MILFORD — What started as a summer job for Jim Wilson turned into a love of photography and a successful career as a small business owner.
It was 26 years ago that Wilson opened Milford Photo – a shop that has become a Milford institution for area shutterbugs and camera equipment buffs.
“It was meant to be just a summer job, but it ended becoming my career,” Wilson said, adding that he was in high school when he took a summer job at a local camera store in downtown Milford.
“I was there for a number of years and then I opened up my own store 26 years ago,” Wilson added. “I liked the small businesses aspect, even though we are a little bit bigger business now, but I also wanted to be my own boss.”
Milford Photo celebrated its 26th anniversary on Aug. 23, and Wilson credits his staff for making the businesses as successful as it has been.
“The people that I work with … they get it,” Wilson said. “They really care about their jobs, they want to help people, they are so patient, and all of my people are into photography, they can talk photography. So if someone comes here for help, we are going to get that customer again.
“We’re very hands-on, we always make sure we have sufficient staff to take care of the people when they come into the store,” Wilson added. “The people that work here blow me away with their knowledge and everything they do, and that’s the whole deal. If you want a successful business, you have to have good people, you have to take care of them and get people who are passionate about what they do, and that’s certainly, what we have here.”
One aspect that Wilson enjoys about Milford Photo is the smile people get when they see their photos.
“The photography industry touches so many people,” he said. “When you see people, and they look at their pictures, and the smile breaks out, it’s a rewarding business. Like I’ve always said, our main business is just memories, that’s what we are here for.”
Another reason why Wilson said Milford Photo has seen success for more than two decades is they were early adopters of transitioning from analog to digital photography.
“It was painful,” said Wilson, referring to the transition. “What happened was that everything was involved with film, and we do a lot of services like develop film, digital restoration, that sort of stuff. But back then, primarily, it was selling equipment and developing pictures.”
Wilson said people would bring in their film roll to get it developed in an hour, which was a high-volume business for them. He said digital came around, and people weren’t printing as much as they did with film.
“We had to buy all new (digital) equipment to do all this stuff, and I was kinda one of the first ones to get into it,” said Wilson. “It really was like starting over again, as far as the business was concerned, because I had to buy very expensive equipment to satisfy the customers. But I did it, and it turned out to be the smart thing to embrace it at the begging.”
However, Wilson said they’ve seen a resurgence in film.
“Film is back big-time now,” he said. “The young people are getting into the creative aspect of it, so now we do a lot of developing now. It’s crazy. If you would have said if film was going to make a comeback, I would have said it wouldn’t have happened.”
Wilson added that despite film making a comeback, when they develop film, customers ask them just to email them the photos. He said it’s a combination of old-school technology with current technology.
Another significant impact Milford Photo had to overcome was the COVID-19 pandemic that affected many small and large businesses across the country.
“The store was physically closed for two months, but we still needed a way to bring in revenue, so we concentrated on our online sales, which were always a small portion of what we did,” Wilson said. “We have a big inventory of product and we put a lot of effort into selling them online, and that really sustained us through the closure that we had gone through.”
Wilson said when they reopened, people were still unsure about going into a store in person, so they found that their online business kept on growing.
“We started to get repeat customers that were buying stuff, we sell in every state, and we sell stuff across the country,” he said. “So that’s become a much bigger piece of the revenue pie that was ever there.”
Their online sales didn’t just flourish with out-of-state sales but also within Connecticut and locally as well.
“It’s a convenience thing. It’s free shipping, and they order from us, and typically they have it the next day,” he said. “I think that’s what the whole closure to the country did, people really got used to purchasing online, people that never did before. Our prices are the same as Amazon or any other place, so we didn’t have a disadvantage there.”
By the second half of last year, Wilson said business was unbelievable for Milford Photo.
“In a lot of ways, we sell expensive products, but I think what happened to the consumer is that they weren’t waiting to get what they wanted,” he said. “For being closed for two months, we almost made the previous year’s sales numbers, and this year, this is crazy, but it’s on track of becoming our best year in business.”
As things start going back to normal, Wilson said foot traffic has gone back, and the in-person services they provide have started up again.
“It’s been a fun ride. It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster with two recessions and digital happening, but we always try to go forward and grow,” Wilson said. “I think if you try to take the foot off the gas pedal when you’re in business is not a good thing. You got to continually do it, we’ve really done that, and really I hope things continue the way it is because it’s been a great 26 years.”