Imagine you're an 8-year-old kid and you hear a Disney tune about wishing on stars and dreams coming true. Chuck Pisa wished for a telescope at that tender age. And when the third-grader looked through its lens, his wish to better understand the galaxy led to a dream career.
"Astronomy has been a lifelong hobby, and I've had the wonderful advantage of converting my passion into my work," says Pisa, manager of Wolf Camera on South Tamiami Trail. Now part of the 1,300-store, billion-dollar Ritz Camera Centers chain, Pisa's store is recognized nationally as a star performer when it comes to astronomy products.
But that distinction didn't come easy-or by Disneyesque magic. In fact, Pisa carved out the store's niche over 25 years, and his grassroots marketing has passed muster with three different owners, all of whom have been primarily focused on selling cameras, not telescopes.
In 1982, a year after joining the sales team at Wolf Camera's original incarnation, Sarasota Camera Exchange, amateur astronomer Pisa convinced founders Ray and Bev Broth to add telescopes to their assortment. "They were truly entrepreneurial," he recalls.
The business grew one telescope at a time and through word of mouth, and eventually astronomy enthusiasts found their way to the store. When Pisa and a fellow observer co-founded the local astronomy club, networking became a business-building tool.
The Deep Sky Observers of Sarasota, Bradenton and Venice grew from those first two hobbyists to four, six, 12 and then 20 original members. "Through the club, my reputation spread," Pisa says, "and the Broths agreed to target a wider audience by advertising in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines."
Ads bearing Pisa's photo still appear monthly in those periodicals, a strategy that has survived for 20 years. "Advertising was crucial to building our business," Pisa says. "This was prior to the Internet, when mail order was strong. We sold telescopes all over the country, in fact, all over the world." Europeans were especially quick to pick up on the fact that American camera stores typically take lower markups on their products, including telescopes, Pisa says, and today, the exchange rate is also in their favor.
Through his hobby, Pisa stumbled onto a new sales opportunity: the sky party, similar to those thrown by Tupperware or Mary Kay cosmetics and held in the great outdoors. For years, he's traveled to these events across the country, reeling in sales and expanding his customer base to new astronomy hobbyists in each locale. At the weeklong annual Winter Sky Party in the Florida Keys, for example, he says that Wolf Camera racks up tens of thousands of dollars in sales.
When Wolf Camera bought the Broths' store in 1997, they encouraged him to continue. "Wolf welcomed the astronomy business with open arms," Pisa says. "They had tried to do it themselves, but were never successful. I traveled quite a bit for Wolf Camera outside of my region-to Atlanta, California, Chicago and Texas-training other stores how to sell telescopes and binoculars."
While Wolf embraced the Sarasota store's niche business wholeheartedly and actually expanded advertising dollars to promote the category, the company's overexpansion eventually brought the 700-store chain to bankruptcy. Chuck Wolf, who had left the Ritz Camera family business in 1974 to open his own stores, attributed the demise to the $68 million purchase of Eastman Kodak's Fox Photo stores in 1998.
In 2001 Wolf sold his assets of $176 million (liabilities were $219 million at the time) to Ritz Camera Centers. His cousin, David M. Ritz, president of the mega-chain-the largest retail camera and photo chain in the U.S., with locations in 45 states and Washington, D.C.- decided to keep the Wolf Camera brand intact in markets where it had a strong presence, including Sarasota.
The challenge that surfaced for Pisa and the mega-retailer was how to balance entrepreneurial license with corporate discipline and structure. "When Ritz took over they cut back a little, with an eye to evaluating the program as a business model," Pisa says. "They made modifications where necessary, but overall, the original focus remains."
Pisa has the green light to do his own ordering, buying and warehousing at the Sarasota location. "It's all special-order merchandise, so the purchase order department wouldn't know what these things are," he says. "In this company we're the only store with this kind of equipment and the knowledge and ability to do what we do."
Indeed, while the average Ritz Camera store is 2,550 square feet, including the retail space, the Sarasota store, still in its original location, boasts a three-level footprint with 2,000 square feet of warehousing devoted to Pisa's astronomy gear. He's equipped to sell everything from $59 telescopes to the $15,000 and $20,000 models universities and planetariums require.
In Sarasota, the typical purchase is a family telescope. "There are two big bumps in sales: at the low end, the $200 to $500 range is usually gifts; the $2,000 range is sales to more serious astronomy buffs," he explains. Pisa's customers are clambering for the new Celestron Sky-Scout, a handheld device selling for $399 that identifies the stars and galaxies you point to, primarily because it's fun and educational for kids and grownups alike.
That the corporate behemoth has kept this specialty business from being homogenized by bureaucrats has not gone unnoticed by astronomy buffs. If you Google "Chuck Pisa" you'll find glowing reports from customers and fellow hobbyists, some proclaiming his store the best in the Southeast for high-end, high-tech telescopes and binoculars.
Perhaps that's because Pisa is as keen on sharing his passion for astronomy as on selling his wares. "I've been on the inside track because I'm a purveyor of equipment. But doing what you love is just a matter of pursuing your goal," he says.
Reaching for the Stars
With baby boomers nearing retirement age-and more and more choosing not to retire-the key, says Chuck Pisa, is making a living of what you love. "Anybody can do it," he says. Here's how:
Networking: Besides networking with members of the local astronomy club, Pisa's contacts have led to high-end planetarium installations and sales through museum shops.
Event marketing: Hobbyist events draw potential customers from areas outside the store's demographic reach. The Winter Star Party in the Florida Keys draws a captive audience of 550. Pisa is vendor coordinator, responsible for vetting exhibitors.
Teaching: Pisa has conducted astronomy courses at Selby Botanical Gardens, and at Ashton and Wilkinson elementary schools. He tries to hook kids on astronomy early.
Ancillary sales: Provide add-ons for one-stop shopping. Ritz sells accessories for telescopes, provides installation services, and will design and recommend observatory dome fabricators and installers.
Advertising has generated e-mail, phone calls and a loyal customer base. But take the personable approach: a knowledgeable expert who has the customer's best interests at heart.
Supplement your formal education. Pisa keeps up-to-date with manufacturer seminars and periodicals.
Media relations: Pisa makes himself available to TV and newspaper reporters when astrological events like an eclipse or meteor shower occur.