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No Photos Allowed

It’s common practice for retailers to discourage and or outright prohibit photography inside their stores. Doesn’t make it a best practice though. As Seth Godin says, “In an experience economy, where a bear workshop or furniture superstore is a form of tourism, photography is part of the deal.”

Seth smartly points out a paradox of pictures exists with retailers that deliver remarkable in-store experiences. Retailers want you to remark about your shopping experiences but not with actual pictures, only with words written and/or spoken.

My friend Conrad Hametner is a foodie. He has a passion for seeking out exotic foods with exotic names. The names get so exotic he likes to use his cellphone camera to snap photos of the foods he would never be able to remember. But he got caught.

While browsing the cheese section at Whole Foods Market, Conrad sampled a few cheeses and found a new favorite—Gabietou. To help him remember this cheese, he snapped a photo. But a Whole Foods Team Member (employee) sternly told him company policy says absolutely no photos are allowed to be taken in the store.

Conrad went online to find Whole Foods “No Photos” policy. Couldn’t find one. He rightfully argued in a now-defunct blog post that this “No Photos Allowed” policy is outdated in today’s networked world.

As a former marketer for two retailers (Whole Foods and Starbucks) that have helped to popularize the “experience economy,” I understand the irony that exists with creating a store experience customers want to photograph but then, prohibiting it.

Why do retailers prohibit/discourage customers from taking photos? Two major reasons: Competitive Intent and Criminal Intent.

Competitive Intent

When Starbucks began its hyper-growth spurt in the early 90s, they had more than just customers in their stores—they also had curious businesspeople. The businesspeople would come huddled in small groups and everyone in the group would be clutching a pen and a pad. They would stay for hours noting everything from the store décor to menu boards to employee uniforms to operational procedures to customer counts to everything. They also took photos.

Starbucks policy prohibited photos because they didn’t want competitors mimicking their style. (As if a “no photos policy” was really going to stop competitors from learning how to replicate the Starbucks experience.) Today places like Shake Shack, Warby Parker, Lidl and the Starbucks Roastery are attracting curious businesspeople wanting to learn what they do that makes them worth mimicking.

This “No Photos Allowed” policy is no longer in place at Starbucks. People can take and share photos for personal use. (The media still needs to ask for permission before snapping photos/videos.)

Criminal Intent

Another major reason why Starbucks did and other retailers still prohibit customers from taking pictures is to protect them from the unsavory types casing the joint. Theft for any retail business is a big issue and having front-line employees on the lookout for people snapping photos could help to reduce theft.

However, it can get silly and seemingly ridiculous when retailers confront well-meaning customers, like Conrad.

Customers taking photos is part of the deal when you deliver remarkable customer experiences. So it’s about time for retailers to learn this lesson and solve for dissuading potential thieves with policies and activities other than prohibiting customers from taking photos.


  • Silona says:

    This is just silly considering the number of visitors to Austin I take to the whole foods flagship store.I think I’ll mention it the next time I run into Mackey.I mean one of my friends does this for her husband so that he knows what to buy when she sends him shopping! And I love to document neat things on my flickr acct…

  • Silona … silly it is I know. I understand totally understand the criminal intent angle for a No Photos Policy. However, the competitive intent I don’t understand given today’s networked gadget-filled world.A line I share with businesses is … Competitors can replicate products and programs but they can’t replicate your culture. It’s the culture a business creates and manifests that matter most here. Competitors cannot mimic a company’s culture. It is the company culture that ultimately makes a business truly endearing and enduring.Yet, too many businesses aren’t confident enough in what they’ve built that they try to be ohh-so protective of their products and programs thinking that will create competitive barriers to entry.

  • Dave says:

    I first realized this when I was in New York a few months ago. I was in the Taschen bookstore in SoHo and saw a wall that had an amazing color scheme and pattern. So out came my camera phone and snap. Seconds, no milliseconds later, an employee hustled over and told me “no pictures.” I was dumbfounded. The more I thought about it the more it made sense. Who’s to say I wasn’t going to go back and try and recreate that wall and pattern? I just wanted it because it was cool. It’s too bad that retailers have to be this protective of their environments for fear that someone is going to rip it off. The truth is, nobody can effectively steal a concept–whether its a Starbucks or bookstore–by what they see in a picture. They could try to make it look just like a Starbucks, but I would think that would be counterproductive in trying to create their own identity and place in the marketplace. Plus, there is so much that goes into designing a retail space–lighting, placement, paint colors, comfortable furniture, product positioning and so on that a flat picture couldn’t possible tell the entire story. Just my thoughts.

  • Not sure I have ever been called a “foodie” before, but I like to cook and eat good food, so I will take that as a compliment.We are rapidly approaching 1 billion camera phones in the world, along with a smorgasbord of useful “connected” imaging applications for your camera phone. Seems to me the demographic for the Whole Foods shopper lines up with the demographic that will undoubtedly carry and use these devices to make their lives easier.In the future we can expect applications that can search for reviews based on taking a picture of the UPC bar codes, and a little further down the road applications that will search for items based on shape. How many times have you wandered around a store trying to find a sales person to tell you more about a product, then you just find a teenager who doesn’t know much?In the future you will be able to take a picture of the product or bar code or wave your phone by the wireless RFID and have your 2nd or 3rd generation iPhone stream a video telling you everything you want to know direct from the maker.This enhances the experience that stores like Whole Foods are trying to create by taking the best of online shopping and combining it with the experience of shopping in real life.

