The Washington Post

Start-up uses Polaroid name to tap market for digital photographs


Union Station's new Polaroid FotoBar. (Jonathan O'Connell)

The Polaroid brand, attempting a comeback as a retail operation, opened a storefront in Union Station last week, the second in the nation of its kind.

Polaroid Fotobar encourages customers to “liberate” their photographs from their phones, laptops or digital cameras by printing them on posters, coasters or assorted hanging materials — metal, glass, canvas or bamboo. Some can be printed in as little as 30 minutes, giving tourists or visitors waiting for their trains a chance to create a keepsake before boarding.

The company’s founder and chief executive, Warren Struhl, said he started the storefront after seeing the ubiquity of camera phones but a lack of options for displaying or enjoying the photos.

“Every young person I know was using smartphones to take photos,” Struhl said of his idea for the store, in an interview a day after the Union Station store opened.

He said he would ask the young phone camera shooters: Do you ever print the photos? Do you display them? Do you even look at them? “The answer, with a lot of anxiety, was ‘No, and it really upsets me,’” he said.

Union Station's new Polaroid FotoBar. (Jonathan O'Connell)

Founded in Minnesota in 1937, the original Polaroid Corp. grew largely on its production of cameras that printed photos instantly. But it failed to transition from film to the digital age. The company filed for bankruptcy twice in the 2000s, and was the subject of private equity buyouts.

Struhl founded Polaroid Fotobar in Florida by licensing the Polaroid name and trying to improve the experience of printing photos, which can also be done with home printers, online or at places such as FedEx. “We’ve made it in­cred­ibly experiential and fun,” Struhl said.

The design of the Union Station store takes obvious cues from Apple, with a line of computers in the middle where staff help customers transfer and edit photos from their phone or mobile devices. A pack of six cardboard printouts can be had for $6 and about a half hour’s wait; other products take days to be printed and shipped.

Struhl opened the company’s first store four months ago near its headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., and he said he is looking aggressively for other locations. The chain has already announced plans to open four more stores, all of them in Florida, including spots in Miami and Orlando.

“There are probably more pictures taken per capita — except for maybe New York and Las Vegas — in Washington, D.C., than any other place in the country,” he said.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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