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Ritz Regroups With a Wide-Angle Approach

David Ritz, chief executive of Ritz Camera for nearly 30 years, assembled a team of investors who bought the assets of the former company at auction and saved it from liquidation.
David Ritz, chief executive of Ritz Camera for nearly 30 years, assembled a team of investors who bought the assets of the former company at auction and saved it from liquidation. (Photos By Marcus Yam -- The Washington Post)
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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 1, 2009

In 1918, when posing for a photo was a formal occasion, Benjamin Ritz opened a studio on the Atlantic City boardwalk and made a living giving vacationers a memory of their trip or an heirloom to pass on to future generations.

Over most of the next 91 years, as more and more Americans fell in love with the snapshot, the processing remained largely in the hands of the professionals, who held the skills to develop the film and deliver finished prints. Ritz grew and prospered into a Beltsville chain with 800 stores in more than 40 states, the largest photography retailer in the country.

Then, in the past decade, the world changed. Photos went digital and ubiquitous, snapped everywhere and every day by cellphones, stored online, posted on Facebook, e-mailed like crazy, printed at home. Fewer and fewer people paid for processing, and photo stores sustained the loss of business. In February, Ritz filed for bankruptcy protection.

Last week, David Ritz, chief executive of Ritz Camera for nearly 30 years, and a team of investors bought the company's assets and formed a new entity, intent on figuring out how a photography retailer can make money in the digital age. They're planning to sell convenience.

Within weeks, Ritz said in an interview, the company, called Ritz Camera & Image, will reinvent itself in a new ad campaign aimed at drawing a hipper crowd into its stores, which now number around 375.

They plan to sell smart phones alongside a stock of digital cameras. Customers can supply their digital images and video clips and Ritz will package them onto a DVD, with chapter breaks and music. And if they want LCD HD televisions on which to view those images, they can buy those, too, from Ritz.

The retooled Ritz Camera & Image will "appeal to younger customers who were brought up in the computer-digital world who may not understand everything that photography means to them," Ritz, 60, said in an interview in his oak-paneled office at the company's headquarters in Beltsville.

"They don't understand that you need to archive your history," he said, "and if you have everything on a hard drive, it's subject to being lost at any time."

Once again, Ritz is changing with the times.

They did that in the 1930s, when Benjamin Ritz and his younger brother Edward expanded from the studio business to photo processing, capitalizing on the popularity of the Kodak Brownie camera by undercutting the competition with prints that only cost a quarter a roll. In 1936, the brothers opened a film-processing operation in Washington and one in Baltimore followed, according to a company history. The company grew, along with Americans' fascination with photography.

But by the time it filed for bankruptcy protection in February, it was more than $60 million in debt to Nikon, Canon USA, Fuji Photo Film and other creditors. In an effort to restructure, Ritz closed about half its 800 camera shops and all 130 of its Boater's World Marine Centers stores. Some analysts predicted it was headed for the same fate as Circuit City, the second-largest electronics chain, which was liquidated and closed last spring after it failed to find a buyer.

Last week, Ritz Camera was put up for auction. David Ritz, Benjamin's nephew and Edward's son, assembled a team of investors who acquired the assets of the bankrupt company, winning a competition with three liquidators. Under the new entity, at least 65 of the 375 stores will likely close, David Ritz said.

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