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The Portrait Business

Imagine you walk into an engraving store to purchase a silver frame engraved with your name and birth date. Imagine returning a week later. The clerk pulls out ten or twelve other engraved items, all permanently engraved with your name and birth date, and tries to sell these to you at exhorbitant costs. You turn them all down, purchase your silver frame, and leave. The merchant throws all of the extra items away. After all, with your name and birth date on them, they're not worth anything to someone else.

Sound silly? Sure, until you realize that this is almost exactly how portrait studios work. JC Penney's, Sears, and dedicated portrait studios all print extra 11x14s, 8x10s, 5x7s (etc.) of various poses and with various "special effects" (you know, like sepia toning, oooooooh) and attempt to sell them to you when you come in to pick up your $19.95 package. "You could have these three extra sheets for only $35!" Never mind that you already got six sheets for $19.95 - that picture of your daughter is so cute, you've just gotta have it.

Two things strike me as odd about this. First, that anyone would cave to such pressure, and second, that the prices are so exhorbitant. I don't doubt that the price point for these "extra" things has been finely tuned over the years to maximize profit, but that just befuddles me. Are that many people tricked into buying photos they didn't order (presumably because they didn't need or want them) at high prices?

The supply/demand line suggests that lower supplies create higher demand. I don't think that applies here - you're almost always offered "extra" pictures for a large sum of money. Why can't these portrait studios charge less for the extra pictures and make the money in volume? These aren't recyclable goods - the pictures get thrown out.

In college, a common "money-saving" trick would be to order a pizza, leave your room, and wait in the lounge for the pizza delivery guy. When he came back through, having failed to find you in your dorm room, you'd play dumb and say "Hey, what, the people weren't there? You're just going to have to throw that out? I'll give you $3 for it." Dishonest, yes - but $3 is better than $0 at that point for the pizza place. Every store has "clearance sales" - an unsold item is $0 income, but an item sold at half its original cost is still some income.

Carey and I have never purchased extra pictures. How much of the cost of producing all these wasted photos per year goes into the cost of the pictures we do buy? And again, who buys these super-expensive "extra" pictures? I just don't get it.

4 Responses to "The Portrait Business"

  1. My experience with those department store studios and the "traveling studios" that set up shop in Walmart or other stores is that they always take one or two pictures that they know will not be as nice as the ones they hope to sell you. This picture becomes your "free" picture or the "package price" picture. For example, I noticed that the photographer will always take one picture where s/he will ask you to "not smile." That picture is ALWAYS the free or package price picture. They know that you will be disappointed in your free picture and have an easier time selling you the "super-expensive "extra" pictures that turned out beautifully. It's a racket!

    I always hate the way the school picture studios create their packages, too. They package them in such a way that parents are enticed to buy two or more packages because you cannot get a 5/7 AND and 8/10 in the same package unless you are buying the most expensive package.

  2. Lilith said on March 12, 2007:

    This picture becomes your "free" picture or the "package price" picture.

    That's not been my experience (Carey has used both Sears and JC Penney's for pictures of Little Bug). We get to choose one or two of any of the images in order to build our "coupon package." We typically get about four or five sheets for under $15 - Carey usually combines a "BOGO" coupon with one for "$9.95" packages.

    Then we return and they're offering the same pictures as well as some of the ones we didn't like so much for about 8x the cost. 😀

  3. Erik, I agree with you on the insanity of the pricing. But are you certain that the printed photo paper isn't recycled? We asked that very question, and were told that unpurchased prints are returned and recycled.

  4. I exerienced it at Ames, K-Mart (when my son was small) and a church directory photo oportunity to buy prints. They were taken by traveling photographers that set up in the stores for one or two days. Each time our free photo was the worst one in the entire batch wiht the nicer photos on display for additional purchase .


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