Over the past 30 years the picture framing industry has grown from infancy to maturity. As the industry continues to evolve, framers can still succeed—if they learn new ways of doing business.
I’ve had my own business for 30 years, and have been framing pictures since 1972, so I know a lot of people in the industry and have seen a lot of changes. Taking a look back, if you had a frame shop back in the fifties, the equipment would pretty much have been a Fletcher glasscutter and maybe a Jyden chopper for cutting molding. Everything was done by hand then. So when the straight-line mat cutter was invented in the sixties by Bill Keeton, it really helped people by making it easier to cut mats.
The seventies were when things really started to change, and that’s when I was starting in the industry. When I started framing, the metal picture frame was metal wrapped over wood. It had chrome nails, and you drilled holes and nailed it together. The metal section frame as we know it today, which was first designed by Robert Kulicke, was made widely available in the mid-seventies by Helmar Nielsen through a network of national distribution.
The seventies also saw a major poster boom. Posters like those common today were pretty much invented in the sixties and seventies. Until then most of what was being framed were oils on canvas. The whole paper art trend started to really pick up steam as baby boomers were getting out of college. They really started to drive the picture framing industry on the consumer side.
There were also major changes in matboard at that time. In the seventies there were really very few choices in matboard. And then in the eighties the industry really started to take off. I would say the sixties were when the modern frame shop was starting to be born, in the seventies it really started to pick up steam, and its adolescence was in the eighties. In the eighties the framing industry changed dramatically. When I started in business, you were largely limited to oak, maple, or black moulding. Suddenly there were beautiful finishes on moulding coming from overseas. Peter LaMarche started bringing over beautiful mouldings from Europe. Larson-Juhl went from being Larson Picture Frames, a small company in Wisconsin that sold traditional wood mouldings with basic profiles, to a larger company offering a wide range of more sophisticated finishes and profiles. Roma was born and started to bring in a lot of beautiful Italian imports with all different kinds of shapes and finishes and sizes.
Other things happened that were very significant. Computerized, point-of-sale programs started to be part of the industry in the seventies and eighties. The underpinner was also invented. Instead of having to drill nail holes, you could join a frame from the bottom without having any nail holes. Again, the trend was to make framing easier to do.
Most people in the framing business in the eighties were making money. It was pretty hard not to. The baby boomers were buying houses, posters were all the rage, all these beautiful new sophisticated mouldings and matboards were available, and the framing industry was on fire. Organizations like the PPFA were started the seventies, and this was becoming a real industry.
In the nineties one of the last big innovations took place, and that was the computerized mat cutter. It would take two weeks to three months to really train someone to cut mats properly by hand. Some people just can’t do it. With the computerized mat cutter, if you can use a computer, you could cut mats. These same people were not only cutting mats, they were also cutting good mats. With that, the industry started to change because what had been a craft business in the fifties, which required hand cutting of mats and moulding and joining frames, became much easier on a number of levels. Instead of needing to know how to hand cut a mat, you hit a computer button.
Bigger stores—the big boxes—started to get into custom picture framing. Before that, you used to go into a department store and would find framed pictures that were pretty bad. The mats were cut badly, and the mouldings were terrible. Framed pictures in stores began getting better. And more stores were carrying framed pictures. A lot of chain stores now sell framed pictures, and you’d be hard pressed to find one with a bad cut or with the moulding falling apart. Mechanization and importing has really changed the products and the services that are available. And that brings us to where we are today.
If you look at where we’re at now, framing has become simpler. While you certainly have to be a craftsman or have some design skills to do framing well, you don’t have to just do framing. There are lots of places that do framing, and they do it well enough to provide competition that wasn’t there 20 or 30 years ago. According to several manufacturers, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of custom picture framing is now being done in big box stores. People can also buy framed pictures in stores now where they wouldn’t have been available 20 years ago. People buy framed pictured on the Internet, which has taken some market share. There’s new competition from hanging TVs on the wall. If the average house has 20 pictures and one plasma TV where there used to be art, that’s another 5 percent lost.
The point is that while the industry has grown on some levels, at the same time a percentage of the work has been going to other places that didn’t used to exist. That is what’s called a mature market. We started as beginners in the fifties and sixties, got into adolescence in the seventies and eighties, started to mature in the nineties, and today have become a mature market.
I’ve done some research on what other industries have gone through. There are many of the same types of changes affecting pretty much every small business in America. Take a look at some of these statistics:
- In 1992 there were 27,000 florists in America. Today there are 20,000. That’s down 25 percent. I have a flower business—a flower section in a home and garden store. I can tell you, if you think that there are challenges today in framing, you should be in the flower business. Imagine doing exactly what you do except that the average price is probably about $80 and you’ve got to deliver much of what you sell. You’d be hard pressed to find a really healthy, profitable retail florist in your neighborhood. And there are not as many as there used to be. They’re still around, but it’s not an easy environment to do business in.
- How would you like to own a bookstore today? In its peak in ’93, there were 4,700 bookstores; today there are 1,750, a 63 percent drop. Framers don’t have to deal much with the Internet. But you can buy a book in 30 seconds on the Internet. It’s still pretty hard to get framing done like that on the Internet. Bookstores are still around and have a niche, but there has been a 63 percent drop.
