says at least a dozen more will roll out across the country over the next 12 months – several more in the GTA, as well as at least one in Calgary and one in Victoria. As for the ROI Black’s is aiming for, he says ‘it’s probably a third more revenue than at each of our traditional stores.’