Alan Photo focuses on key to survival

Alan Photo founder Alan Tan with his nephew, Bin Ming (with glasses); daughter, Audrey; and son, Alvan. They are in the studio section of their new "experience store" dubbed REC by Alan Photo in CT Hub 2 in Lavender Street. The 3,000 sq ft store come
Alan Photo founder Alan Tan with his nephew, Bin Ming (with glasses); daughter, Audrey; and son, Alvan. They are in the studio section of their new "experience store" dubbed REC by Alan Photo in CT Hub 2 in Lavender Street. The 3,000 sq ft store comes with a studio, accompanying lights and photography consultants, who will guide customers as they try out the cameras. ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Alan Photo founder Alan Tan with his nephew, Bin Ming (with glasses); daughter, Audrey; and son, Alvan. They are in the studio section of their new "experience store" dubbed REC by Alan Photo in CT Hub 2 in Lavender Street. The 3,000 sq ft store come
Mr Tan's other shops are at Sim Lim Square (above), which has been around since 1986, Marina Bay Sands and Raffles City.ST FILE PHOTO

Camera retailer sees silver lining amid sales decline, makes painful changes Technological advances have changed the game for many businesses, forcing some to close and others to relook their plans. In the second part of a weekly series, The Straits Times looks at how Singapore companies have tried to address the disruptions they face.

Moving with the times may require some painful pruning, and this is a lesson that Mr Alan Tan, the founder of a major camera retailer here, knows very well.

When the digital camera revolution hit Singapore in the early 2000s, Alan Photo was among the first camera retailers here to take the tough decision to stop selling film cameras.

The 59-year-old Mr Tan believes that not being a photographer helped to remove any "emotional baggage" that may have undermined his business judgment.

He is now applying the same clinical treatment to his business - which is celebrating its 31st anniversary this year - this time, to ride the storm created by advanced developments in the smartphone, following the convergence of cameras into these devices.

He no longer makes the key business decisions now, having handed over the day-to-day operations to his two children, Alvan, 28, and Audrey, 22 - believing that the younger generation can better connect with future buyers.

 

A FIGHTING CHANCE

The proliferation of smartphones with better cameras will translate to greater interest in photography... As long as there is interest in photography, we have a fighting chance.

MR ALAN TAN, on the future of his camera retail business.

  • Alan Photo's bestsellers


  • PHOTO: ISTOCK

    NIKON FM2

    This was one of the most popular single-lens reflex cameras used by professionals and enthusiasts in the days when Alan Photo sold film cameras.


  • PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

    CASIO QV-10

    The Casio QV-10 was the first consumer digital camera with a liquid crystal display for previewing and playing back images.

    It helped Alan Photo bet on an all-digital strategy when film cameras were losing their appeal to digital ones. In the early 2000s, it stopped selling film cameras and rode the digital camera wave.


  • PHOTO: SONY

    SONY ALPHA 7R II

    Sony's mirrorless camera sports a full-frame image sensor in a compact portable body. This snapper sheds its bulk without compromising the standard of professional photography.

His children have gamely come up with the innovative idea of an "experience store" that is brand agnostic, to allow potential customers to try and compare across all brands of cameras in the shop.

Built-in cameras in smartphones have come a long way from the 0.3-megapixel snapper in the Nokia 7650 phone, the first camera phone released back in 2002.

Today, most smartphones boast of a 12-megapixel photo lens, and some can even replicate the depth-of-field effect known exclusively to high-end cameras for decades.

These developments mean there are few reasons for consumers to buy a stand-alone camera.

The trend is reflected in camera sales figures in Singapore: the number of cameras sold here yearly peaked at 600,000 units in 2012, and has been sliding since, according to British-based market research firm Euromonitor International. Last year, retailers here sold only 257,000 units. Euromonitor attributed the decline to the rise of smartphones with better quality cameras.

Mr Tan, for one, is facing an uphill task reversing the 20 per cent to 30 per cent decline his camera retail business has suffered in the last three years.

But he sees a silver lining in the storm clouds. "The proliferation of smartphones with better cameras will translate to greater interest in photography," said Mr Tan.

"As long as there is interest in photography, we have a fighting chance."

For instance, a casual smartphone photographer may grow to appreciate the better quality pictures - especially under low light or when the subjects move too fast - that can be taken with professional digital cameras. Plus, their prices have come down to $500 for an entry-level mirrorless camera. A camera with similar functions cost about $1,500 five years ago.

"We must show the growing number of people who are taking photographs how to take better shots," said Mr Tan.

This is why in December last year, the company started a new "experience store", which it dubbed REC by Alan Photo in CT Hub 2, an industrial building in Lavender Street.

The idea is to allow photo enthusiasts to try out cameras sold in his shop. The 3,000 sq ft store comes fully equipped with a studio, accompanying lights and photography consultants, who will guide customers along as they try out the cameras.

"It does not matter if the customer walks away without buying anything. We would have planted the seed (of interest) anyway," said Mr Tan.

The studio is also available for rent but customers need to bring their own photographers.

His Sim Lim Square shop has been around since 1986, while the Marina Bay Sands and Raffles City shops just opened last month.

The idea of the "experience store" came from his children and nephew Bin Ming, 26, who is also helping to run the business.

Early last year, Mr Tan and his children travelled to Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia to check on how camera retailers were coping in these countries. They could not find any camera retailer with a similar "experience store" concept.

Even in Singapore, these concept stores are run by camera makers themselves, and they do not allow consumers to compare features across brands - which Mr Tan said is his value proposition.

He said he does not favour one camera brand over another and is reluctant to drop unprofitable products - unlike camera shops owned by photographers.

This has worked in his favour in the past when the time came to stop selling film cameras in the early 2000s.

Alan Photo was also quick to ride the digital camera boom years, selling low-end digital compact cameras when many shops focused on peddling high-end cameras.

However, the rise of smartphones with better cameras killed the market in compact cameras, which stopped production in 2012.

In what was a double whammy for Alan Photo, Funan DigitaLife Mall, the home of his flagship store of 12 years, closed for redevelopment last June. He went back to the drawing board and, after consulting his children, came up with REC by Alan Photo.

There are plans to replicate REC by Alan Photo in Funan when the mall is ready to reopen in the fourth quarter of 2019.

"We need to try the concept first in an area where the rent is not so high," said Mr Tan.

CT Hub 2 may not draw as much human traffic as Funan, but he hopes that it will be more convenient to get there by year-end when the nearby Bendemeer MRT station opens.

"The future of Alan Photo is now in the hands of the next generation," Mr Tan said. He hopes that the younger members of his family can better connect with the next generation of camera buyers.

Even so, some of his customers of many years said they will continue to support him.

Photographer Raymond Phang said he will take his children to the shop just like how his father had taken him to buy his first camera at Alan Photo in Sim Lim Square when he was 15 years old.

Mr Phang, now 35, added: "Just like how I keep going back to the same nice uncle who sold me my first camera, I will support him as much as I can."

• Do you know of a local company that has faced tech disruption and is doing something about it? Let us know at stnewsdesk@sph.com.sg with the e-mail subject title: Tech disruptor series.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2017, with the headline 'Alan Photo focuses on key to survival'. Print Edition | Subscribe