The year is 2009. Only a year and a few months shy of the housing crisis bubble bust. Retailers, like Circuit City, are feeling the pressures of the Great Recession. B&H Photo, however, is paving its own way through the tumultuous financial crisis. While retailers are buckling under egregious loads of debt, B&H is thriving and evolving. It is a wonder how a single-store photography retailer in Manhattan grew to become one of the largest electronic retailers in the United States.
B&H Photo profile
B&H Photo started in 1973 by Blimie and Herman in Tribeca. Over its 47-year tenure, it has grown from a photography focused store to one of the largest electronic retailers in the US. Crunchbase reports estimated revenues anywhere from $100 to $500 million. The store touts many awards, including Best for User Experience by the Baymard Institute and leading consumer electronics retailer by Consumer Reports. This maybe why B&H generates more than 50% of its revenues from its ecommerce front, bhphotovideo.com.
The company is also known for staying true to its roots. Being owned by observant Samtar Hasidic Jews, both the physical store and online store only operate between Sunday to Friday. They’re open on Hanukkah and Christmas, making it the perfect place for New Yorkers to purchase that last minute gift.
B&H Photo’s evolution
B&H Photo continues to evolve with their clients. In the beginning, they started as a photo and film shop in Tribeca. Over time, they morphed into an electronic store to meet the changing tastes of their clients. As a result, the company began adding various electronics, such as computers, lighting, audio equipment, in the 1990s.
The store itself is an experience. Compared to other electronic retailers, B&H Photo’s physical store is akin to the electronic superstores in futuristic Akihabara district in Tokyo. There are all sorts of toys to tinker with, all under one roof. A system of pulleys and conveyor belts usher products from the basement stockroom to the retail floor to checkout. If there is a product that a customer is interested in, store employees can make a request to the basement for one to be fed on the conveyor belt to the retail level. From here, customers can try the product.
This experience is a stark contrast to big box retailers like Best Buy the now defunct Circuit City. Instead of fostering an environment of experimentation and tinkering, big box retailers serve a utilitarian approach to shopping experience.
In addition, B&H Photo’s online store is equally impressive to customers. Leveraging integrations to useful applications, B&H streamlines a customers’ experience in the store. For example, its integration with EZBZ makes it easy for customers to find a local company to install equipment that they recently purchased from the store. The only store is also available across various mobile devices and makes various checkout options, from PayPal to Google Wallet, available to users.
Key lessons of B&H Photo
From there in-store experience to their use of technology, there are many lessons that can be taken away from B&H Photo’s success. However, there are two key lessons that every retailer can take away are 1) invest in your people 2) evolve with your customer.
Invest in your people
In a 2009 Inc. article, which documents the anecdotal shopping experience, the author praises how B&H staff delivered value to customers in two key ways. First, they were deep experts in the products. This is a pillar to the in person electronic shopping experience, which lets customers experiment and tinker before they commit to a purchase. The expertise helps guide a customer through their experimentation process, making it more akin to playtime.
Second, B&H staff are known for making effective recommendations that often saved the customer money. The combination of expertise in the product and likely paired with appropriate incentive structure, creates monetary savings for customers. This in itself builds customer loyalty.
Evolve with your customer base
Building an organization that is responsive to consumers’ evolving preferences is key. B&H adapts their product offerings to match the growing tastes for consumer electronics. Additionally, they apply the same philosophy in building their eCommerce platform by launching relevant features that customers value. This type of nimbleness ensures that the company is in line, if not ahead, of changing consumer purchase habits. Furthermore, this attitude positions the retailer with a multitude of ways to serve their customers by offering multiple store fronts and accepting payments in as many ways as possible. As a result, this makes the purchase experience frictionless for end customers.
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