Sears, Wal-Mart portrait studios shut down

Photography company CPI Corp. was crushed by nearly $100 million in debt, leaving employees out of work and customers wondering whether they'll get their orders.

By Jason Notte Apr 8, 2013 2:03PM
File photo of lighting equipment in a photo studio ( London/Alamy)Fold up the uncomfortable polyester dress clothes. Put away the squeaky stuffed animal you were going to hold behind the camera. Take out the earplugs.


The Sears (SHLD) and Wal-Mart (WMT) portrait studios are dead.


Frozen images of forced gaiety no longer adorn store walls, and wails of childhood anguish have stopped reverberating across the sales floor, now that The Associated Press has reported that CPI Corp. (CPI), which once handled the stores' nearly 2,000 portrait studios, is no more.


All that remain are empty corners of sprawling retail space, stunned customers, newly unemployed workers and a statement on CPI's website passing the consequences of the company's collapse on to retailers' customer service departments. There's still a chance that some customers will get their multi-sized keepsakes from the day their parents sprung a photo session on them before they were able to get a haircut or get their favorite clothes out of the laundry room, but there's almost no chance of CPI coming back anytime soon.


With Kodak (EKDKQ) bankrupt, digital camera sales slumping and the average smartphone taking better pictures than the point-and-shoot images of less than a decade ago, CPI and in-store portrait studios were being squeezed. The Securities and Exchange Commission notes that the company had put off paying lenders four times before being told that it had until Saturday to meet its loan obligations. Back in mid-March, CPI said that it owed $98.5 million, including unpaid principal of $76.1 million.


The company was exploring a possible sell-off but warned it would have to liquidate if it didn't get an extension on its loan payments. Its chief marketing officer and president, Keith Laakko. didn't even stick around long enough to see how it turned out, resigning last month after a seven-year tenure with the company.


Sears sent an email to customers last week saying it would try to fulfill as many orders as it could from its licensed but now defunct Sears Portrait Studios. Wal-Mart, meanwhile, went so far as to burn customers' images onto CDs and hand them out in the parking lot to fulfill orders.


That last strategy is perhaps the best summary of both CPI and the portrait studios' predicament: Digital photography has streamlined the process so much that even the CDs Wal-Mart handed out seem archaic at a time when Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG) and other companies are yanking disc drives out of their laptops. Even social media photo services on Instagram, Facebook (FB), Google+ and elsewhere are making photo sharing and printing services like Shutterfly (SFLY) and Photobucket, Snapfish seem like middle men.


In modern context, department and discount store photo studios weren't the buggy whip to social media photo galleries' Tesla (TSLA): They were the walking stick. To take the family to a portrait studio in 2013 was akin to taking it to a phone booth to make the day's calls or sitting it down in front of the Betamax for movie night.


It would have been nice for CPI to figure this out before it had to make a sad Web-only announcement and let go of hundreds of employees, but it's tough to have that kind of foresight when you've been staring at the same backgrounds and forced smiles for the better part of 60 years. Now, in the words of Toad The Wet Sprocket, a band that was last popular right around the time store portrait studios were last relevant, "We don't even have pictures, just memories to hold."


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34Comments
Apr 8, 2013 3:50PM
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I worked at a Sears Portrait Studio for years and I'm sad to see them close.  Yes, we can all take pictures on our smartphone or digital camera, but these images aren't necessarily the ones we want hanging on our wall.  It's too bad that CPI didn't allow their employees the flexibility of working outside the studio, as this is the type of family photo most people want.  That being said, studio photos still have relevance and I think we will all look back one day and say we wish we had BETTER photos of our family, not simply MORE photos.
Apr 8, 2013 4:05PM
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Just wanted to say THANK YOU to the CPI employees for the work they did.  I have several pictures of my kids hanging on the wall taken by you.  Thanks for capturing the memories. 
Apr 8, 2013 5:11PM
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My questin is.....How in the hell does a photo studio get $100M in debt anyway?!?!? What kind of a business model were they running? Let me guess.....CEO and top Execs getting huge bonuses? Jet setting around the country, on the company dime? All while collecting $20 bills in their studios? Just like with all American debt, and all American money for that matter, the math doesn't add up. Good ole American greed strikes again!!
Apr 8, 2013 3:22PM
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Ahh..more jobs lost..less revenue....how are we to pay our trillions in debt?????
Apr 8, 2013 4:57PM
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Quit whining and fork out a few bucks and go to a real photographer.  They can do studio as well as outdoor.  Take the money out of the pocket of the "big guys" and put it into the pockets of your local professional photographer.
Apr 8, 2013 5:01PM
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I used to take my kids to Walmart every year to have their pictures taken.  They did a great job.  They offered an affordable way to get high quality portraits taken.  I keep 10 of those pictures sitting on my desk at work.  They will be missed.
Apr 8, 2013 3:09PM
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Yea, yea things just keep getting better and better don't they now you can't even get a family portrait oh that's right families aren't important anymore either. 
Apr 9, 2013 7:00PM
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We go to a Sears or Walmart studio every summer for annual photos of the kids.  Great shots, great service, great price.  The studios were always busy!!  

 So...who are the idiots who ran this company into the ground??  What will they ruin next??  I am so tired these execs with MBAs who don't know anything about how to run a business.
Apr 8, 2013 7:29PM
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what about the money people paid for their pictures just before finding out they had closed? Will they get their money back if they don't receive their portraits? That is only fair, don't you think?
Apr 9, 2013 12:52AM
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I know our family, with our 5 kids, would have loved to have a family photo along with individual and couple photos.  But, our biggest deterent was-is-and always has been the SITTING FEE per person.  That would wipe our intended photo budget with a coupon and per sheet price for what we would like to have chopped in half.  To have a $5 or $10 sitting fee per person was a big waste of money.  Drop the sitting fee and maybe more people could have afforded to have more photo choices to purchase.
Apr 26, 2013 11:41PM
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I am beyond pissed! I have been taking my daughters to get photos taken here for years. I never received an email saying they were closing. I took my youngest to get her four year photos at one of the sears studios last month. After never receiving a call saying my photos were in I went in today with the shock of the studio being closed and my pictures not being there. I paid for those photos and Sears is doing nothing to get them to me. I also had purchased a photo saver card and now I'm out that money too. I want my pictures!!!! Does anyone know what I can do about getting my photos or money back????
Apr 9, 2013 11:03AM
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It will mean more business now for the Mom and Pop studios that are still in a lot of communities. It is now a good business venture.  People still want a good professional portrait done and a smartphone can't cut it.
Apr 8, 2013 4:52PM
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Here is an option that may help some of you who lost your jobs. Check out Teddy Bear Portraits website at . They have many opportunities available in photography and portrait sales across the country or email your resume to .
Apr 8, 2013 5:50PM
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Wow, I remember these studios back in my college day's and even back to the mid seventies. I had a few friends who worked for CPI(before Sears and long before WalMart) and at the time made pretty good money. Upwards to 800/wk but it all depended on your skills as a salesman. They would run certain specials on portrait sizes and the more you sold the more you made.  
Apr 8, 2013 11:40PM
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...and I thought the email was because my Sears closed 3 months ago and they finally figured out that I wouldn't be having any photos done there anymore...
Sep 30, 2013 2:36PM
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Where in the world can I have professional pictures done of my children!!?!!?!!?  I'm completely heartbroken!! 
Apr 8, 2013 8:21PM
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I would imagine when the last buggy whip manufacturer went out of business and laid off employees there was the same moaning and crying.   Sorry this company was history and technology did them in so forget them.   The laid off employees should look for a better job.   
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