Retail Tales – Kodak Create-A-Print and Unintended Consequences

Create-A-Print ImageTo say the Create-A-Print (CAP) was important to us is an understatement. Our photo lab was going strong. Lots of happy customers and plenty of business. These were the late 80’s and early 90’s and film photography was very, very good. One particular day my favorite Kodak rep of all time, Roger Reed, Came to me with a proposal. “Sign an agreement that says you will only use Kodak Chemistry and Paper in your photo lab, and Kodak will give you a Create-A-Print free.”   Talk about a no-brainer! We were already using the Kodak brand and were very happy with it, and so were our customers. So it was installed!


July of 1993 we went live with the CAP. Pricing was debated. Since we had no lease payments on the machine our physical output costs were quite low. The CAP only used one size of paper, 11′ wide by 90′ long. So a 5×7 on the CAP came out of the dryer with 2′ of white on both ends that needed to be trimmed off. An 8×10 had about 1/2″ on each side. So with packaging our physical cost including a small bit for chemistry and electricity, etc. was about .80 cents each for an 8×10 size. We talked about where to fit the pricing on this. Do we figure it as a premium product, where the customer has complete control over the outcome and therefore would spend extra for that. Or do we price it lower as a more budget option for the customer. Gene Taylor finally made the decision for us. “Price it low so everyone can afford it and get them into the store to possibly buy other things.” So we did. A 5×7 sold for about $1.50 and an 8×10 for around $3.99. Unheard of low prices for the time. And we were swamped. Lines of people at the machine waiting for their turn. We had to post a sign on the CAP limiting people to a time limit so we wouldn’t have fistfights in the line. Even though the CAP was designed for customers to run it themselves, we found that a majority of them had questions on it, and needed our help. It was pulling our lab people out from their machines doing other lab work, so we hired a new employee just for the CAP. Mary came to us answering an ad. And was she good. A tall, good looking teenager standing by the machine ready to help you brought in even more customers! Mary was the ‘CAP Queen’. We talked about a tiara and a sash for her. (Instead she met and married another great employee and went on to even bigger things, like kids and their own business!) Mary was with us for years, one of my better decisions.

During one busy time there was the ever present line of customers. The young lady at the machine puts her negative strip in and up pops pictures of her while working. Everyones attention is drawn to the screen. I see the customers craning their necks, looking over each others shoulders to see the screen. Evidently our young lady was a stripper. She must of been updating her resume. Anyway Mary quickly intervened and discreetly took the lady aside.

My wife was helping at the CAP another day when a similar thing happened. A middle aged lady puts in her strip. She was talking about the great motorcycle trip she had just been on with her husband and all their friends. The picture pops up on the screen and it is all of them around a long table at lunch. 20, 25 people all looking to the camera at the end of the table. And all the ladies have their shirts lifted up showing us…well you know.

The CAP worked marvelously for many years. But near the end of 5 years, as it started to show its age from so much use, it started to get quite problematic. Lots of downtime while we waited for technicians or parts. Or both. I ended up giving it back to Kodak in August of 1997. We had a great 5 years with the CAP and it was almost singularly responsible for a huge growth cycle for the lab. And maybe for a marriage and 3 kids!


Too big to fail, and yet…





By the mid 80s I had 6 Kodak reps. From amateur film, pro film, photo lab papers and chemistry, pro digital cameras, photo lab equipment, the list seems expansive. Kodak offered almost everything you would need, and they were the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Whatever they wanted they would buy or do. If you were a big enough retailer or photo lab, then Kodak would throw money at you to have a bigger share of your pie. In return for carrying more product they would subsidize many different things. Displays for your retail floor, photo lab equipment, reduced pricing on photo lab papers and chemistries, and more.

If you were a retailer then you probably were at PMA. This is a convention for those retailers in the photo industry. Photo Marketing Association. This was THE place to be to see and experience all of the new photo products for the coming year. Kodak would have a HUGE amount of floor space. Yellow was everywhere. And for a time they had working relationships with Nikon, Canon, Noritsu and many other photo companies.  They were a force to be reckoned with.

Every year at PMA they would have a evening party for their retailers. One year they rented the ballroom at the Hilton in Las Vegas. Ice sculptures with champagne flowing over it. Stewards in white carving roast beef with all the trimmings. Shrimp the size of your hand. We are talking about a huge event. Probably cost them millions. And now they wish they had that money back.

I think the change started in the late 90s with the quick shift to digital from film. Kodak was caught flat footed. They were still trying to push their APS cartridge films and cameras and lost sight of what the industry was doing. Too late to the party was Kodak. They had always made decent cameras, but they tended to sell low end type models found in the big box stores. Many of the better camera shops didn’t carry Kodak cameras, except if they needed to fill a low price point. Forget anything that needed a removable lens. Kodak didn’t do it. Once upon a time they had partnered with Nikon and Canon to produce some nice SLRs. But Canon and Nikon learned from them and then started producing their own designs.

Kodak had its own sensor factory though. These sensors were used by many other camera companies. Leica bought their sensors from Kodak. This was a good money maker for Kodak. They just sold that part of the business to an investment firm from California. And Kodak is selling of more and more of its patent portfolio (Link) to stay afloat.

