Retailers turn to family portraits as a customer acquisition tool

Brands and retailers are getting behind the camera in an attempt to boost traffic and drive revenue.

This Father’s Day, for the second year in a row, the outdoor clothing and accessories brand Filson offered complimentary professional portraits at some of its U.S. stores. Filson also brought Santa Claus by for photos in December and has done so dating back to pre-Covid. Meanwhile, this spring, JCPenney’s portrait studios became a hub for teenagers’ prom photos. Every Thursday in April, JCPenney Portraits offered free headshots, as well.

Custom portraits, especially when they include physical copies, are becoming a more popular marketing tool amid the resurgence of 1990s and Y2K trends. Consumers who grew up taking family photos or glamor shots at the mall are now growing their families, and brands are tapping into their sense of nostalgia by offering photo services. What’s more, brands are under pressure to get creative with their dollars, and custom portraits are one way to drive customers into physical stores. There, people might interact with merchandise they see and end up making additional purchases.

Filson, the outdoors brand, had roughly 1,000 people come in for Father’s Day photos in Seattle and New York City on June 16, according to Neil Morgan, the brand’s vp of retail. Father’s Day typically has “two to three times our normal Saturday or Sunday traffic,” he said. During the holidays, when Santa Claus is in town, the traffic is even higher — about 1,500 people or so.

Many of the people stopping by for photos belong to multiple generations, Morgan said. “I’ll see what appears to be a grandfather or father and a son or daughter,” he said. “I did [a photo] with my dad last Father’s Day… and he’s got it framed at his desk now.” Filson sets up a backdrop for the days when it takes photos. Sometimes, it’s offered tintype photos printed on metal for a more Western feel, Morgan said.

Sales growth isn’t the primary goal for Filson’s photo services, Morgan explained. Still, the brand sees a spike in revenue as more people stop by. Per Glossy, Filson saw 40% growth in annual revenue over the past five years.

“We do see an increase in sales of probably two times what we normally see on those same days during the summertime,” Morgan said of sales on Father’s Day. “But there’s a loyalty aspect that we get from it as well… People might come through and only have 40 minutes… but we often hear them come back later down the line and say, ‘My father’s birthday is in August, and I came back to get something for him.’”

JCPenney, meanwhile, offers portraits in 350 JCPenney stores, the company told Modern Retail. Like Filson, it sees its overall sales jump due to portraits. (The JCPenney ones are not free.) Many JCPenney Portrait customers cross-shop in other JCPenney divisions, according to a JCPenney spokesperson. JCPenney Portrait customers “shop more frequently and spend more on a yearly basis than the average shopper,” the spokesperson said via email.

JCPenney Portraits has been around for 30 years, but it is now taking off with younger audiences. Its Instagram account has nearly 30,000 followers, and JCPenney Portraits has its own hashtag on TikTok. Some TikTok videos play on the trope of “awkward family photos.” In December, one user posted a TikTok captioned, “POV: You and your siblings do the JCPenney photoshoot.” The video racked up nearly 650,000 likes. Another user posted a video of her Christmas photoshoot with her dog, and that garnered 440,000 likes.

“We’re quite buzzy on social media with our portrait studio right now,” Michelle Wlazlo, JCPenney’s evp and chief merchandising officer, told Modern Retail in March. “You’ll see on Saturdays and Sundays when you go into our store, the line-up of incredible families, friends and other people getting their portraits done.”

JCPenney’s photo business is one way the company is trying to remain popular with multiple generations. Like other department stores, JCPenney has seen sales slow as shoppers pull back on discretionary spending. JCPenney’s fourth-quarter net sales dropped 5.9% year over year to $2.3 billion, per filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. In September 2023, JCPenney announced a turnaround plan that involved funneling $1 billion back into the business by fiscal 2025.

Kimberley Ring Allen, founder of Ring Communications and adjunct professor of marketing at Suffolk University, told Modern Retail that shoppers need something unique and exciting to draw them into stores. “Consumers are just too distracted, and they can shop online,” she said. “So everything needs to be more of an experience. We need to be entertained. We need to feel like, ‘You’re not just taking my money. You’re providing me with something other than just a product.’”

Photo booths are a good example of how “nostalgia marketing is huge” at the moment, said Allen, who grew up going to Sears to get family Christmas photos taken. JCPenney’s Wlazlo called JCPenney Portraits “a throwback to these lovely photos versus everything on your iPhone or your Android.” Filson’s Morgan said he thinks there’s “something about analog right now — people like to take away something that is physical and actually frame it or put it up on their wall.”

“To bring that back makes total sense,” Allen said of brands offering photo services. “Part of our consumer behavior is we carry these things. We carry them from our families. We carry them from our social networks. We go back into our mind. [Custom portraits] really ping something in our brains.”

Some brands and retailers are even snapping portraits of customers’ four-legged friends. Boris and Horton, a dog-friendly cafe and shop in New York City, hosted a dog portrait event earlier in June. Jewelry brand Kendra Scott once offered free pet portraits from ZilkerBark to anyone who made a purchase of $75. In March 2023, Outdoor Voices held a pet portrait pop-up in Washington, D.C. in collaboration with Bright Eyes Photos.

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