Putting The “L” In Los Angeles
Picking up cues from Apple Computer’s retail theme, Leica brings it’s Brand to retailing with this first grand experiment. From the outside, the new Leica Los Angeles store looks much like one of the many other upscale boutique stores that surround it. Do not let that first impression fool you. It’s not. Once past the 700 lb. silver plated Leica sculpture guarding the entrance, you will find yourself in another world. The Leica Zone. Not The Twilight Zone exactly, but not so very far from it if your cup of tea is the finest of photographic art and the appliances used to create it. Far more than just another expensively decorated store, this recently opened Leica retail effort attempts to create an entire photographic experience. It succeeds.
Shopping in a store such as this requires an upper end income, a reasonably stout trust fund, a sizable inheritance, or a lot of damn hard work earning and saving the money for the very latest in the long line of Leica historic cameras and lenses. Leica is one of the oldest surviving camera manufacturers still in existence. Some of the most famous photographers in history have shot Leica. Many professional photographers today do as well, though market conditions have been in flux forcing consideration of other choices. That is a nice way of saying photography as a business today kinda sucks, so there isn’t always the budget to invest in Leica. But it doesn’t cost anything to look. As with all luxury brands, Leica counts on people dreaming of owning a Leica.
Full disclosure, I’ve shot Leica cameras and lenses professionally myself for many years. In my experience Leica as a brand has always stood for excellence in craftsmanship and design for use in their intended markets. While the initial capital investment is considerable, unlike any other photography manufacturer whose gear I have owned, Leica sold on the used market brings a far higher percentage return of the original purchase price on bodies, and on lenses has produced a profit, in my case, over time.
Impeccably designed & decorated, the 4,000 square foot main floor is wide, deep and spacious. Think more art gallery than camera store, but I’ll get back to that later. Walk up the wide central stair to the second floor and you will find a 4,000 square foot traditional photographic fine art gallery of the first order. Through a door you will find an outdoor sitting space, the perfect atmosphere for viewing and discussing art with friends or contemplating a purchase to enhance your home living space. It is hard to argue hard core gallery credentials with work from the likes of Mary Ellen Mark whose “Leica, My First Camera” show presently hangs as the main exhibit. The work is a retrospective curated from Mark’s lifetime of documentary work. I found it to be a very strong show, brilliantly presented in the premier gallery. Kudos to Roland Wolfe, Leica USA’s new Vice President of Marketing and Retail, and his team who have executed this vision. You have all done a fantastic job.
Gallery Manager Annie Seaton is as pleasant as she is knowledgeable, a fine addition and complement to the professional camera sales staff downstairs. Leica has gone the extra mile and spared no expense putting together the facility and has also done a fine job in selecting the staff. I don’t know how you could improve on the gallery experience. It rivals the Getty Museum across town for quality of presentation as well as content. I look forward to seeing more of the galleries selections and future shows. If you are a lover of photographic prints as I am, you owe it to yourself to drop in and meet Annie, and allow her to show you around the excellent photography adorning the walls. If you have the money to collect great photographic prints, visiting the Leica gallery is an experience well worth your time. In a town well known for “flash some fast cash or leave me alone” galleries, this new setting is a breath of fresh air. Good art, excellent presentation, and staff that are interested and excited at your visit make for a winning combination.
Moving back downstairs to the main floor, I observed the primary camera/lens sales area, a service desk, and the printing section. The accessory wall I found to be another marvel. Everything in this store oozes class, style, and luxury. Right down to the obligatory t-shirts. I know I am in trouble when the t-shirts, even at $38 each, make me want to throw down the plastic saying “I’ll take these two.” The camera bag selection is good, though not as extensive as some may want. Billingham bags work great for Beverly Hills, but something more in keeping with street warriors looking to conceal and disguise a $15,000 M kit on the streets of barrio LA would also be a desirable item to sell.
My goal and original purpose in visiting the store was realized when Sales Associate Daniel Schaefer kindly took me for a tour of the new M type 240. Remarkably, the new Leica store has a demo unit! Sorry, no stock for sale. Daniel graciously mounted my own 28mm ‘Cron, and inserted my SD card so I could take some test images back to the studio with me. These are only JPG’s. I look forward to reporting more on the RAW files and a full review of the M type 240 camera once a review sample is available. I will say for now I was more impressed than I expected to be but I am far from drawing any conclusions other than it is a lot of money. Mr. Schaefer has a background as a photographer himself, and is quite up to speed and very professional with his Leica advice. His recommendations to a customer overheard as I was fondling the M 240 were spot on the money, and in the customers best interest. Honest sales staff are always a pleasure to deal with. Thank you Daniel, I’ll be back.
The new Leica store here in LA is a radical way of looking at the retail photographic marketplace, though a brilliant concept impeccably executed. I’m sure this store is an experiment the entire board of directors at Leica is going to be watching closely. No doubt so will many astute investors on Wall Street. It is a high risk game. The costs associated with a long term lease of prime luxury retail space (a seven figure investment into tenant improvements, facility and fixtures), and top professional staff sufficient for seven day a week operation is an initial investment of millions of dollars. Ongoing marketing and promotion expenses will likely more than double the costs and necessary if the venture is to succeed as a profit center. This is calculated high risk/high reward corporate Poker at its finest on a luxury scale only a Leica has sufficient Brand equity to pull off nearly as well as Apple has.
As a long time Leica owner and user, I say to my friends at Leica “Bravo!” It is great to see Leica again get some marketing guts and dare to step out and make a statement. This store concept is brilliant and I wish you nothing but success. I’d also caution Leica top management that now is the time to go ahead and deal with the outstanding production, quality control, and service issues so this first store of yours will be a success. Roger Horn, your US profit and loss statement is now just as dependent upon having regular supply of Leica products as Leica’s US dealer network has been. In years past it’s been impossible to survive as a Leica exclusive dealer since the margins are so low and nobody has been able to get enough product. I’ve run the numbers for myself and I’ve talked to several Leica dealers. I don’t see how a store like this works financially unless either production is increased or existing production is allocated to this corporate store first. Just another pesky detail to work out, but a fine start none the less.