Monthly Archives: January 2011

Loss of that personal touch

It’s noon and Mike Hirata should be closing the doors of his photography store for the last time.
But customers on this day—Dec. 30—keep walking into his long-serving New Westminster business. It’s like they don’t want FotoFun on Sixth Street to close.
For Mike, the additional hours just mean a longer good-bye.
And many longtime customers feel like a loyal friend is leaving town for good.

Mike Hirata chats with longtime customer Cliff Milne on the last day of business for his store, FotoFun, which he's run in uptown New Westminster for 38 years.

“Some people see the sale sign and they come in. Others want to say good-bye. That’s going to be emotional,” says 69-year-old Mike.
Originally from Japan, Mike operated FotoFun for 38 years, 29 in this location. It’s not a sluggish economy that’s forcing him to shut down, he’s just ready to retire and spend more time on his own photography—mostly landscapes—and travel.
When his son Eric decided not to take over the business and he couldn’t find a buyer, Mike decided to close shop.
On this last day of business, there is a steady stream of well-wishers, most eliciting a smile from Mike and first-name recognition.
“I’m going to miss you and the store,” says one late-arriving customer. “But I’m happy for you that you finally get to retire.”
Sitting in the corner of his store while his three-person staff help customers, Mike reflects on how much things have changed. Advance in technology and adapting to it has been the constant, he says.
But for his customers, FotoFun’s quality of service has always remained top-notch.
That’s evidenced by a FotoFun employee on this day who has just spent 45 minutes helping a senior buy an inexpensive digital camera, mostly explaining to the woman how it works.
Later, a man named Bill walks in to say good-bye. He bought his first camera at the store 36 years ago and recently purchased a top-of-the-line digital camera there.
“Remember when I bought my Nikon D200?” he says of the recent purchase. “It was my first DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) and I dropped a lot of money on it. Remember how I asked so many questions?”
“Yeah, you were in here almost every day,” replies Eric.
Mike still remembers the first cameras he sold to customers like Bill—Kodak Brownie Hawkeyes, which sold for a few dollars. They were made of bakelite plastic and simple to use—just point and click.
His customers would buy the camera, snap away and then return with exposed rolls of film for processing. Making prints was the bread and butter for his business, he says.
As he explains this, a customer catches Mike’s eye as he B-lines towards him.
“Congratulations on your retirement,” says the man.
When the man leaves Mike says he doesn’t feel congratulations is the right word. After all, the business he built up is closing.
“It is sad for a lot of people. They like coming here and not the big stores,” he says.
Continuing his history lesson, Mike explains how Brownies were followed by single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras with interchangeable lenses that shot 35mm colour slide and negative film. Processing was still a big part of the business but now customers also wanted a selection of lenses, filters, flashes and other attachments.
Business success meant adapting, and it was best to a little ahead of the curve, says Mike.
So when the digital age arrived, he was ready.
“Nobody shoots with film. Very few. Everything is digital, digital,” he says.
The processing side of the business gave way to an online image centre that allowed customers to email their images so he could turn them into prints.
But, like others, he soon found there was little money in processing prints.
“With digital, people are shooting more because you don’t pay for film,” says Mike. “But they don’t get them printed. They just stay on their computers.”
It’s the sale of cameras and accessories that kept FotoFun going over the last decade, he says.
Simple point and shoot digital cameras, the modern equivalent of the Brownie, are priced in the $100 to $300 range. Whereas digital SLRs start at around $600 and the high-end professional models go for $3,500 and more. There are also the lenses, which can sell for more than $1,000.
“We need to sell lots of digital cameras for the business to do well,” he says.
As for Bill, he says he’ll miss the personal touch at FotoFun.
“You don’t get that level of service at a big box or a big retailer,” says Bill. “They just want you to buy and get out.”
Speaking of getting out, the customers aren’t leaving and others are still coming in. It’s now nearly two hours after the store’s official closing time.
Mike isn’t concerned.
“I didn’t realize we had so many loyal customers,” he says as he wanders off to help a customer eying a digital camera.
“Can I help you?”