  • Ditto all the way Dave. I’m with ya.And Conrad, I’m sure those businesses that encourage customers to snap photos and share them whenever/wherever/however will be ahead of the curve.

  • Bill Gammell says:

    I think I know the morale of this post…the next time you are in a crowded retail store and cannot find any employee to help you out, pull out your camera phone and snap a picture. You should get employees jumping over counters to “help”.

  • Rick Shaw says:

    Yeah, too bad well-intentioned people who want to share an experience or remember something will have to go ahead and purchase.An interesting article discussing this as well in a packaging blog, at: the mention at the bottom of Gillette at CVS taking pictures of the customers.

  • I’ve had some emails from folks wanting to put pressure on retailers to loosen their “No Photos Allowed” policies. Not sure that’s the best use of our time. The Criminal Intent reason alone makes this policy needed for many retailers. In time; however, this policy will be rendered unenforceable with all the gadgets at our disposal.Today even, this policy is essentially unenforceable. The Consumerist blog shows us how to take pictures in stores without getting caught. Last year I strolled the aisles of Whole Foods Market in North Dallas and Central Market in Southlake, TX with a tiny camera capturing the sights. No one noticed at the time.

  • Joe Zekas says:

    I’ve encountered this in a number of places.One store that didn’t seem to have a problem with it – I even photographed employees – was Crate & Barrel, a very photogenic venue.Some retailers might simply be looking out for the interests of their customers and proactively objecting on their behalf. Many people would be uncomfortable being photographed in a retail location by a complete stranger. It’s understandable from this regard.

  • Average Jane says:

    I recently received a comment on one of my Flickr photos that had been taken at an Einstein Bros. bagels store. It thanked me for being a customer and invited me to enter a holiday photo contest that the company was sponsoring. That’s more like it!

  • Wow! That’s very progressive of Einstein’s. They get it. Thanks for sharing.

  • Paloma says:

    From the public sector point of view, we don’t allow photos for security. Privacy issues and the safety of customers.I understand the point of view that with technology today this may be an antiquated policy. However, as someone who manages PR for a location that frequently hosts customers who cannot have their photos taken… it’s just a fact of life.There are local, state and federal regulations that may also come into play for photographing in public buildings.However, we do work with customers who want to take photos in such a way that it won’t affect other customers or pose a security risk. But these are rare exceptions.

  • Just saw this Belt Buckle Spy Camera on Gizmado and it made me think of Whole Foods and all of those other retailers that ban camera phones. How do you stop a belt buckle digital camera that costs $150? Technology like this really makes the Whole Foods policy to stop your customers who use their camera phones to shop really look silly. Maybe I will send this link to Central Market HQ.

  • The security risk argument is utterly and completely ridiculous! It does not stop anyone with the intent to do wrong. Does anyone think that a “no picture taking policy” keeps any criminal from not taking pictures? There are cheap spy cameras, cameras with telephoto lens, HD Cameras (Remember Spy Gate?), 900 million plus camera phones, billions of other cameras; you can get satellite photos, aerial photos and road level photos online in seconds. Floorplans and permits are available online or publicly at the court house. In addition most security systems with cameras are not that secure and can be easily compromised. So please tell me again how a “no camera phone policy” for customers who want to use them to make their life easier makes any more sense than a policy of telling people to stay home because the outside world it to dangerous

  • Ainsworth says:

    It seems to me just the dividing line between the bricks-and-mortar companies that don’t understand social media, and those that do.If I saw a kick-ass picture of a set-up and it was local to me, I’d want to see it in person. Chances are, I’m not leaving that story without something in my hand, my GTD list would have me picking stuff up while I’m there.

  • tina says:

    I am one of those shop owners who prohibit photo-taking at their premises, and I believe many shop owners (in fact most shop owners) would be in agreement with me here. Shops are after all commercial premises that solicit sale of goods or services. Owners of these shops had spent their hard-earned money to furnish up the place for inducing costomers to make purchases, not to take photos. In fact, when I did allow some ‘well meaning’ customers to take photos in my shop in my early days as a shop owner, I felt depreciated, exploited and could not see any justification for such generocity. So I decided that no photo should be allowed at my premise. I am thankful that most customers are quite understanding and supportive of my decision.

  • Sharon says:

    I just got informed at a grocery store that it was prohibited after i took pictures of some apples and the floor (in case i ever need a black and white floor for something in flickr… ) Really weird…

  • Ross says:

    Ha – I had the same experience when I was in Whole Foods – I was photographing some food that I was considering for a party, and wanted to snap it with my iPhone. Go caught. They guy just told me “no photos”, and I couldn’t get a straight response as to why either…. oh well.