Getting ready to wrap up the Starting Off series, I'd like to next focus on exactly what it is that you're going to sell: your products.
A quick side trip.
First, get rid of the notion that your product is tangible; you're not selling a print, album, or file: what you're really selling is your time, talent, and artistic vision, that is only being represented in a print, album, or file. Your real product is a form of intellectual property protected by the Copyright office of your country. Do not sell yourself short when performing a shoot or service, thinking that all you're really selling is a piece of paper with some ink on it: that's not the real product. And when (not if, but when) your customer claims that you're ripping him off as you're selling (for example) a 5"x7" print for $25 when he can get one printed at Sam's for $0.40. You need to have a game plan to defend yourself for this, but that's another story....
OK, you're really selling a service, but your customers really want to buy something they can hold in their hands (or view on a computer): a print, album, or file. Yes, I know I just said that this isn't what you're really selling, but to your customer, it is. So, that said, let's talk product.
Printing: Quality matters.
When it comes to prints, there really is a difference. If you have a print from a professional lab in one hand, and a print from a 1-hour corner store, you can tell the difference--and more importantly, so can your customers! It is true that if you hand one print to a customer from one source, and they don't have something physical in-hand to compare it to, they'll be hard-pressed to feel the difference. However, once they handle your prints, when they handle one from Target or *shiver* Walgreens, they'll feel a difference. But professional printing goes beyond the paper.
A lab does so much more than just print on professional paper. Color correction? Check. Increasing resolution ("up-rez" or "ripping")? Check. Drop-shipment with professional, high-quality packaging? Some do (but you will pay for it!).
Personally, I use only a few labs, and I can count on one hand the number of issues I've had with either. In fact, if I eliminate those issues that were caused by me (guilty as charged!), that number decreases to ZERO. In fact, my main lab will call me up if they even think there's an issue with either the file uploaded, the print, or the shipping. Case in point: I received a phone call yesterday from my lab on an order I was having drop-shipped to my customer. It seems they validated the address, and it came up invalid. Sure enough, I flubbed the street number when I entered it. Did they have to validate the address? Perhaps their software did it for them, but they could have chosen to ignore it and ship it anyway. Instead, they took the time to telephone and confirm.
I'm going to leave albums for another post (since I'm so late on this one as it is), but let me move on to files....
A Digital Revolution.
More and more of my customers are asking for digital files, and not just low-resolution web files, but full-resolution printable files. I hesitated for a while about this: selling a CD of photos means the printing is out of my control in both quality and quantity. No more should I expect to receive a reprint order, and who knows what the prints look like. Eventually, I gave in, and boy am I happy for it.
(Note: Selling digital files is not suitable for every photography business out there. I shoot mostly youth sporting events such as gymnastics meets, cheer-leading competitions, and field sports, where selling CDs are now the norm, and the parents expect it.)
At first, I sold only edited files on CD, cropped down to a 4x6 @ 300 dpi resolution, and touted it as a 4x6 CD. I noticed a few issues, though. First, I was spending way, WAY too much editing time, even if all I did was a noise-reduction, color correction, straighten, and crop. That just took too long. Second, 8x10 prints from these so-called 4x6 files were acceptable to my customers, so I wasn't limiting my print sales losses to 4x6 prints. Third, in order to justify the time, I had to charge more for the CD--and parents didn't like that.
So, I got rid of the edits (except for a batch noise-reduction for high-ISO shoots like gymnastics), burned full-resolution files to CD, and sold them for less. The results? Staggering. At a recent gymnastics meet, my CD sales represented over 80% of my on-site sales. I was able to convince parents (and rightly so!) who were going to spend $30 on a few prints to spend $50 for the CD. Not only did they get more photographs of their child, I spent less time editing and less on materials. I considered this a WIN-WIN for both of us. And the response? Very good would be an understatement.
However, don't think you can burn a CD with files and be done with it. I don't use those generic CD-R disks you can buy for $0.10 now-a-days. Instead, I purchase ink-jet printable CDs, and print on them with the photo information (in my case, the event, date, and location) as well as a photo print release right on the disk.
How the disk looks is part of the packaging of the products, which can be an entire post on its own.