How B&H Photo Competes in the Amazon Era
It takes about two minutes of talking to Sammy Castro and Steven Diaz outside the mammoth B&H Photo Video store in Manhattan to figure out that they’re the kind of fans that any retailer would kill for.
But here’s the thing about B&H: The world is crawling with B&H fans of the kind that any retailer would kill for. The multi-story, block long brick-and-mortar store is in fact a beachhead for an even bigger e-commerce operation with nearly $116 million in sales in 2014, according to the latest Internet Retailer 500 report.
In short, B&H is doing something right.
More importantly, there are lessons to be learned in an era dominated by Amazon and at a time when retailers of all sizes are trying to figure out how to build irresistible experiences across digital devices and their physical stores.
Talking to Castro, 26, and Diaz, 25, the B&H playbook emerges. The two are photo hobbyists, currently focused on the urban landscape. “This city is reconstructing itself at a crazy speed,” Diaz says, “so I’m just snapping some photos.”
They also work on video projects for their church in Queens, with Castro being especially involved in equipping the studio they use there.
Sure they shop online, but they prefer B&H’s website to Amazon. And yes, they’ll go to Best Buy in search of bargains, but they sometimes find the inventory lacking and they feel pretty much on their own.
“It’s amazing,” Diaz, who has a Canon Rebel slung around his neck, says sweeping his hand toward the store.
“It’s humongous, compared to Best Buy, which has a variety of stuff. But this dwarfs it. I’m just blown away by how much stuff it has. Studio stuff. Professional equipment. And then they have regular, standard stuff. Basic stuff.”
B&H also offers an inspiring and instructional story.
There it stands, a 43-year-old, one-store retailer that is closed on Friday afternoon and Saturday and does not take online orders on the Sabbath to honor its owners’ Hasidic Jewish beliefs. And yet, it is thriving in its brick-and-mortar business and growing rapidly online.
It’s Not Customers; It’s Community
Selection is certainly a key, both online and in its physical store, which stretches along Ninth Avenue from 33rd to 34th street.
But the real secret to B&H’s success is the strong community it’s built through rich content, a consultative sales style and rapid and frank responses to complaints and negative social media.
“B&H doesn’t only sell equipment,” says Castro, who usually buys online from B&H. “They also have classes. They have a professor, or somebody who knows how to do photo shoots. With the camera, you come and they teach you how to use it.”
Step into the store and you’ll immediately see what Castro means. Nearly every customer is greeted on the way in. Green-vested sales associates — who work on salary, not commission — huddle with shoppers, asking questions, nudging them toward a sensible solution or an appropriate product.
For years, reviewers have remarked on the way B&H associates sometimes direct customers to less expensive and possibly even better products for their needs — and how they’ve offered photo advice.
“There are no scripts, no menus of bought-this-so-sell-that, and when the honest answer to a customer is, ‘Don’t buy anything else, because you have everything you need,’ our sales managers applaud that sales associate,” Henry Posner, B&H’s director of corporate communication says by e-mail.
B&H has built a devout following. It’s one of those rare stores or brands (think Apple, Levi’s, Mini Cooper) that customers feel a part of.
They gather in Manhattan, but more so on social media and on B&H’s website, which is packed with reviews, buyer guides and blog posts.
The effort, of course, is reflected in the company’s online growth. As a private company, B&H isn’t required to publicly report its revenue, but a 2012 story by
The Business Journals reported that online sales were about 70 percent of total sales. That proportion may well have changed, but if it held in 2014, the company’s total revenue that year would have totaled about $166 million.
Content Sells Cameras
B&H’s rich repository of customer reviews is guided by a template asking for pros and cons, experience level of the reviewer and the best uses (or type of photography) for the product.
The blog posts are substantive and diverse — everything from balanced vs. unbalanced photos to the equipment every wedding photographer needs.
And there are podcasts and videos on topics from fashion photography to an exploration of how the family that founded Leica protected Jews and others from the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s.
Over 650,000 people have subscribed to B&H’s YouTube channel and many thousands more have viewed the reviews, photo tips and interviews hosted there.
The retailer’s Facebook page has received more than 880,000 likes. Its main Twitter account has nearly 500,000 followers. It’s on Pinterest and Tumblr — and, of course, Flickr and Instagram.
But B&H’s secret appears to be in the quality of the conversation, not the quantity — and its secret weapon in that regard is Posner, who’s also the retailer’s online reputation manager and a guy who’s become something of a cult hero to the B&H nation.
Posner is ever-vigilant, monitoring what is said about B&H, investigating negative claims and customer complaints and then quickly investigating and responding, whether by apologizing, correcting or commiserating.
When an online customer from Beverly Hills, California, complained on Yelp that he felt “duped” by being required to pay return shipping for a projector screen that he found to be too large for his needs, Posner jumped in.
He regretted the customer’s dissatisfaction. Then he pointed out that the product’s dimensions were listed on the site — and that the store never promised free return shipping, unless the return was due to B&H’s mistake.
Answer Critics Quickly and Clearly
Customers also turned to social media to express support for the camera retailer. Katrin Eisman visited the B&H warehouse named in the suit and posted on Facebook about what she saw. Other bloggers picked it up.
More often, of course, the social media posts revolve around products, service and B&H as an institution.
“This is a customer's accolade of Henry Posner himself — the B&H guy tasked with dealing with all the nonsense social media commentary that is directed towards B&H,” a man who identified himself as a repeat customer from Tallahassee posted on Yelp.
“Henry Posner — since I'm confident you're going to read this — please know that this B&H enthusiast is a big fan of yours and recommends any outfit wanting to upgrade their own social media management staff to watch and learn from you.”
Social media is certainly a part of B&H’s success. But creating a culture of helpfulness and responsiveness that translates from in-store to online is where it all starts.
And as the man from Tallahassee said, there is plenty for other retailers to see in those efforts and plenty to learn.
How B&H Built a Multichannel Success In The Age of Amazon
Create meaningful content — both in-store and online — that connects directly with your customers.
Train your customer service team and salespeople to help customers make decisions based on product functionality rather than cost.
Be authentic. Stay true to your branding, your values and your story.
Engage and encourage customer participation and interaction, both on-site and in various physical and digital communities.
Be honest with yourself and your customer. The customer is not always right; but the customer is always to be respected.
Winning Digital Commerce with Digital Experience