The Father–Son Team of Saed and Eldar Tariverdi Grew a Humble Store into a Leading Online Powerhouse
We can’t be considered DIR’s E-tailer of the Year. We have so much more to accomplish before we’re where we want to be.” Eldar Tariverdi’s humble response explains District Camera and Imaging’s successful growth.
In the last five years, their employee roster has tripled and their stores are physically bursting at the seams. Low key and focused on long-term gains, Saed and Eldar Tariverdi, a father and son team, will never be “where we want to be” as their horizons continue to grow and expand.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead . . . What’s in a Name?
The company opened in 1978 as Photo Craft in Washington, DC. When they went online during the Internet’s early years that name was already taken, so they added an “e.” Back then it seemed like a good idea to use http://www.ePhotoCraft.com. For the next decade, their URL didn’t match their company name. It was cumbersome to say the least.
Photo Craft bought Embassy Camera in 2005, thereafter operating two stores with two different names. By 2014, the confusion was too much. Eldar felt they had to dump the old names, despite their history and goodwill. ” agreed and their company name—and URL—changed to District Camera. It was one of many indicators they were very serious about being a leading online presence. Eldar now believes he should have changed names earlier.
Saed is philosophical about the aging of many photo retailers. “You come to a crossroads where you must either invest or withdraw. If you don’t continue to invest and update, you reach an end point where you liquidate and shut down.” He sees potential ahead and is happy to reinvest in expanding their business.
Manufacturers Are Retailers’ Partners
Eldar isn’t a whiner or complainer. He’s a realist. He isn’t overjoyed his “partners” sell against him online, but he never mentions it.
Instead he confides: “When the customer is at the counter, the manufacturer and District Camera are partnering to assist that customer in getting the best pictures possible. Manufacturers and retailers have common goals. They’re natural partners where the customer is involved. Nothing else matters except working together to exceed customer expectations so they’ll return to buy more.
“Every product we sell today is very good. Bad cameras aren’t being sold anymore. All cameras take great pictures. We can sell every brand with confidence.”
Eldar projects that those who complain about the status quo won’t change it by complaining. “In reality, manufacturers can best work with stocking dealers. Should manufacturers deliver more product faster to their supportive retailers? Yes, they should.
Meanwhile, we have to step up and stock as much as we can. Retailers have to be cost effective to do business with and provide significant volume for their respective online marketplaces.”
Eldar has no easy answer to how a retailer can be more significant to a manufacturer, other than sales volume. Moreover, he’s appreciative of manufacturers’ efforts to drive traffic to his stores and website.
“Canon and Nikon are ask-for brands we heavily support with inventory, promotion and training,” he notes. “In return, they help us drive traffic. Treating your vendors with respect and courtesy can partially make up for lower volumes, but in the end, it’s still a volume game.” District Camera also has had solid growth with Sony. Likewise, Sony’s focus on brick-and-mortar stores has had enormous impact on Sony’s success.
District Camera isn’t afraid to inventory merchandise. “We’re a PRO member and do very well with ProMaster accessories. We should have joined PRO earlier than we did, but I’m glad we didn’t wait any longer. Selling hardware helps sell accessories. We look at the entire transaction and the long-term customer relationship when we evaluate the profitability of the vendor relationship. Without the higher margin accessory sales, we wouldn’t be able to afford to sell hardware.”
Eldar believes in looking at the entire in-store and online ecosystem of sales and repeat relationships when making inventory and promotional decisions. Inventory is always a delicate balance. District Camera invested in their software so they could determine which store should ship which online order. They don’t move goods from store to store. They immediately ship from whichever store has the best inventory position.
Saed adds, “I have faith the vendors realize there must be a level playing field for the survival of the retailers who’ll grow camera sales. Individual entrepreneurial owners want to succeed and will be motivated when they see there’s a more level chance of success. When individual retailers succeed, the industry will grow long term.”
Catching Up with E-commerce Technology
When they started getting serious about e-commerce, the Tariverdis had to play catch up. Companies like B&H, Adorama and Amazon had a head start, having built the technical infrastructure that resulted in satisfied users.
