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B&H Builds A National Presence

NEW YORK — Extending across a block-long stretch of Ninth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan is the imaging and A/V institution known as B&H Photo.

Founded in 1973 by Herman Schreiber, the closely held company has evolved from a tiny camera shop in New York’s old Radio Row district to an international, $341 million “prosumer” provider of home and portable entertainment, computers and software, digital and film imaging and darkroom equipment, binoculars and scopes, surveillance and security systems, and consumer to broadcast-quality A/V recording gear.

 B&H made the nearly 40-year transition by steadfastly following Schreiber’s dictum of providing “the widest range of products at the most aggressive pricing we can offer,” spokesman Henry Posner explained.

“Our buyers are as canny as they come and we buy wide and deep,” Posner said. “We stock both a brand’s primary products and the accessories another retailer might consider special order or even not worth the bother. The result is we get excellent terms from our suppliers and we pass that on to our customers.”

But price is only part of the dealer’s winning formula. Schreiber, an Orthodox Jew (and the “H” in B&H), imbues his business with the ethical tenets of his religion, so that customers, vendors and employees alike are treated with courtesy, respect and fairness, Posner said. The approach is reflected in a liberal 30-day return policy, live hands-on displays, same-day shipping, in-store seminars and workshops, and a well-trained, non-commissioned sales staff that’s often drawn from the pro community.

“We don’t pay commissions or run high-volume or high-dollar sales contests because we want any suggestion or recommendation to be what we really believe is best for the individual customer, not for the sales associate’s pay envelope,” Posner said. “Our sales staff is rated primarily on customer satisfaction and product knowledge. I don’t know of any other retailer who commits the same resources — time and space and manpower — to employee training.”

The store itself features 70,000 square feet of showroom and training space on two floors — a far cry from the cramped quarters of B&H’s original Warren Street digs — and a unique overhead trolley system that pulls purchases from inventory and carries them to checkout.

While the showroom has become a destination, it’s the online and catalog operation that has made B&H a superstar. The website offers close to 300,000 items, available for direct shipment from distributors or pulled from the company’s Brooklyn Navy Yard warehouses, and is supported by a program of robust social networking that long predated the term. “We were active online when the only options were CompuServe, AOL and Prodigy,” Posner recalled.

The site’s sharp pricing and commitment to customer satisfaction wasn’t lost on Consumer Reports, which, in its November issue, ranked, along with and outdoor sporting goods e-tailer REI, as the three best ecommerce sites among the country’s 52 largest.

While B&H’s ethical underpinnings have carried it far, its strict adherence to the Jewish calendar also means week-long blocks when the company is closed for religious observance. The ability to plan ahead for the lost sales days helps B&H budget accordingly, but the company still regrets inconveniencing its customers.

“We post big reminders on the storefront and on the website, and most regular customers are used to the holiday cycle,” Posner said. “But we always have a few who forget.”