Consumer printing is pining for the fjords…
Yesterday, Costco announced that it’s shutting down its in-store photo centers (CNN, PetaPixel). With nearly 800 warehouse stores, this represents a significant closure of a consumer-facing photography service. Costco currently offers a wide variety of high-quality photo printing services (I’ve used them myself at times) with products ranging from basic photo prints to canvas prints to product offerings such as calendars and books. The model was straightforward: you could upload, design, and order your photography products online and then pick up the merchandise in-store, with basic orders being ready within a few hours. There are other vendors still offering a similar service (CVS Pharmacy comes to mind), but Costco’s services were a step above, with generally knowledgeable staff.
Photographer Kirk Tuck shares a story and laments the loss of the service he used for his print-related jobs.
What Closed Costco Photo Centers Mean for Existing Customers
For the folks who were used to ordering prints online and having them available later that same day at their local Costco, that service is no more. A few other services are going away entirely:
- Passport photos
- Home movie video transfer
- Photo restoration
- Ink cartridge refills
Costco Photo’s other services, including photo prints, metal prints, canvas, calendars, albums, and other products, are being shifted entirely to Costco’s online website, where folks can place and order and have it shipped to their house. At that point, they’re basically the same as other online print labs. They’ll be competing with decidedly consumer-facing services as well as professional print labs.
My suspicion is that pros like myself will probably end up ordering prints through their pro lab (I’m a Bay Photo fan myself) and hobbyists will fall back to CVS, Shutterfly, or another consumer service.
What It Means for Serious Photographers and the Industry
Looking at how this significant closure fits into the overall industry picture, this isn’t surprising. For better or worse, photo prints are an increasingly-smaller niche market. It’s not how routine photo sharing happens anymore, and at this time the folks who are ordering prints are doing it for an artistic project or a one-off keepsake. Prints being made now are being made for display as opposed to sharing and storing. This is good for photographers who continue to sell wall art products for their clients. Whether it’s wedding images, family portraits, or fine art, there will be a place for high-quality printed photography on the walls of our homes and offices for years to come.
There are other niche print applications as well… a couple years ago I photographed an event for an organization who wanted me to print 50 copies of the image I made of their new board of directors so that the prints could be hung in each of their offices around the country. From a business perspective this was a nice add-on to the event and was outside of the sort of services typically provided.
But Costco isn’t a store for niche photographers: it’s a membership warehouse chain for everyone. And the space currently used by the photo centers can be reused for something that will appeal to a broader (and more profitable) audience. It’s a loss for us as serious photographers, but it’ll be a win for Costco. There are other general-purpose store chains with in-store photo printing; look for these to close in the coming years as well. COVID-19 likely accelerated the timeline on the Costco Photo Center closing, but even without the pandemic this would’ve come in the near future.
Photography printing for the masses is dead. The masses like digital files. Digital files are popular. Print will live on for serious photographers and the occasional crafter, but we must embrace that we can’t expect that it will be seen as mainstream. Photographers who are offering prints and other physical products will continue to be set apart and make their money based on their ability to sell a product that a significant portion of the population doesn’t realize that they need.