District Camera wanted to play in the same league. They hired a team of three offshore engineers who wrote custom routines within a purchased ERP software. Today, when a consumer orders from DistrictCamera.com, they feel like they’re ordering from a major e-commerce player. They get an instant order confirmation and a notice when the order ships that includes a hot link for up-to-date carrier tracking. A week later, they receive a follow-up e-mail asking how else the store can help.
Eldar explains, “This was a significant investment starting out, but it was critical to seem like a big company and build confidence in customers a thousand miles away.”
Eldar is constantly looking to improve their online platform. He heard his first “too many e-mails” complaint from a new District Camera customer who’s a veteran Amazon Prime shopper. She felt she should be able to look up her order status on District Camera’s website rather than have her inbox “cluttered with notification e-mails.” Eldar takes all customer comments to heart. He’s now investigating a preference box so the customer can indicate how they want to interact with District Photo.
“I’m often asked by other retailers if they should get serious about e-commerce,” Eldar notes. “Sure! E-commerce entry barriers are different but just as complex as barriers to building a new brick-and-mortar location. They’re just different. You wouldn’t open a store with only three walls, so don’t start your e-commerce site until you’re sure it’s credible and functions flawlessly. For camera stores, the days of creeping into e-commerce are over. Consumers demand quality interactions.”
Operating in Multiple Marketplaces
“We’re in multiple marketplaces and are constantly approached by new marketplaces,” says Eldar. “Their pitch is it doesn’t cost anything until they sell something. Then we pay a commission. That’s not totally accurate. You have to look at the costs to integrate your system with that marketplace’s system. The testing and security issues, along with management’s time, are a real cost. We don’t jump on every offer, only those we think will pay off for us.”
Facebook’s ability to target as well as control the budget has made a dynamite medium for District Camera, which has had great success with Facebook ads.
Conventional wisdom says local advertising for a brick-and-mortar store isn’t promoting e-commerce. Not so, according to Eldar. Their Washington, DC, area radio, direct mail, e-blasts, etc., have generated web orders. “We didn’t have a box to click for in-store pickup, but customers indicated they wanted to pick up their purchase personally. We’re adding a ‘pickup in-store’ button to resolve that issue.”
The Online Bundle
District Camera offers bundles with their online camera purchases. Unlike most online camera sellers, the products in the store’s bundle aren’t the cheapest. Eldar believes selling inexpensive “junk” to make it look like “a deal” is very shortsighted. Other retailers give 17 pieces of junk. When the customer opens the package, five of them won’t even fit their camera. That’s not a smart way to deal with the customer.
“We want to give them three quality pieces they would come into the store and buy,” Eldar explains. “We may take advantage of a manufacturer’s closeouts, but only if they’re high quality. Our regular bundle products are from ProMaster. For better cameras, we put in ProMaster Velocity memory cards rather than the cheapest memory card. We respect our customers’ intelligence, and we’re proud of the value our bundles represent to the customer. We want repeat business. No junk is allowed.”
Moreover, in addition to new product, District Camera does a healthy business in used equipment. They buy used cameras online and sell used gear on the Internet and in-store. The online buying site has simple, easy instructions for selling gear. This shows a bit of District Camera’s unique humanistic personality. Their online database feeds directly from their POS system onto their website. With their various marketplace offerings, it makes them a significant player in buying and selling used equipment.
E-tailer Security Issues: Physical & Cyber
Before 2016 Saed and Eldar had very few burglary threats or attempts. Then on Christmas Day, an old-fashioned smash-and-grab happened. Reviewing the videotapes showed the motion detector in the front of the store was inoperative. The thief even returned for a second load!
This jolted District Camera into action. Today each motion detector is checked at closing time. It’s a simple process and a lesson well learned from an unfortunate event.
