Gillian Stein started her journey to becoming CEO of Henry’s, her family business, when she was just six years old.
“One of my earliest memories of working in the store was spending Saturdays on the fourth floor of our building,” she says. “It was just a giant warehouse. I remember one time there was a misprint in a flyer, and I spent all day with my sister pulling flyers from the papers. We were covered head to toe in ink. When you grow up in a family business, you’re in it from birth!”
Henry’s—which was started in Toronto in 1909 by Stein’s great-grandfather—now has 30 locations and 400 employees across the country, but its continued success in a crowded market is due, in no small part, to an almost religious commitment to maintaining that local-store feel. Its employees may not be wandering around covered in ink, but they’re all passionate about the products they sell. That’s because there’s no one on the floor at any Henry’s who isn’t also a content creator themselves.
“They’re photographers, cinematographers, vloggers, YouTubers, Instagrammers . . . they’re part of the community they serve,” says Jeff Tate, Henry’s vice-president of marketing and e-commerce. “When you come into a [Henry’s] store, you’re going to talk to someone who’s probably going out to do their own shoot that weekend. They don’t want to just sell you gear—they want to help solve your particular creative problem.” Fostering personal, long-term connections with shoppers who share common interests is a point of pride.
“The way Henry’s looks at their customers is very different,” says Ryan Courson, store manager at Henry’s in Kitchener, Ont., and an equine photographer. “It’s not an environment where customers are numbers—[we don’t] just sell them whatever we can and move on to the next customer. It’s more about building relationships. The staff are all fellow photography and videography enthusiasts. There isn’t a staff member in the store who doesn’t have people come in and ask for them by name.”
One name every employee knows is Gillian’s. Stein meets regularly with staff from coast to coast in a program called Coffee with Company. Henry’s isn’t a one-store operation anymore—the company started expanding beyond its Toronto location in 1992—but Stein still wants to learn from the front-line workers, as if it were.
“It’s important to have a close relationship with employees,” she says. “I’ll ask them questions and tell them about things we’re thinking about. We’re always trying to get a better sense of what they see.”
Those eyes and ears on the ground have played a large part in Henry’s recent innovations. For one thing, “Canada’s greatest camera store” doesn’t actually think of itself as just a camera store—it’s a place for creators, especially digital ones who are making content for online consumption on an ever-expanding list of platforms, all of which come with their own particular gear challenges.
“That entry-level of the market where everybody needed a camera to take pictures on their vacation is gone,” says Tate, “but because of the internet, there are more content creators than ever before. Some people like watching gamers play video games on Twitch . . . well, great! Those gamers need a camera pointed at their face, and audio and lighting. If you’re a vlogger, you need something portable that picks up audio. We adapt to what people are making—this is the growth part of this industry.”
Henry’s product offerings have expanded to feed this booming customer base. Need a drone so you can film yourself from above skipping through a vineyard for your travel website? Done. Want a pretty backdrop for the picture of that lipstick you’re featuring on your blog this week? No problem. The company has sponsored several indie and influencer events and festivals, and is even catering to podcasters with a healthy selection of microphones and other audio tools. In some stores the area that used to feature printers is soon going to be devoted to this kind of equipment. The company is also working on a digital platform (details are hush-hush) that will help connect content creators with all the various services and people they need to help grow those side-hustle hobbies into main-hustle brands.
With this in mind, of course Henry’s has its own official in-house content creator, Gajan Tharmabalan, who spins the plates on all of the brand’s social media platforms. He makes content, of course, including how-to and product-review videos, but he also uses the channels to engage with Henry’s growing network of fans, and to promote the work of other photographers, filmmakers, You-Tubers and Instagrammers. This added focus on serving influencers means that Henry’s is not only nurturing customers who are much younger than the middle-aged male who, historically, is the camera-store client, but it is also attracting more women than ever. After all, female You-Tubers, vloggers and podcasters need gear, too.
“These new customers really didn’t have a home in terms of where to shop and get advice,” says Stein. “They all require unique solutions, and that’s really exciting for us.”
True to its roots, though, Henry’s is still a camera store, and it’s a place where you can actually touch and try the most expensive models on the market. At some key locations, including the Toronto store, there’s even a “shooting gallery,” where top-of-the-line equipment is rigged up for people to test. All stores offer free courses every week (Camera 101 is the most popular, but you can also sign up for bite-sized workshops on things like night photography or how to use freezing motion techniques).
The design of the stores has been changing, too, with an eye to becoming more welcoming to every type of customer. Gone are the intimidating, old-school L-shaped counters at the back of the store where a customer essentially had to walk the gauntlet of the entire shop before they could ask a question, and where all the product was under lock and key. The new Henry’s experience is airy and open, with an interactive wall playing videos or showing photography (something Tate calls “retail-tainment”), and the staff are roaming around, meeting their community, making sales and developing important career-long relationships with the content creators of the future.