The other day I met the owner of a local camera store.  And calling it just a “local camera store” is grossly undermining its local significance and rich history.

Precision Camera in Austin has been around since owner Jerry Sullivan started it in his spare bedroom in 1976.  It was there until his wife told him he needed to find new space to make room for their upcoming baby.

He’s since grown the business into Austin’s premiere camera specialty store; literally a “mom and pop” that made it big.

Jerry was telling me that, even though they’ve enjoyed consistent growth for three and a half decades and have adapted as camera fancies have turned digital, they are currently up against some of their biggest challenges yet…the monster Internet retailers.

Companies like Amazon.com are the online version of the big box retailer (i.e. WalMart, Best Buy, Home Depot, etc.).  You can buy literally EVERYTHING on Amazon.  And in most cases, you can buy that everything for cheaper than most other places.

If it’s not Amazon, there’s some other online store that makes it nearly impossible for the local specialty retailer to keep pace.  Not only are those stores’ prices as low as they can go, but they’re better equipped to handle issues like credit card fraud and returns.

Stores like Precision Camera are having a tough time competing.  But don’t count them out yet.

Aside from having the personal, “everyone knows your name” feel that only local retailers can have, stores like Jerry’s have an advantage over the big online monsters in that they can try new things faster, and get creative with customer interactions without corporate red tape and lengthy approval processes.

Jerry and I talked about several different options.

Building Local Social Networks.

A business can leverage new digital tools like BuddyPress (a WordPress plugin) to build on an online social networking forum, complete with profiles, picture-sharing spaces, contests, meetings, and more.  Combine that with event administration through Meetup.com and EventBrite ticketing services, there are all kinds of options to get the community involved and to participate with your brand.

Creating Information Products.

People turn to the Internet now more than ever to learn how to do stuff.  And creating e-learning material has never been easier.  Jerry could build some in-person classes on how to use a new model camera, film it, and then put it online and sell it for $19.95.  Or, he could even give it away.  He could then build it into an entire sales funnel that leads to a much higher-priced (or recurring billing) product on the back end.

Demos & Clinics.

This piggybacks onto the local social networking idea, but they could be holding (and recording to put online) even more in-store events that show people how to use their products, AND bringing in national photographers to sign books and talk shop with local customers.

Some of these are long-standing techniques from various industries.  But the key through all of them is the notion that you always have options to save a struggling business or career by reinventing its purpose and focus.

You have more tools at your disposal than ever, and I encourage you to explore those as much as possible to better serve your customer base, and beat the big box-ers at their own game.