Now that digital cameras have securely displaced film cameras, consumers are exploring their options for getting and viewing their shots. The photo industry has offered everything from home printers to elaborate online systems for storing and sharing images, but many digital shutterbugs are turning to a distinctly old-school solution: the local discount store.
Retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Costco Wholesale Corp. and Wal Mart's Sam's Club are using their Web sites to mesh the old world with the new, allowing users to transmit their digital images over the Internet to in-store photo processing centers, where the images are printed and available for same-day pickup.
So popular is Wal-Mart's digital photo service that more than half of the visitors to the retail giant's Web site for the month of July used it, according to research firm Nielsen/NetRatings. The service's appeal helped WalMart.com land the No. 6 spot among top e-commerce sites for the month.
Liz Bassett of Chevy Chase is among those who are turning to neighborhood retailers for quick prints. She says she normally orders her prints from Shutterfly.com, which delivers them to her home in a matter of days. But when she needs prints right away, she logs on to WalMart.com, uploads the photos and then heads to a nearby store, where they're ready for pickup in about an hour.
That's been useful when friends or relatives have sent gifts for her sons. She's been able to take a shot of them with their new stuffed animals and get off a thank-you note with an enclosed picture in the mail almost immediately.
"You order prints when you're at home in your pajamas, then pick them up when you go grocery shopping," she said.
While the retail chain is used to competition from rival stores, the melding of online and offline buying has put it up against online-only retailers and even home printing options.
"At some level, our competition is everybody," said Drew Carpenter, business manager for WalMart.com's online photo service. He declined to confirm the research firm's findings.
Competition is pushing more partnerships together between online and offline businesses. Target has teamed with Yahoo Photos for four-hour pickup, and Costco has partnered with Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Snapfish, which powers the online photo center for the membership warehouse.
The online sites of traditional retailers also offer another perk: pickup at almost any location. That means that you can have your order uploaded to another location -- maybe across town or across the country -- so Grandma doesn't have to wait for snapshots of the first day of school to be processed and mailed to her. She can pick them up herself later that same day -- at a store near her.
Still, industry observers are not convinced that most Americans even want hard copies of their vacation snapshots.
"There's no clear behavior" said Christopher Chute, analyst at IDC. According to the research firm, people are taking more shots than ever -- an average of 75 images per month, up from about 50 per month last year. But one-third of digital enthusiasts never print their images, preferring to look at them on their computers or other digital devices and to share them via free, online photo services. Others mix online, retail and home printing options depending on their shots and what they want to do with them.
Some customers prefer not to print at home because they feel it's cheaper and less trouble to have retail or online shops handle the job, said Gary Pageau, group executive with the Photo Marketing Association. Last year, 65 percent of digital camera prints were made at home, according to the PMA. This year, that's down to 50 percent.
As a result, companies that want a piece of the digital photo output market are having to reach out to customers who want options for getting their snapshots, Pageau said.
Hewlett-Packard, for example, used to focus on selling printers as a means of pushing the sales of consumables that customers have to regularly replace, such as photo paper and ink. But having the world's leading printer business isn't enough anymore. This year, Hewlett-Packard acquired Snapfish, which is powering Costco's ready-in-an-hour online photo center.
In August, Hewlett-Packard announced a deal for handling prints at Walgreen Co.'s chain of drugstores. Larry Lesley, senior vice president of digital photography and entertainment at Hewlett Packard, said there are other such deals in the works.
"This is certainly a diversification of our business model," he said.
Customers check out at a Walgreens store last year in Skokie, Ill. Walgreen Co. and other retailers are posting gains from digital photo processing.