Blacks Was Photography

The Telus connection was like an under-developed image, its potential never coming through

Last Tuesday, Blacks Photography announced it would close the remaining 59 retail outlets in its Canadian chain. It was already a much diminished operation from the network of 113 stores that Telus Corp. bought in 2009. Over the past few days, I was asked two key questions: One, what could Blacks have done to save itself? And two, why would Telus have purchased Blacks in the first place?

My answers were, essentially, Nothing and Who knows?

Over the past decade, the retail market in which Blacks operated had evolved in a significantly negative direction as a result of a behavioural shift within its customer base. This is no surprise to most of us. The vast majority of pictures taken today are experiential, and the most popular camera is a cellphone. GoPro cameras make up more than 30 percent of the market. People capture a picture or video, edit it on the camera itself, and share it on social media. Photography has become a self-serve hobby relying on immediate gratification.

Hobbyists and professionals alike purchase their gear elsewhere, often online from places such as Amazon or Best Buy. They manage their hobby or business in the comfort of their homes: they have the software on their personal computers to edit their images and the printers to output quality photos on good paper. Specialty store Henry’s has a more dedicated following and has even added stores recently, but it boasts a broader selection of gear and related products and services. 

There really was nothing special about Blacks that offered an advantage now or that could be built into a sustainable business in the future. Anything of interest they could have evolved into already existed and was firmly entrenched. Blacks was an aging dog. This was not a case of a misplaced innovation strategy. Every business has a cycle, and this one came to an end.

This was not a case of a misplaced innovation strategy. Every business has a cycle, and this one came to an end

Which brings us to the second question: Why would Telus buy a retailer such as Blacks? They may have contemplated potential synergies, perhaps co-branding of stores or increasing Telus’s ability to participate in the boom in experiential photography. It is never a bad idea to tap into your customers’ lifestyles. Apple and Google both provide photo services in some form, so something could have evolved between Blacks and Telus given a greater sense of urgency. 

But even if there was a plan, it never got the attention it needed to capitalize on any complimentary capabilities and evolve into something interesting. As a result, another fixture in the Canadian retail landscape is about to suffer the same fate as record and CD stores and movie rental shops.

If there is a message for leadership in all of this, it is that it is incumbent on all of us to clearly identify our customers; not only today’s customers but tomorrow’s as well. Then, we need to align our operations to provide what those customers will want. If we can and do, we may endure. If we can’t or don’t, we are done. 

Ask yourselves: What are we best at? It has been a number of years since Blacks could answer that question.


Barry Cross is adjunct assistant professor at Smith School of Business and co-author, with M. Kathryn Brohman, of Project Leadership: Creating Value with an Adaptive Project Organization.

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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