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A Black's Photography store in Toronto's Eaton Centre. The retailer is closing all of its 59 bricks-and-mortar stores next month. (Fernando Morales)
A Black's Photography store in Toronto's Eaton Centre. The retailer is closing all of its 59 bricks-and-mortar stores next month. (Fernando Morales)

Blacks Photography to survive as online-only business after website sale Add to ...

Photography retailer Blacks, which is closing all of its 59 bricks-and-mortar stores next month, will live on digitally.

The company said on Tuesday that it has reached an agreement to sell the Blacks website and app business assets to Les Pros de la Photo of Montreal, one of the country’s top photo finishers, for an undisclosed amount. It will operate as Blacks.ca after the deal closes on Aug. 4.

As part of the transaction, “a small number” of Blacks’ roughly 485 employees will be offered jobs, Blacks said in a brief e-mailed statement, without providing further details.

Victim of a fast-changing digital industry and high-quality smartphone cameras and Instagram posts, Blacks said last month that it couldn’t envisage a profitable future. Its transformational efforts in 2014, including a new physical store format and a focus on online operations, weren’t enough to save the business.

Blacks, which was acquired by telecommunications giant Telus Corp. in 2009, will shut its physical stores on Aug. 8. But it’s far from alone among photo retailers that have felt the effects of consumers using their smartphones, rather than traditional cameras, to take photos. As a result, Canadians are taking more photos than ever before but having fewer of them printed commercially, hurting businesses such as Blacks.

With few rival specialists left, online players, generalists and discounters, such as Wal-Mart Canada Corp., are pushing further into categories such as photo prints and photo greeting cards.

But discount titan Wal-Mart Canada is grappling with its own photo setback. Last week, it was forced to shut down its online Photocentre website as the retailer investigates a potential credit card data breach. As many as 60,000 to 800,000 customers could be affected, a source has told The Globe and Mail.

The closing of the 85-year-old Blacks stores comes as an array of other retailers has closed amid tough competition, leaving landlords with empty spaces. U.S. discount chain Target Corp. shut the last of its 133 stores in this country this spring, while Best Buy Canada pulled the plug on its Future Shop chain, closing 66 outlets. Other retailers that shuttered included Sony and clothiers Mexx, Jacob and Smart Set. More recently, shoe specialist Nine West Canada sought court protection from its creditors and is considering closing some of its 48 stores.

The photo retail sector has been plagued by its own problems. Photo printing has suffered double-digit declines annually for many years, according to researcher NPD. In the year ended April 30, photo retailing sales in Canada – excluding printing and lighting accessories – dropped 18 per cent to an estimated $510-million, NPD data show. Sales of digital point-and-shoot cameras alone tumbled 32 per cent in that period, it found.

Last year, Blacks tried to reshape its stores with a new prototype that shifted the emphasis to displays of merchandise in an art-gallery-like setting and a focus, for instance, on canvas-wrapped prints. Three stores got the makeover but it wasn’t enough to show signs that the chain could become profitable, general manager Lisa Richardson said last month.

It recently put itself up for sale and talked to some potential candidates but was unable to find a suitable buyer, its general manager, Lisa Richardson, said last month.

Blacks has been gradually closing stores. It had 113 in 2009 when Telus acquired it, and was down to 92 a year ago and 59 in June.

The shutdown of the stores, most of them in Ontario, is set to leave about 485 employees without jobs; Telus would try to find them positions at its other namesake and Koodo stores, Ms. Richardson said at the time.

After Telus bought Blacks in 2009 for $28-million, it closed stores and invested in improving the outlets as the industry moved quickly to digital alternatives. Telus will report the financial consequences of shutting Blacks in its next quarterly results release, expected in August.

On Tuesday, Blacks said its online site, under new ownership, will honour its customers’ prepaid print cards and offer free shipping on orders of 50 prints or more.

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