Doomed by digital Shuttered: Technology forever changes photo shop business

The last Ritz Camera store in the Charleston area closed Saturday. It was in Moultrie Shopping Center in Mount Pleasant.

David Harley shopped off and on at Ritz Camera and other photography shops for years.

But the digital age made the Mount Pleasant resident’s stops less frequent.

Like almost everyone, he didn’t need prints to see his pictures. Digital cameras and smartphones allow people to instantly pick and choose any photos they want to keep on computers or disks.

Not printing them or not needing copies of every photo eventually took its toll on the camera industry.

Now, Ritz, a nearly century-old bastion of the photo world, soon will be mostly a memory.

Its last store in the Charleston area closed Saturday. Almost all the others across the country soon will follow as the bankrupt company failed to find a buyer in its latest restructuring bid.

“It’s just a sign of the times,” Harley said while buying a polarizer for his digital camera last week at the now-shuttered Ritz store off Coleman Boulevard.

“I can shoot about 500 shots and look at them on my camera,” he said. “Out of 200 or 300, I might pick two or three.”

The unraveling of the storied photo chain reflects the broader trend of old-school businesses getting upended by new technology. The jarring evolution has forced a raft of industries to seek new ways to survive in a rapidly changing market.

At the local level, the closing of the last Ritz shop put five people out of a job.

Mary Barron of Goose Creek, who has worked for 27 years in the camera business around Charleston, said the chain’s demise saddened her.

“These are the last rites of any camera shop,” Barron said last week.

For 16 years, Ritz store manager Ann Pudas-Sherry of Hanahan watched families grow and enjoyed their vacations through their pictures, but she won’t be doing that anymore.

“People have become image keepers instead of image makers,” Pudas-Sherry said. “I have an 18-year-old daughter. Her life in pictures stopped when I got a digital camera (when she was 10). I won’t print every picture.”

Owners of the few remaining specialty photo labs in the area say the same thing.

“I call it the digital wasteland,” said Chris DeCocker of AccuPhotoLab in West Ashley. “People are taking pictures, but they are not doing anything with them. We have a generation that won’t have a shoebox full of pictures.”

Larry Peterka, owner of Prism Photo and Framing on James Island, echoed her remarks.

“With film processing, we all did well,” he said. “With digital, there was no reason to involve the photo lab.”

For instance, not only did the casual shutterbug stop using labs to develop film with the advent of digital cameras and then smartphones, but also real estate appraisers, adjusters and insurance agents no longer needed the service. Peterka estimates commercial customers made up as much as 30 percent of his business.

“All of that went away,” he said.

To survive, the specialty shops had to diversify.

Both AccuPhotoLab and Prism still develop film, a rarity now but once the bread and butter that fed a flourishing industry of one-hour photo labs across the country. In addition to making prints from film and digital cameras, they also offer framing and specialty items like coffee mugs with pictures on them and other off-beat items.

Peterka estimates up to 70 percent of his business is custom framing, where five years ago it made up about 5 percent. Printing pictures makes up about 20 percent of his business.

“When the photo business started sliding five or six years ago, I switched more to framing,” said Prism Photo’s Peterka, who has operated photography shops under different names over the past 29 years.

Even Ritz tried to change its business model.

After emerging from bankruptcy in 2009, the slimmed-down Beltsville, Md.-based camera retail chain’s president, David Ritz, summed up the new outlook: “We’re not a camera store anymore — we’re an image store. We sell all products that allow you to either take, share, create or view your images.”

Newly named Ritz Camera Centers Inc. after the first bankruptcy and led by Ritz and his partners, the company tried to diversify, but revolutionary changes in the photo industry proved to be its undoing.

Ritz Camera filed a second bankruptcy in June after failing to find a buyer in early September. It’s now in the hands of liquidation specialist Gordon Brothers Retail Partners LLC and Hilco Merchant Resources LLC, the high bidders in a court auction earlier this month.

C&A Marketing Inc., an online retailer, acquired Ritz’s websites and several of its biggest stores. Ridgefield, N.J.-based C&A plans to keep between five and seven locations open. The rest of Ritz’s 137 retail shops will close. will open under new management Nov. 1.

The once ubiquitous camera company had 375 shops when the 94-year-old privately held firm emerged from its earlier bankruptcy less than three years ago under the ownership of a group that included its namesake founding family. It had 800 stores when it filed for bankruptcy the first time in 2009.

Once booming and growing through acquisitions of other failed camera enterprises, Ritz’s fortunes soured in recent years. Its Boater’s World retail business sank when the last recession hit, taking under three local marine stores.

With inadequate capital and liquidity and consumers shifting toward digital images, photo-sharing and reduced reliance on in-store photo processing, Ritz couldn’t keep up and fell victim to progress in the photography industry.

“They got double-whammied,” Peterka said. “People quit buying boats when the recession hit, and then they quit buying cameras because of (smartphones).”

Ritz also invested in pricy “hard goods” such as camera bodies, lenses and other big-ticket items, a move that helped lead to Ritz’s demise, DeCocker of AccuPhotoLab said.

She saw the change to digital photography starting 10 years ago and the drop-off in print production.

“There was no point to invest in hard goods,” DeCocker said. “We realized that would be a recipe for disaster.”

Like Peterka, DeCocker and her husband diversified. Framing, film processing, and specialty services such as helping customers select photos from digital images at a computer kiosk in their shop make up their decade-old business.

“People still need a place where they can see it, feel it, touch it and experience it,” DeCocker said.

Peterka agreed, saying the few remaining shops will be on par with stores that sell vinyl records.

“There will always be a need for a couple of specialty shops,” he said. “I tell people they will regret not having hard copies of their pictures 20 to 30 years down the road. Some of people’s most precious memories are photo albums. They are not going to have them.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or