Kodak is now an empty shell of what it was. Their stock is trading around $1. Rumors persist as to their demise. We will see if Kodak can pull a rabbit from the hat and stay in business. I hope they can. They made good stuff mostly. Now they will have to reinvent themselves. And that takes money they don’t have.

01/19/2012. And now they are bankrupt!

And now I’m watching to see what Olympus will become. (Link)

10 abandoned photo products

The following was written in 2007 and was featured in The Online Photographer

Its kind of insider-ish, but still has its good points.

Ten Good Ideas That Never Took Off

By Scott Parsons

I’ve been in the photo business for a while now. Mostly on the retail side. Here are a few things I thought were neat, but never really got anywhere. Why? Sometimes it was the customers and sometimes it was the manufacturers. Sometimes just bad timing and bad luck. Or young Harvard business school graduates, hired by the photo companies, with no practical photo knowledge, making decisions for retailers.

1. APS   (Advanced Photo System).  A lot of old-timers will scoff at this one. APS really was a love-it or hate-it kind of product. It had a lot of potential but got steamrolled by digital. I sold it as the perfect “Grandma Camera”: Simple to load and operate for the mechanically challenged. Good images and small-bodied cameras. Canon’s Elph was the clear design and sales winner. There were even a few SLR APS cameras.

P.S. Quick, name me a current camera that can be sold as a “Grandma Camera.” Are there any? Easy to operate for the mechanically challenged? Not everyone on the planet is digital ready. Something easy to understand that takes nice, decent quality images. Anyone?

2. ASF (Applied Science Fiction) This is the company that invented The “Digital Ice” algorithm in most of the scanners today. In the mid ’90s they showed a prototype of a new film processor that would develop your film and print it all in about 20 minutes. The chemistry was adhered to the film to draw out a latent image, ruining the negatives in the process. The customer saw the positive image on the screen, made print and enlargement choices and received prints and a “digital negative disk” CD. They showed this concept for about three years. Each year it got smaller and more refined. Eventually Kodak bought them out and scrapped the whole thing. But they’re still making nice money off the Digital Ice licensing!

3. Kodak’s Create a Print Center.   This was a standalone enlargement center. You stood in front of it, inserted a film negative strip into the front and made nice-looking enlargements up to 11×14 in just minutes. The processing part in the lower half was rock solid. Standard RA-4 chemistry and a dryer. The top half was another story. Once the negative was inserted it was drawn into a Rube Goldberg apparatus with piano wires and electrical circuits. The whole thing would spin with lenses zooming in and out and, and, and…. It was truly a sight and very problematic. Soon after, Kodak started introducing the digital versions of this idea.

4. Kodak’s Picture CD.   Way before its time!  They had all the right concepts and even had a line of CD players to hook up to your TV for viewing. Many larger processors made good money outsourcing for mini labs. The problem was that not many photographers felt a need to invest in this technology then. Five years later maybe. Ended up selling the players at a huge discount as music CD players.

5. Sony’s digital cameras that wrote to the floppy disk. Customers loved this! Regretfully the image sizes had to be small to fit on the floppy. Customers really could relate to the floppy concept. But as soon as Sony changed from floppies to bigger capacity (proprietary) media, this design started fading quickly.

6. “Panoramic” switches on 35mm cameras. A short-lived thing. Flip a switch on the back of the camera and the image was cropped top and bottom. The photo lab would print a 4×10. Neat idea and good for the photo labs. Some customers would forget it was on and shoot a whole roll that way and be very upset upon getting the pictures back. There was no way to reverse this for the customer. (But you could with APS! Thy name is irony!) The idea quickly faded after a year or so.

7. Ektar print film. Another neat marketing concept from Kodak. Nicely designed boxes with a range of ISOs from 25 to 1000. Easy to explain to customers and a nice up-sell from the standard Gold lineup. Again, Kodak’s SASS ( Short Attention Span Syndrome) killed the line too soon.

8. Minolta’s 8×42 XL binoculars (mid ’90s). Camera manufacturers have made binoculars for decades. A really nice sale for most photo retailers. Good margins and names recognizable to customers. But generally, binoculars were binoculars. Black, with a case. But every now and then all the pieces would come together and the exact right combination of design, glass and metal would come together for a really nice unit. These were one on those “divine designs.” Low weight, amazing clarity and excellent price. As good as Leica or Swarovski? Heck no, but really super good for the price. Birders loved them. I sold all I could get. But then some design guru at Minolta changed the design, and everything went back to ordinary. Black, with a case.

9. Stacks of filters. This is more of a nostalgia thing, but I really liked small, dense stacks of various filters. Rotating it around to find the exact right one. Adding and subtracting from the pile. Sometimes trying one on just because you want to see what it did.  Digital has changed this one. Probably for the better.

10. Choice. I know what you’re thinking. “We have tons of products to choose from! A huge assortment of cameras and accessories!” I’m not talking about that. I want to know where you now purchase your stuff. Your choices of retailers are very diminished now. Many fine specialty retailers are now gone because of the choices the manufacturers started making back in the mid ’90s. The manufacturers control who sells their stuff and for what price. MAP pricing and competing with the big boxes have changed your choices regarding who you buy from.

Please find a quality independent photo retailer and support them as much as you can.


Scott Parsons is the proprietor of 13 Photography Gallery and Shop, in Grand Junction, Colorado, providing fine art photography and services to Colorado’s Western slope.