Alerted to the national series of camera store break-ins through the PRO group’s online forum, the District Camera team became much more proactive in monitoring their security. They noticed some “customers” were too curious about their security cameras and motion detectors. Eldar reviewed the videotapes of those store visits, including the attention paid to the front door construction and exterior walls. Thinking trouble might be coming, he alerted the local police. District Camera’s proactive attitude protected them while a less vigilant camera store was hit an hour south of them.
Conversely, regarding cyber security issues, there is no question an e-tailer will have fraud. It’s only a question of how often and how much. Eldar’s team is well versed in sniffing out fraud. District Camera subscribes to various services that help them confirm addresses, phone numbers, identities and other anchor points to ensure an order is legitimate. If salespeople have a question, they call the customer. If the customer’s unreachable, a team member e-mails saying there’s a question about the order and please call.
Eldar doesn’t stop there when it comes to District Photo’s online security concerns. Brett S. Johnson, a former U.S. Most Wanted referred to by the Secret Service as the “Original Internet Godfather,” was hired by the PRO group as a speaker at their September 2017 Orlando convention. Having served his sentence, Johnson now helps credit card merchants avoid people like him. According to PRO’s policy, all speakers have to interview PRO members and give their draft presentation outlines to PRO before the convention. Eldar was one of the people to coach the infamous Brett “Gollumfun” Johnson.
“Brett was very helpful in confirming and also updating some of our processes. Cybercrime is morphing, and we need to keep updating our processes and protocols to stay in front of the bad guys. Brett told me about a database site (emailage.com) that shows how old an e-mail address is. I checked their website immediately. We have to have every available tool to minimize fraud.”
Johnson mentioned “friendly fraud” where customers try to scam the retailer through the return process. He suggested whenever someone claims credit card fraud or that a package didn’t arrive, they should be asked for a copy of the police report and the badge number of the officer who took the report.
At the PRO convention, Eldar plans to sit down with Brett Johnson to fine-tune District Camera’s security concerns. “It’s a real benefit to be able to meet with a resource like Brett and pick his brain. He’s willing to do that, and I’m willing to take him up on it.” One area they’ll discuss is grading the likelihood of fraud by the credit card’s issuing bank.
The Reroute Con
In another area of cyber fraud, UPS My Choice presents a potential problem when it allows customers to reroute packages. Many credit card companies won’t honor rerouted shipments, but the shipper doesn’t know it was rerouted until too late. Johnson is also helping Eldar to research ways to avoid these costly reroutings.
“Some marketplaces are more challenging than others, because they favor the consumer and give fraud and dishonesty a pass at the retailer’s expense. So for now, we’ve altered our strategy—depending on our experiences with their handling of abuse and fraud.”
Eldar continues: “You have problems on all fronts, but it’s less with Amazon. Amazon’s mediation process is fairer than those of other marketplaces. A customer who bought a $3,500 lens from us on Amazon clearly was committing fraud. He knew how the system worked and that the Post Office proof of delivery only shows the zip code where it was delivered—no street address. Amazon and eBay only see zip codes. This particular thief knew how to game the system. He shipped a box to our zip code, but it wasn’t delivered to us. In my gut, I knew that.
“I went to the Post Office and discovered they take a picture of every label that goes through there. We were able to pull out the exact label. It was addressed to a Walmart in our zip code. We went to Amazon with that information and won the mediation.”
You can’t eliminate all online fraud, but District Camera has learned how to minimize it by using various software to establish where the order came from, IP addresses, etc. They incorporate Whitepages data to match the phone number and address, and then do some basic investigative work. They call the phone numbers, research on Google and figure out if the person actually lives in that area.
When they ask why the person is buying from their store, it can give marketing information while sniffing out a person who may have placed 50 fraudulent orders worldwide that day.
“We have real people who know photography taking orders on the phone,” Eldar says. “We can ask what kind of pictures customers are going to take and what other equipment they own. An experienced order-desk person can sniff out customers who don’t know photography. If someone is buying a D3X or 5D Mark III but doesn’t know anything about photography, you’re pretty sure it’s a fraudster.”
Since a lot of crooks have basic location information on hand, District Camera salespeople ask potential customers what county they are in. Crooks can’t answer that one from a stolen identity. It catches them off guard. Eldar says it’s his best “stumper question.”
