March 17, 2005

Photo - To modify or not to Modify

HELP YOURSELF - Marjie Whittemore, left, working on her digital photographs at one station while Laura Richards, center, and her mother, Lisa, attempt to produce prints at a camera store in Concord, N.H. Self-service photo centers are also emerging inside convenience stores. 17kiosksmall.jpg

Meet You at the Photo Kiosk

Published: March 17, 2005

AMMY JACKSON of the Bronx likes to print her digital photos at the Costco Wholesale store in Brooklyn, where, on a recent Saturday, the lines in front of two Noritsu desktop kiosks moved quickly. That is largely because Costco does not allow editing of 4-by-6-inch prints, priced at 19 cents each, reserving the privilege for more expensive enlargements.

That does not bother Ms. Jackson. "I'm a plain Jane," she said. "I don't do a whole lot of fancy stuff." She said she preferred the interface on the kiosk at Costco to one she had tried at a drugstore, which asked her to make more choices. "It's faster," she said.

But not every kiosk user takes Ms. Jackson's approach. At Concord Camera in Concord, N.H., customers are invited to perch on stools and sip coffee while customizing images from their digital cameras on one of the store's five Agfa Image Box desktop kiosks, each placed on its own cafe-style table. Coloring books are provided for children.

"Customers bring friends and show them how much fun it is to make prints," said Michael St. Germain, owner of the 2,600-square-foot independent store, where customers pay 39 to 49 cents for a standard-size print, depending on the quantity ordered. That is more expensive than at chain stores in his area and around the nation, where the price for a 4-by-6 print is typically 29 cents.

Yet business is flourishing at Concord Camera because, the owner says, he allows his customers, mostly women, to work on images at their leisure. He plans to add more kiosks to reduce wait times.

Mr. St. Germain invested in his first digital-printing machine seven years ago, fearing what he called the erosion of film as digital-camera sales took off. His hunch proved correct: last year, as film sales nationwide continued a four-year decline, according to Photo Marketing Association International, his store produced 200,000 digital prints on only four kiosks, and he expects the figure to be more than double that this year.

"Digital printing is a high-margin product," far more profitable than selling cameras, he said. Far bigger companies, too, believe that kiosks could turn film's demise into an advantage.

And change is afoot in the kiosk industry, as manufacturers and retailers aim to please both the customer in a rush and the one who likes to play.

"A real issue now is lines," said Bing Liem, president of Agfa Photo, noting that a growing number of retailers have multiple kiosks. Some Costco stores have six. Kiosks are also appearing in convenience stores, in maternity wards and on cruise ships.

Eastman Kodak, which now has 15,000 Picture Maker digital printing kiosks in the United States, expects to ship 5,000 to 10,000 more this year. Those figures do not include Kodak's older print-to-print Picture Maker machines, which the company says it has ceased distributing. Some of its new machines will include scanners, but the trend at Kodak and other kiosk makers is in a different direction: equipping the units to accept images from camera phones, now that some, like the 1.3-megapixel Sony Ericsson S700i, take pictures good enough to print.

"While all forms of digital printing are growing, none is growing faster than kiosks," said Alex Hodges, Kodak's director of kiosks for the United States and Canada. According to Kodak, kiosk printing increased by 356 percent last year.

A few years ago, nearly all digital printing was done at home. Now, even with the proliferation of home printers designed specifically for photos, many camera owners are content to go out. Last year, Kodak said, 1.9 billion digital images were printed by all methods, with 57 percent done at home, 33 percent at retail locations and 10 percent through online services. The company predicts that by 2007 the number of printed images will rise to 10.7 billion a year and that the share printed at kiosks will grow to 37 percent.

Market researchers say a single consumer is likely to print at multiple locations, turning out one or two snapshots on a home printer but bringing large jobs to a store.

Economics is one factor. "Consumers are saying home printing is O.K., but once they've used up their first batch of paper and ink, they get sticker shock," said George Briggs, the president of Pixel Magic Imaging, which supplies kiosks to Eckerd Drugs and Carnival Cruise Lines.

Francie Mendelsohn, president of Summit Marketing, which follows the kiosk industry, estimates a print made at home with high-quality ink and paper might cost $1. And, she adds, "it takes time."

But kiosk printing can take time, too. In the coming months, consumers could see changes at kiosks, including wider availability of automatic red-eye reduction, eliminating the need to locate problem eye areas individually on a touch screen. Moreover, print speeds will increase for some instant-print kiosks that produce prints through dye-sublimation or other fast-acting processes. (Kiosks networked to a store lab using silver-halide chemicals will most likely remain one-hour photo services, with actual print delivery time dependent on work flow.)

