Say Cheese

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Sep 24, 2009
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Commentary by Joel Warady, Principal, Joel Warady Group

In today’s connected world, where most companies are asking their marketing departments to figure out how to better utilize social media to spread their brand, isn’t it interesting when companies do things that can be seen as self-destructive?

I’m talking about the use of cameras in stores.

It is still common practice that many retailers do not allow photography in their stores. Most recently, although this has happened to me multiple times, I took my iPhone out and took a photo in a Whole Foods store. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that within 90 seconds, two–not one but two–Whole Foods employees swarmed down on me like members of an elite anti-terrorist force, asking if I had just taken a photo in their store. In my mind (here is where the exaggeration does come in), here is how the conversation went:

Whole Foods Employee: Excuse me sir, did you just take a picture of that display?

Angelic Joel: Yes, why?

WFE: We do not allow photos to be taken within the store walls. I’m sorry, I have to confiscate the film.

AJ: What do you mean the film? Who uses film? The photo is digital.

WFE: Then we will need to watch you delete the photo.

AJ: I don’t think so. Anyway, this is an iPhone, and you don’t know whether or not I have already emailed the photo to all of my contacts. So what does it matter if you make me delete the image now?

WFE: Hold on a second…I’m receiving a message from Whole Foods Central in my earpiece. They are saying you may keep the iPhone, but do not take any more photos while in the store, or we will have to ask you to leave. Thank you sir.

AJ: Can I use the phone to make a call?

WFE: We’d prefer that you didn’t. We are trying to limit corporate espionage.

Seriously, there was only a little exaggeration in this conversation.

Whole Foods is all over Twitter. They are all over Facebook. They want to have their brand spread utilizing social networking. What possible secrets can be lurking in a display of chocolate bars?

Lighten up Whole Foods. You are making yourselves look ridiculous! You should want your customers sharing information about your stores, to whomever they choose. It’s 2009.

Say, "Overpriced imported cheeeese…"

Discussion Questions: Should retailers be eliminating rules against taking pictures in stores? Has the immersion of social media and camera-imbedded devices across society made this restriction something that could actually hurt the relationship between retailers and consumers?

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20 Comments on "Say Cheese"


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Bob Phibbs
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

You have got to be kidding me! Is this the best use of scarce labor dollars? It is so against the image of Whole Foods I still can’t wrap my mind around it.

My guess is this is from an insecure analytical store manager feeling someone was going to get them in trouble. That interaction is a clear sign of a corporate culture in crisis.

Kenneth Smith
Guest
Kenneth Smith
11 years 7 months ago

I operate a fine art photography gallery and I can tell you that taking photos of my work on display is a real problem. I have caught “teams” of people going through bins of work. One holds up the piece, the other photographs it. I have had clients inform me that they have seen my work for sale in venues that I know it would never be in, such as open air markets, etc.

In the cited case at WF, they are being protective of their in-store marketing. In my case, I am being protective of my intellectual property.

I have small take-a-way samples of people to use as reference for making a purchase decision if they want, but I do not allow any photography in my gallery–period.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
11 years 7 months ago
Stores are not galleries or theaters–although those obviously have some of the same problems. Bottom line is that every sighted person has two “cameras” (eyes) capturing everything in sight. The use of a real camera to capture that sight, to assist in memory and, potentially, communication with others is just a sophisticated way of taking notes. Will stores ban pencils and pads, too? Absurd! The policy derives from the not unreasonable fear that the only people interested in photographing in a store (without permission) are probably competitors. Before a high percentage of shoppers were actually carrying cameras into stores, this might have made some sense–but no longer, if it ever did. The reality is that it would be a dim competitor indeed who didn’t know how to take surreptitious photos of anything they wanted to (in your store or in your gallery.) Stores and galleries are “public” places that will increasingly lose control of what people do in them, as long as their behavior is not disruptive or offensive to other shoppers. But it’ll be… Read more »
Roger Saunders
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

We all are involved in walking into competitors’ stores, and capturing an idea or two. Is it “espionage”? I don’t think so.

However, when walking a competitors’ store, and you are greeted by that store manager who has been instructed and trained in the position to know that it is her/his role to “plan, organize, coordinate, and control” the box, merchandise, and personnel in that store, it’s worthwhile for you, the “interloper,” who should take the time to:

A. Introduce yourself;
B. Let her/him know that you were conducting a quick walk-through;
C. Admiring a particular display, and wanted to capture an image of it.

No need to be contentious on either party’s end. We’re all looking for ideas. Consuming a “roll of film” (digital, of course), is not the appropriate thing to do to capture your intelligence.

