Penn Camera files for bankruptcy as retail shake-up continues

Penn Camera Exchange, a Beltsville-based photographic supplies chain, announced on its Web site Wednesday that it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and will close a majority of its stores.

The move is the latest in a shake-up among retailers, including Sears and Macy’s, after the holiday shopping season. Retailers traditionally prune underperforming stores at the start of the year.

For its part, Penn Camera said it would immediately shutter five of its eight locations in the Washington area: Springfield, Laurel, Fairfax, Pikes­ville and 18th Street NW. The remaining stores — Tysons Corner, Rockville and E Street NW — will hold clearance sales.

Calls to the company for comment were not returned by press time, and employees at several stores declined comment. Penn Camera said on its Web site that “a dramatic decline in sales performance during the preceding holiday period has precipitated this action.”

Founded in 1953 by the Zweig family, Penn Camera is known for its wide selection of photography equipment, classes and experienced technicians. The company has been awarded tens of thousands of dollars in federal contracts for its supplies in recent years.

Specialty photo retailers have struggled to remain relevant as consumers trade film for digital cameras and gear becomes more readily available online and at department and discount stores, such as Wal-Mart and Target.

Iconic retailer Eastman Kodak, for instance, has hemorrhaged money while shifting from film sales to consumer and commercial printers. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that the company is preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. A spokesperson at Kodak said that the company “does not comment on market rumors and speculation.”

There are few specialty photo retailers these days. Penn Camera and Ritz Camera of Beltsville are perhaps the best-known such stores left in the Washington region.

Ritz Camera endured its own bankruptcy reorganization in 2009, emerging from the ordeal with fewer than half of its 800 stores. The company, founded in 1936, diversified its offerings by pouring more resources into photo imaging, producing calendars, memory books and DVDs that employ digital photos and video.

Whether that strategy has panned out is difficult to tell. As a private company, Ritz does not make financial figures public. But the company did receive a fresh capital injection in September from Los Angeles-based private equity firm Transcom Capital to fuel its growth.

News of the store closings at Penn Camera arrives amid a number of retail losses in the Washington area.

On the same day Penn Camera announced it is closing stores, Macy’s said it will close the Bloomingdale’s at White Flint Mall and the Macy’s at Laurel Mall because of their poor performance.

The day before, the owners of Melody Record Shop, a 34-year-old staple in the District, said the store will go dark this winter. Owners of the store near Dupont Circle said on its Web site that “technology, the Internet and the economy has taken its toll.”

Meanwhile, Filene’s Basement, which filed for bankruptcy at the end of 2011, is wrapping up the liquidation of its four stores in the Washington area. And the Sears in Ellicott City is one of 120 stores the company said last week it will close across the country to raise cash.

 
Read what others are saying