How to start up a photo equipment business

Photographic equipment shops sell and hire equipment to casual photographers, serious hobbyists and professionals. Read our in-depth practical guide to starting up and running your own photographic equipment business.

Research your target market

Estimating demand

You'll want to make sure that there's enough demand for your photographic equipment retailing business. Be aware that changes in the sector in the last ten years or so have made it increasingly difficult for specialist photographic equipment dealers to compete and a number of independent businesses have failed as a result. Cameras and accessories, film and image processing services are available - to varying degrees - from many different sources such as:

  • the specialist chain Jessops, although Jessops's presence on the High Street is significantly lower than it was before the chain went into administration in 2013, with a reduction in the number of shops from 187 in 2013 to 58 in 2018
  • large electrical retailers such as Currys/PC World
  • catalogue shops such as Argos
  • major retailers such as Boots
  • retail pharmacies that offer photo printing and often sales of a limited range of accessories
  • supermarkets
  • other independent photographic equipment dealers
  • online and mail order specialists and eBay sellers

Check out the competition in your area to identify how many other outlets are already selling photographic goods locally.

It may be that you will only be competing directly against some of these outlets because you will be targeting a particular market sector. Perhaps you're planning on selling very unusual products which are hard to find elsewhere or solely film cameras and accessories that most retailers no longer stock.

Have a good look at existing retailers of photographic equipment to establish:

  • what they sell and the prices they charge
  • which services they offer
  • how knowledgeable and helpful their staff are
  • whether the premises and fittings are modern and smart

Why will customers choose your shop

You'll want to make sure that enough customers will choose your shop rather than your competitors. Your market research might indicate that there is a gap in the market that your shop can fill. For example, perhaps no other retailers in your area stock film cameras and specialist film but you have identified that there is still sufficient local demand to justify selling these products.

One of the independent's great strengths is in-depth knowledge of photographic equipment, techniques, film and so on. Most of the people working in specialist photographic equipment outlets are keen photographers themselves and are only too happy to discuss matters with customers and to offer advice. This is a service that non-specialists like Argos typically don't even attempt to provide and you should make sure your customers are aware of what you can offer. Be aware, though, that while the customer receiving advice may be happy to spend a long time with you, customers who are waiting to be served might tire of waiting and leave so that you lose a sale. Always acknowledge a customer when they arrive and say that you'll be with them as soon as possible. If necessary, ask the customer you are advising if you could break off to find out what the new customer wants - it might be that they could be dealt with very quickly.

Check out future developments

The location of your outlet is very important and ideally there will be ample and easy parking nearby and also lots of passing trade. You should check that there are no plans to build new road systems, which would mean that traffic would bypass your shop, nor proposals to impose parking restrictions.

Find out what people want

Small independent photographic equipment retailers face tough competition from large chain stores, online retailers and other outlets. So it is very important that you find out what people want and whether there are particular goods or services you can offer which will attract customers to your shop. If you plan to carry out a local survey, don't forget that your customers might include trade customers such as professional photographers and possibly organisations like hospitals or colleges.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Selling on eBay and Amazon

Selling online can be an excellent way of reaching new customers and boosting your sales. But setting up your own ecommerce website can be expensive and you may not be sure at the beginning whether the value of the sales you'll make online will justify the set-up costs.

As an alternative, trading on eBay or Amazon lets you get a feel for selling online but with much lower start up costs. And you may decide to keep on selling through eBay and Amazon even when you have your own online shop.

Getting started

You might already have your own personal eBay account that you use to buy items for yourself and to sell things that you don't need any more. But if you're trading as a business on eBay you're legally obliged to make it clear in your listings that you're a business seller. This means that you'll either need to register a new business account or upgrade your personal account to a business one. There's guidance in the eBay Seller Centre on the definition of 'trading' if you're not sure whether you need to register as a business seller.

Similarly, with Amazon you can use an existing account or create a new one when you register as a business seller.

If you're not already running a business and you intend to start selling things on eBay or Amazon - perhaps just in a small way to begin with - then you'll need to notify HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) that you're trading. There's guidance on the Gov.uk website that gives an overview of what counts as trading and what counts as self employment. It also gives details of your tax and record keeping obligations.

Decide whether to have your own virtual 'shop'

Having your own virtual storefront will give your business a valuable online presence and will allow you to display all your products together in one place.

When you sign up to sell on eBay, you have the option of setting up an eBay Shop. This allows you to create your shop using an existing template or to customise it to your own design. You don't have to choose the eBay Shop option straight away - you may decide it's best to wait until your monthly sales build up to a certain level and then upgrade.

With Amazon, you'll automatically create your own storefront regardless of the package you choose. You won't be able to customise it very much but you will be able to add your name and logo and provide some information about your business.

How much does selling on Amazon and eBay cost?

