Founded in 1918, the single camera shop grew to roughly 800 stores following the acquisition of rival Wolf Camera in the early part of this decade. But Ritz filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February and half those stores were shuttered in an attempt to restructure. On Wednesday, Ritz called it quits and announced that if it can't find a buyer, it will auction off assets by the end of this month.
It's difficult to defend a business model that can't succeed on its own merits, but I was really rooting for Ritz. Full disclosure: I write a Better Business Column for the Photo Marketing Association, outlining trends in the photo industry and how retailers can better compete. The ranks of small retailers in this industry is being thinned at a pretty rapid rate, thanks to digital imaging.
We just don't print digital photos the way we did with film. The mom and pop camera stores, and even the large specialty chains, have become dinosaurs in the digital world. Camera shops make money on the prints and enlargements. Cameras, like most electronics today, have such slim margins a store can't possible stay open on hardware sales alone.
A lot gets lost with these store closings and I don't just mean jobs. Sure, these 400 stores nationally will help contribute to unemployment and store vacancy statistics, but it's the knowledge small specialty retailers have that will be the real loss here.
These are the specialists who stay on top of trends, go to trade shows and take continuing education seriously. They don't just know photography, but love it. Store managers and clerks are often photographers themselves, both professional and amateur. They use the products on display and have a rich history to relate. Mass retailers just can't replicate this experience.
Ritz claims to have two interested buyers for the business. Photography fans should keep their fingers crossed.