Be upfront, and you’ll generally get a positive response from the retailer.

Bill Robinson
Guest
Bill Robinson
11 years 7 months ago
The conversation about cameras in stores reminds me how valuable it would be for stores to take more pictures of their interiors. What a great way to communicate to headquarters and to your vendor!!! If your shelf space is filled with stockouts, snap a picture and attach it to a “Rescue Me” email to the headquarters allocation staff or to the vendor. If your POS lines are filled with impatient customers, drop an email to your district manager. If your visual display people want you to confirm compliance with in-store signs or displays, snap a picture to assure them. If your customer returns indicate a defective item, take a picture to illustrate the problem. If you backroom has no space…you get the picture. Photos have historic value too. If you’ve had a very successful promotion, it might be useful to file a couple of photos of the promotional layout on your hard drive, to remind yourself how the stores looked. As for people coming in the store, you want your customer to take snap shots… Read more »
Steven Johnson
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

This is not about control but empowerment! If retailers want consumer buy in, let the consumer tell the story! Spreading the word will both educate and elevate the in-store experience. A picture tells a story and Ready-to-Eat Grocerant style food anywhere needs to be seen to be appreciated. The story should to told, there is no reason to hide.

Ralph Jacobson
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

Competitive paranoia. We all know that many retailers don’t allow cameras, however, what are they really concerned about? Their displays are not “art” to be reproduced and sold, the sales floor is publicly-visible, and competitors are visiting the stores all the time and taking notes, so cameras add no additional threat. Going into the back rooms is something else, though. That is off limits. On the floor, everything is fair play.

Meredith Gregory
Guest
Meredith Gregory
11 years 7 months ago

Had a similar experience with DSW Shoes. I was getting married but my bridesmaids did not live in the same state. Took a picture of a shoe that I thought would work for the bridesmaid dresses and was promptly told I was not allowed to take photos. Same reaction–“You are kidding me!” Needless to say, we did not buy their shoes from DSW as a result.

This kind of policy seems down right archaic when everyone is so involved in social media. Retailers need to accept that times have changed and stop wasting labor dollars on policies like this.

Ben Ball
Guest
11 years 7 months ago
This question is tougher than it seems. Until a few years ago, the only possible reason someone would snap pictures in a grocery store was to record facts for competitive purposes–the (occasionally legitimate) ubiquitous “it’s for my college research project” excuse notwithstanding. Suddenly retailers are faced with a completely different paradigm of photo-sensitive consumers who are obsessed with communicating EVERYTHING immediately. Consumers who regularly update their Twitter network with what flavor of ice cream they are eating at the moment won’t hesitate to flash the wife a picture of the five different types of sliced mushrooms on the shelf to avoid going home with the wrong one. In the end, retailers will have to resign themselves to the fact that control over this aspect of their stores is gone. If the “spies” want in, they will get in. If you want to keep the playing field level, send out your own “spies.” Of course, the whole thing will end up as a syndicated data service within a few years anyway. Just look at what the… Read more »
Doug Stephens
Guest
Doug Stephens
11 years 7 months ago

The same thing happened to me in a store (can’t remember which store and don’t have a photo to remind me) in New York. It’s just a nonsensical hold-over from a different era.

Think about the number of photos of Apple stores that proliferated on the web as they opened. Consider the hype that was generated as a result–and all free.

Charles Magowan
Guest
Charles Magowan
11 years 7 months ago

Many good points here. I’ll add that the store’s reluctance to permit photography goes beyond frustrating competitive intelligence. It also reflects a concern for the privacy of the shopper. If my Crazy Cat Lady customer wants to cruise my aisles in her curlers and slippers and buy a basket of pregnancy tests, yeast infection medicines and Meow Mix, she should be able to do so in peace without worrying that she’ll get posted on YouTube or Facebook by some snarky people watcher.

Gary Hoover
Guest
Gary Hoover
11 years 7 months ago

Amazing how much conversation this has provoked. I used to be on the board of Whole Foods; I am sorry to hear this story.

I have been kicked out of more retail stores for taking pictures — twice in one day at Harrod’s! I used to do it for a living for the May Department Stores company, which had a nice little Minox (film) camera. I believe Sam Walton was also stopped many times.

I have visited over 400 museums in my latest entrepreneurial venture research, and many of them don’t allow photos. Don’t they understand that the whole reason people are there is to create and collect memories?