Before you start selling on Amazon and eBay it's a good idea to find out how much you'll have to pay in fees. Depending on the items you sell and the method you choose for selling them, your total fees can be quite substantial. And while some of the fees you pay will be linked to the number of items you sell each month, others are likely to be fixed costs which you incur even if you don't sell anything.

Both eBay and Amazon give you the option of selling as a business seller without paying any fixed monthly fees, although it's usually more cost-effective to choose a subscription-based package unless you're only selling a small number of items each month.

The eBay website has a fee illustrator tool and a fee calculator that will help you compare the fees for different selling methods and get a good idea of how much your actual per-item selling fees are likely to be.

The Amazon website gives detailed fee guidance, including some examples of pricing for their subscription and non-subscription packages.

Managing your listings

Uploading your inventory to eBay or Amazon and managing your listings can be a time consuming task, particularly if you're planning to sell a large number of items.

Both eBay and Amazon offer useful listing tools, some of which are free and others that you'll have to pay for.

Promoting your items

Because there's such a huge number of items for sale on eBay and Amazon at any one time, it's very important that you do everything you can to stand out from the crowd.

Always make sure that your listings include accurate, spell-checked descriptions and that your photos and other images show the items that you're selling in the best possible light.

You might want to take it a step further and use the various marketing tools provided by eBay and Amazon such as search optimisation, cross-promotions and paid-for advertisements.

Your reputation

As an eBay or Amazon seller your online reputation is extremely important. All sellers have a feedback score based on actual customer feedback and this is the main measure that future customers will use to check that you are trustworthy and reliable.

So you'll want to keep your rating as high as possible by providing an excellent level of customer service and fast delivery at reasonable prices. Make sure you always respond promptly to customer queries, deal with returns efficiently and keep an eye on your stock levels to avoid your listings showing an item as being in stock when it has sold out.

Be aware that packing up orders and sending them out can be time consuming, but it's important to stay on top of the job to make sure that the right items get delivered in good time to the right people. Very many parcel delivery services now offer bulk shipping tools that integrate with your eBay or Amazon account and these can greatly simplify the process of arranging and tracking your deliveries.

If you're selling on Amazon you might also consider using the Fulfilment by Amazon service, where you send Amazon your inventory and they do all of the picking, packing and shipping as well as providing customer service.

More information

The eBay and Amazon websites have a great deal of useful guidance to help you get started as a business seller and to expand your business as demand for your products grows. Both also have lively seller community forums where experienced sellers are often happy to answer questions.

Decide what to sell

The casual photography market is heavily targeted by major non-specialist retailers such as Amazon, Currys/PC World, Boots and Argos who stock models which appeal to the occasional or non-serious photographer. Such has been the growth in popularity of digital cameras and accessories that many of the large retailers now sell only a very small range of film cameras or none at all.

Although you probably can't afford to ignore this market altogether you will come up against stiff price competition and the position - and price - of the low-end digital camera has itself come under pressure from the rise of the cameraphone. So you might decide to focus on more expensive and sophisticated equipment for the keen hobbyist and also on equipment and supplies for professional photographers.

The range of products you might stock is very large and will be affected by the size of your outlet. However, you will probably sell some or all of the following:

  • digital cameras and related equipment
  • film cameras, both new and secondhand. Although the use of digital equipment is now widespread, there is still some demand for film cameras and, as almost all of the major retailers have stopped selling them, this may represent a profitable niche market
  • add-ons such as lenses, meters, filters, flashes and so on
  • amateur and professional quality film
  • studio lighting systems
  • darkroom equipment such as enlargers, chemicals, photographic paper
  • binoculars, telescopes, projectors, camcorders, microscopes
  • digital camera phones
  • accessories such as bags and cases
  • photographic albums, frames and mounts
  • books
  • miscellaneous items such as batteries, bulbs and cleaning materials

Some of the lines you stock may have a limited shelf life so make sure that you monitor stock turnover carefully and discount anything that is approaching its sell-by date.

Seasonality

Traditionally, people would take most of their photos during the spring and summer months, when the weather's usually at its best and people are most likely to go on holiday. This would in turn lead to increased demand for film developing and processing and sales of film. With the vast majority of casual photographers now using digital equipment, in particular smartphones, many more photos are taken all year round than in the pre-digital era and it's likely that the seasonal spike during the holiday season has been largely ironed out. However, the changing nature of the imaging market has seen the peak period shift forwards to Christmas-time as demand has grown for personalised gifts like photos printed on canvases, in photobooks and on items like plates and mugs. Cameras are also commonly bought as Christmas presents, so the closing months of the year and the January sales period may be busy.

Professional social photographers are generally busiest during the spring and summer as many of their wedding commissions take place at this time, which may increase your level of sales during this period if you have a large number of trade customers.

Make sure that you have enough stock to cater for demand during peak periods.

Establish your customer profiles

Your market

It is likely that your customers will be a mix of non-professional photographers with varying degrees of enthusiasm and competence and professional photographers. There may also be some demand from local businesses, educational establishments and organisations in your area.