Customer Service: In-Store & Online
Saed believes customer service sets District Camera apart from the competition.
Eldar ponders that a moment and adds: “It’s really our people who make us special. It’s our team that delivers the outstanding customer service that sets us apart from the other faceless online organizations out there. Our surprising number of referral customers from across the country often volunteer that a friend told them to buy from us. That’s because our team cares for our customers.”
District Camera is proud of their great reviews on Facebook and Google, along with good comments from online forums. Smaller, less heavily posted groups—like Fujifilm or Sony forums—give them a chance to stick out.
“We read every one of them and respond when appropriate,” says Eldar. “When we askfirst-time shoppers why they chose District Camera, we frequently hear that our reviews tipped the customer in our favor.
“We try our best to make our customers happy, with service as well as price. We guarantee our low prices, and we also make sure our sales staff treats customers well and respectfully, giving them the best service.”
District Camera will match almost any price. In-store or online, they ask if customers know their price is competitive. They believe everyone shops for price. The salesperson needs to know what customers are thinking. Some like to haggle. Many don’t. By asking them the price question, consumers have an opportunity to disclose they found a better price. Being upfront about the price helps customers understand District is on their side, making them receptive to suggested accessories.
“We have team meetings often. Throughout the workweek, I scribble notes on what I feel is going well and what’s not. We discuss those at the meetings and make sure the whole team is aware,” Eldar said.
“The telephone is an extremely important part of our business. It’s the first point of contact for most customers. We discuss that a lot at our meetings. I use the example of a customer calling two or three local or out-of-state stores to ask if item ‘A’ is in stock. The answer is yes or no. The ‘What’s the price?’ answer is usually a number. That’s the incorrect way of doing it.
“Instead, start a conversation. We want to get to that second or third level, so when we bring up our low-price guarantee or say, ‘Yes, our price is $596.95, but this is what we’re including . . . ,’ customers often respond, ‘I didn’t know that. Tell me about the memory card and the filter.’ When we can get that conversation started, we’re ahead of the competition.”
Some products aren’t an easy sell in an online environment. A ProMaster HGX filter is a bigger investment than the average filter. However, customers find it worth the price when they hear the benefits. This is much easier to do on the phone or face to face.
Saed sees the future as “similar to the last few years, I hope. If we keep growing as we have and keep working hard there is good potential.”
Eldar concurs. “We’ve grown because of our team. We couldn’t have done it without them. We feel the impact of our growth in volume as well as increased inventory, along with more staff and customers crammed into the same physical space. Merchandise is stacked 15 feet up the walls, and we’re out of wall space. Resolving our storage and efficient operational space are top of our agenda.”
Eldar has a wide ranging to-do list. “At the PRO show I listen to the successful retailers who are renting camera gear. We need to boost our camera and lens rental program, including the online reservation systems leading retailers have.”
District Camera has been approached by photographers who love the store. They have their own following on their blogs and classes and would like to have an affiliate program from which they could get a small referral fee. That idea is also under consideration.
Sony’s consumer program, “12 months Same As Cash,” has been very successful at retail. During the PRO convention, Eldar hopes to meet with the same finance company Sony uses to see how to expand that concept to District Camera’s entire web product line. If that type of financing appeals to consumers in-store, why wouldn’t it appeal to consumers ordering from home?
Saed says the company’s roots are in photofinishing. Eldar believes they can double down on services while still growing e-commerce and traditional in-store product sales. With a superb lab team and good equipment in place, Eldar is exploring how IPI’s MSP program can grow sales. He’s never been to an IPI – Member Network conference and is trying to schedule it.
Dynamic Duo to Watch
Space constraints are causing District Camera to be less efficient than it must be to keep the rapid order shipments flowing. But growth is a good problem to have—certainly better than the alternative.
With the passion, dedication and power of working together, the Saed–Eldar Tariverdi father and son team will drive District Camera further. This dynamic duo is a powerhouse to watch and learn from. They are leading the future of our industry in e-commerce.