Generally, "if you get your prints instantly, they cost more, and if you wait an hour they cost less," said Gael Lundeen, Fujifilm's vice president for photofinishing and Web service. But at Drug Fair, a chain of drugstores in New Jersey, a quick 4-by-6 print on a Sony PictureStation costs 29 cents, the typical rate for one-hour prints in the area.

Kodak plans a May release of its 5.0 version of Perfect Touch technology, which will let kiosk users select images for automatic detection and correction of red-eye. Fujifilm says it will add automatic red-eye reduction to kiosks this summer, and it is developing an instant-print kiosk with an adjustable screen.

Dominating the kiosk market with tens of thousands of units each, Kodak and Fujifilm have squeezed out some competitors. But others have entered the arena, including makers of kiosk interfaces and software that market their products under retailers' labels. Among them is Pixology, an English company whose software powers kiosks at Costco and the drugstore chain Duane Reade. Pixology allows automatic red-eye reduction, and has done so for some time, said a spokeswoman for the company, Leanne Tritton.

Yet even as image correction and print speeds are streamlined, many kiosks will continue to slow the process with options for such things as borders, sepia tones and captions. Such embellishments seem aimed at women, who, manufacturers say, print the most digital images.

"Mom is the one who wants to print her memories of Junior's birthday party," said Dave Johnson, a senior marketing manager for Sony Electronics, which makes the stand-alone PictureStation. About 60 percent of kiosk users are women, according to a 2004 survey by InfoTrends/CAP Ventures.

But fresh from judging new kiosk models at the Photo Marketing Association trade show last month, Mrs. Mendelsohn of Summit Research thinks simple works best.

"Borders are fine, but it's like people shopping for shoes," she said. "If you insist on letting people add text, then charge for it, because it adds time. Don't let me add red or blue, because I'll mess it up. I think it's foolish to let people fool around."

The more choices and control for the customer, the longer the process. "The consumer experience for the person doing the editing is fine," Mr. Hodges of Kodak said, but "the experience for the person waiting in line is something we have to work on with retailers."

Indeed, much is left to retailers, whose concerns with security, credit card authorization and point-of-sale systems sometimes seem to defeat advances in kiosk technology. Though called self-service, the units often involve interaction between a customer and a store employee who must punch in a password.

At times, kiosks seem no more automatic than the old Horn & Hardart Automat restaurants in New York and Philadelphia, where store employees could be seen restocking the pie slices dispensed at coin-operated windows.

For kiosks networked to one-hour photo labs, the customer may have to copy a kiosk order number onto the same kind of envelope used for film orders. And though most stand-alone units can be configured to accept credit cards, customers must often get in a line to pay at a register, following a wait in the kiosk line.

Consumers may even discover that a kiosk does not accept their media-storage format. Newer models have slots for various kinds of memory cards, as well as CD and floppy-disk drives. They are also likely to accept input from camera phones through Bluetooth and infrared technology. But they may lack U.S.B. connections for flash drives, in part because some manufacturers say they are more apt to carry viruses. "We have to work on solving that," Ms. Lundeen of Fujifilm said.

The well-prepared customer comes to the kiosk with images that have been edited and transferred to a CD at home, Mrs. Mendelsohn said.

Sometimes there are other hurdles. Sony recently introduced a high-speed version of its stand-alone PictureStation that produces 4-by-6 prints in eight seconds, a third of the time of its predecessor. But print speed was not the problem for a recent customer to a branch of FedEx Kinko's, Sony's major retail client - it was having to flag down an employee to enter a password before each print was made.

Jay Dellostretto, Sony's vice president for digital photofinishing, says his company turns on password protection at the store's request. "It offers the retailer an opportunity to make sure the customer is comfortable, or to suggest backing everything up on a CD-ROM." It also, of course, deters customers from scooping up their prints and leaving the store without paying.

Fujifilm can attach a credit card acceptor to its coming Get the Picture stand-alone kiosk, which will have an adjustable tilting screen. But "the overwhelming majority of retailers would prefer to have people pay at the counter," Ms. Lundeen of Fujifilm said, because the kiosk may not be linked to the store's point-of-sale system.

Olympus Imaging Systems offers retailers a prepaid card for its TrueTouch kiosks to eliminate passwords. But working out payment systems can be complicated, said Joe Leo, Olympus's director of new business development, because in some cases the kiosk is owned not by the store but by the manufacturer.

"There's been some inertia in how photofinishing is presented to the consumer," Mr. Leo said. But he believes retailers, and kiosk users, are figuring things out.

Posted by Craig at March 17, 2005 02:20 PM