Non-professional customers may include:

  • serious hobbyists
  • occasional or casual photographers
  • members of local photography clubs
  • photography students

Professional photographers may use you for all their purchases of equipment and accessories as well as for hire of items that they use on an infrequent basis.

How people will pay

Your customers might pay you:

  • by debit or credit card
  • in cash
  • by PayPal or similar if you sell online, particularly if you sell through eBay
  • by electronic transfer (for example large organisations which you supply on a regular basis might prefer this payment method)
  • by cheque, if you decide to accept them - you may allow your trade customers to pay by cheque but not your retail customers

You might also decide to offer credit facilities for purchases over a certain amount.

Special offers and discounts

You may decide to offer a discount as a matter of course to your trade customers. How much discount will depend on your pricing policy and how much local competition there is. You could offer further discounts for buying goods in large quantities.

Decide which services to offer

As well as stocking a wide range of photographic equipment you will probably also offer various services, for example:

  • digital photo printing and processing and film developing and printing. You might do this in-house with your own mini-lab, or you might outsource the work to a specialist laboratory
  • camera repairs
  • hire of photographic equipment - due to the high cost and comparatively short lifespan of digital equipment, many professional photographers choose to hire certain pieces of equipment rather than buy them. Bear in mind that offering this service is likely to require a significant initial capital outlay. You may decide to operate a sliding scale of charges according to the length of the hire period
  • passport photos

If you offer equipment hire, you may find that a delivery service would prove popular with professional photographers so that they can have the necessary equipment delivered directly to the location of a shoot.

Advertising your shop

Whatever the nature of your shop, you must make sure that your potential customers know about you and the products and services you offer.

There are a number of things you can do to promote your business:

  • advertise in your local newspaper and any local directories
  • launch your own website, showing all the features that will attract customers to your outlet
  • develop an effective social media strategy, using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on to keep people informed about new products, discounts, special events and so on
  • have leaflets printed, perhaps including tips on how to take successful photos
  • organise a local photography competition
  • set up a photography club, if one does not already exist locally
  • contact local colleges to offer photographic students a discount on photographic supplies
  • contact professional photographers to let them know the range of stock you carry and your pricing structure
  • offer discounts and free goods on certain services or products and advertise this in your window

Price your products

Getting the price right is very important. You need to make sure that the difference between the cost price and the selling price is enough to cover all of your operating costs, including your own drawings. However, the photographic equipment sector is very competitive and you will have to price broadly in line with your main competitors unless you are targeting a niche market that your competitors don't cater for. If you intend to target a niche market then you might find that customers are less price less sensitive.

Regular customers who are keen photographers will appreciate the knowledgeable service that you can provide and the wide range of specialist products. However, they typically read journals such as Amateur Photographer and are fully aware of the online retailers that commonly offer discounts, so you may need to be prepared to price match to keep their loyalty.

Suppliers to the photographic equipment sector may include suggested retail prices (SRPs) in their catalogues and price lists. However many independent dealers say that these are too high when compared with the competition. If you decide to price your goods below suggested retail prices you should keep details of your prices - this will be helpful should HMRC ever investigate your business.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing photographic equipment shop rather than start your own business from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that:

  • the premises, business equipment and shop fittings are already in place
  • there are established customers
  • the business can generate income immediately
  • suppliers have been identified and relationships established with them
  • the business has a track record, which can help if you are looking for finance
  • staff are already in place
  • a business website has already been set-up - possibly ecommerce enabled

However, look critically at any business that you are interested in to make sure that the price you negotiate with the seller is a fair one. Try to establish why the business is for sale - for example, is the owner keen to retire or is there another personal reason for selling up.

Your market research into the sector as a whole and the locality in particular will help you to establish whether or not the owner is selling because he or she can no longer generate enough income from the business. This may not necessarily deter you - many business people are confident that they can turn a failing business around. The important thing is to have established the current position so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

Other matters to consider include:

  • the state of the premises, fittings, equipment and so on. Will you have to spend money refurbishing or replacing assets
  • the condition and value of any stock you are buying. Check this over carefully before agreeing a price. You also need to be aware that technological advances and changing fashions can result in older cameras and accessories quickly becoming largely unsaleable or needing to be significantly discounted. Similarly, any equipment that is hired out to professional photographers will need to incorporate the latest technology and be in good working order. So make sure that you know what you are getting if you agree to purchase any stock
  • existing staff rights
  • how to retain key personnel once you've taken over
  • does the business owe money that you will be responsible for
  • if you are paying for goodwill, to what extent does this depend on the skills and personality of the seller

Ask your accountant to look critically at the business accounts for the past three years and discuss with him or her the selling price in the light of what the accounts reveal. Make sure you budget for other professional fees such as legal fees and valuation and survey costs.

What does the * mean?

If a link has a * this means it is an affiliate link. To find out more, see our FAQs.