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A Black's Photography store in Toronto's Eaton CentreFernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Photography retailer Blacks is closing all of its 59 stores, victim of a fast-changing digital industry and high-quality smartphone cameras and Instagram posts.

Blacks, bought in 2009 by telecommunications giant Telus Corp., said on Tuesday it was unable to envision a profitable future despite having introduced a new format last year that featured merchandise displayed in an art-gallery-like setting and focused on its online business.

"It's a difficult day," Lisa Richardson, general manager and vice-president of Blacks, said in an interview. "Despite the positive momentum that we've seen and the substantial financial improvements we've delivered, we haven't been able to realize profitable growth."

Blacks, which will shut down on Aug. 8, is far from alone among photo retailers that have felt the effects of consumers rapidly 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.

"They were in a tough spot," said Alex Teper, executive director of the retail business group at researcher NPD Group.

The closing of the 85-year-old Blacks comes as an array of other retailers have shut their stores amid tough competition, leaving landlords with empty spaces. U.S. discount chain Target Corp. closed 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 shut included Sony and clothiers Mexx, Jacob and Smart Set.

The photo retail sector has been plagued by its own problems. Photo printing has suffered double-digit declines annually for many years, Mr. Teper said. 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, according to NPD. Sales of digital point-and-shoot cameras alone tumbled 32 per cent in that period, it found.

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

"I like to think we're winning a little more than by default," said Gillian Stein, new chief executive officer of camera specialist Henry's and part of the family that owns the chain.

Henry's is sticking to its strategy of being a destination for camera equipment, accessories and expertise, she said. It is seeing "significant" preorders for such items as an upcoming Canon 5DS DSLR – for $4,300 – which offers improved low-light shooting capabilities with higher resolution, she said.

"Photography as a hobby is thriving," Ms. Stein said, adding that privately held Henry's (with 31 stores, after it closed one location this year) has enjoyed market-share gains in each of the past four years.

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

It recently put itself up for sale and talked to "a few potential" candidates but was unable to find a suitable buyer, Ms. Richardson said. It would still be open to finding a suitor, she added.

The shutdown of the stores, most of them in Ontario, will leave 485 employees without jobs; Telus will try to find them positions at its other namesake and Koodo stores, she said. She plans to "pursue opportunities" within Telus.

Last year, the retailer 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 in the past year, but it wasn't enough to show signs that the chain could become profitable, she said.

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.

* This story was corrected to make clear Blacks had 113 stores in 2009, not 2008.

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