- How about drug stores? I don’t know about your neighborhood, but I would have to think long and hard to come up with five independent drug stores in Chicago. There is a Walgreen’s every eight blocks. Chicago is, after all, where Walgreen’s started. But there are few independent pharmacies left. At the peak, there were 60,000 pharmacies; now there are 23,000, a 62 percent drop.
- Finally, there are bike shops. When I was a kid, if you wanted to buy a bike, you went to a bike shop. There was no big box store like Sports Authority or other chains. There were once 7,000 independent bike shops; now it’s down to 4,200, a 40 percent drop.
Now, I don’t think we have much to do with bookstores, because that industry’s got to deal with the Internet, the product is easy to ship, and there’s no design required by the retailer. There’s also very little customer service involved. Nor do I think there are many good comparisons between framing pictures and drug stores.
I do, however, think we are similar to bike shops. There’s a service component, there’s a quality component, and there are different levels of bikes. The most interesting part of the bike shop business is that it did $6 billion in 2007. The custom picture framing business is probably a $2 billion to $3 billion industry. Seventy-three percent of bicycles are bought at mass merchants, but only 36 percent of the dollars go to those mass merchants. Forty-nine percent of the dollars spent for bicycles in the U.S. is spent in small bike shops. They only sell 17 percent of the units but take in 49 percent of the dollars. Obviously they are selling more expensive bikes.
I would argue that that’s very similar to custom picture framing. The reality is that the average ticket in a high-quality, design-driven custom frame shop is probably twice what it is at a mass merchant. And even though big boxes might sell 40 percent of the units in the U.S., this doesn’t translate necessarily to the amount of dollars.
Custom framers are lucky because, if for no other reason, picture framing is a skill. It takes design, quality, and service. And it’s not as easy as throwing the product in a box and shipping it UPS. The fact is that picture framing is not going away. Maybe you will feel relieved to hear that. But we are going through a natural cycle in the maturity of an industry, and when you get to this level, there’s a shakeout. There’s a shakeout between the places that are doing a better job and the places that are doing things the same old way. I do believe that the day of the custom picture framer is over. And it’s been over for a while. Instead, it is now the day of the professional custom frame shop.
Twenty years ago people would come to classes at trade shows for mat cutting, and Vivian Kistler would try to teach them business. She had already figured out that you couldn’t stay in business just by being the best mat cutter. Today, the days of framers thinking they don’t need to worry about business are over for most. I give speeches to a lot of other small industries, and it’s the same thing in every one. The person who says, “I don’t know much about the financial side” is going away because you need to know enough about it to stay in business.
So what does it mean to become better, to stay current in today’s business climate? We’re beyond where we were maybe 10 years ago, when we’d say it would be a good idea to buy a computerized point-of-sale program. Today you need a computerized point-of-sale. Similarly, 10 years ago you might say it would probably be a good idea to get a computerized mat cutter. Today you probably need a computerized mat cutter. I am shocked about how many frame shops have computerized mat cutters now. It’s 75 percent, maybe more. So the industry has been keeping up.
Custom framers need to figure out what they need to do to become more competitive, to stay ahead of the curve, and to push back against the big boxes. Mass merchants aren’t going away; they serve a function in the industry. They bring a lot of people into custom framing who wouldn’t otherwise be here. With all those flyers they send out, there’s no question that many of the people going into those stores would have not walked into a frame shop. Customers weren’t waking up one morning thinking they were going to the local frame shop to frame something. They have coupons, they have pictures, and they go to a big box store. Sometimes they’re happy; sometimes they’re not. And sometimes they say, “Well, that was nice, but I think I’ll check out the place around the corner from my house; they have a nice window display.” So the big boxes have brought lots of people into the industry. They are not the enemy. They are just part of a mature market.
Custom framers today need to learn how to be competitive, to stay current, and to stay ahead of the curve. They need to know what equipment they need and don’t need and what has changed. They also need to know about the new products and services that are available and how to use them to bring innovative framing to the market.
They also need how to deal effectively with vendors, knowing what they can realistically expect and what they can’t expect. I own a little wholesale company, Bella Moulding, that imports mouldings, so I’ve really been able to see business evolve on both the wholesale and the retail side. It’s really eye opening. Vendors and framers can work together to stay healthy and keep moving forward. And vendors do need independent picture framers. If you think they can live off mass merchants, you’re wrong. They have a lot invested in independent frame shops, and they are very committed to helping independent picture framers. Both have to figure out how to work together to be more efficient. Frame shop owners also need to know about cash—where it comes from, how you get it, and how you finance things.
All these things are important if framers want to be up to date today. It’s also important to move beyond old attitudes if you want to be involved in the picture framing business in the future. If I could stamp out two things in this industry, it would be the phrases, “I can’t afford” and “I don’t have time.” As in, “I can’t afford a computerized mat cutter,” and “I don’t have time to set up a point-of-sale software system.”
If you want to get your frame shop positioned for survival and success and to really be in the flow of things, it is essential to move beyond the past. The custom picture framing industry has a good future. You can be part of it if you continue to learn new ways of doing business as the industry itself continues to evolve.