To the extent that retailers want to really be part of people’s lives, they should do everything they can to encourage photography. Learn from Disney!!! Read the Experience Economy and come into the 21st century!!!

Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
11 years 7 months ago

In this age of transparency, you cannot hold out against consumers researching products and options on the retail floor. They will just abandon your store and seek out other alternatives, including on-line, that provide the freedom for them to leverage their technology to make informed decisions and share information.

I often send pictures from stores to my wife, to make sure I am buying the right product (as a male, you know I often make mistakes in that area! :)). I also use my phone to research prices to make sure the products I am seeing in front of me are competitively priced.

Trying to hold back consumers from sharing information is like trying to restrain a wave in the ocean. You may slow a little bit but the rest just goes around you like you weren’t there.

Dave Wendland
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

I’ve read the thread of responses and I agree with most. If what your retail operation has done is so out-of-the-box and innovative that no one else would dare think of it, enjoy the moment. Yesterday’s innovation is tomorrow’s commodity.

I don’t believe that a picture – dare I say a “still shot” – represents the innovation of the best retailers. My hope is that they have already evolved the display that is being photographed and will always be a step ahead. That’s leading-edge thinking and innovation wins at retail!

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
11 years 7 months ago
Since a number of respondents seem to feel there is actually “complexity” in this issue, I’ll play along: ultimately this question can be addressed from two sides; as a merchant, I would want to do everything possible to stifle competition and preserve my exclusivity, while as a consumer, I would want those very same attributes to be diminished as much as possible. OK, enough for theory and back to reality; even in the pre-digital era, I thought these (kinds of) policies made little sense, and reflected paranoia and hubris more than anything else: how “secret” is something when it’s displayed in front of hundreds or thousands of people each day (?) and that, of course, was PRE-phone cameras, when preventing photography and other intelligence gathering was – in theory at least – possible; but now, of course, that is no longer the case…so IMHO the question should be irrelevant. And my other thought here: Whole Foods….again ? Admittedly it’s probably just (un)luck that they were the example here, but lately it sems every time they’re… Read more »
Sandy Miller
Guest
Sandy Miller
11 years 7 months ago

I consistently shop Whole Foods and will continue to do so. I’m going to take a small camera and see if this happens to me. Let me be clear on this: doing any more than politely asking people to not take more pictures is stupid. Any competitor who really wants to photograph a store can easily do it–just walk the store with a basket with items in it, determine which half dozen pictures you want and take them as you shop avoiding being seen by the employees.

Tim Henderson
Guest
Tim Henderson
11 years 7 months ago
This is an example of retailers needing to rethink retailing. Any consumer older than 20 can remember when shopping was pretty straightforward–essentially the consumer perused merchandise, selected/bought a product, and went home. Not so now, and that’s largely due to tech. Today, the entire decision making and buying process is multifaceted and consumers can be influenced at multi points by brands and non-brands. Consumers can learn about products via any number of sources, research products and brands via multiple sources, influence the design of products, and purchase products at multiple outlets, via multiple buying channels and via an array of payment methods. And, they can relate their brand experiences in multiple ways. Retailers and product manufacturers are well aware that retailing has/is morphing, but plenty of brands are still feeling their way. Taking pics in the store space is yet another area where brands need to rethink and revamp for a 21st century consumer who fully expects to be able to shop in the way that they choose, not the way the retailer tells them… Read more »
Kai Clarke
Guest
11 years 7 months ago

This is truly absurd in today’s environment. Cell phones, digital cameras are all very small and easy to use. Oh yeah, even a quick sketch of a simple display is easy enough to make after just a few seconds. Add to this a simple walk by while holding a cell phone in video mode will take all of the pictures you need. There are no “merchandising secrets” after a display is put up in a store….

Kate Blake
Guest
Kate Blake
11 years 7 months ago

As a retailer and an artist I would have to agree with you about museums losing out when they won’t allow you to photograph. In the last year I have refused on principle to frequent museums that don’t allow photography. If they don’t want me to have a souvenir of my visit, why should I pay the ticket to walk through? It would be as if I never went without the photo to share and look back on.

And it’s the same problem with concerts. You want me to pay for the tickets and the food and the parking and not let me take a photo?

Scott Knaul
Guest
Scott Knaul
11 years 7 months ago

It’s unfortunate but a reality for most retailers for a number of reasons. The most obvious being competitors. Another reason that could be even more damning for the company would be pricing errors or anything that would be considered a dangerous situation in the store. In those cases the stores absolutely do not want photographic evidence.

It can be very helpful for a store if the standards are in place and the marketing tells a story; word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool.

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